“The Preciousness of Hospitality”
(Updated and Revised from Vayeira 5760-1999)

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

As this week’s parasha, parashat Vayeira, opens, aged Abraham, 99 years old, is sitting at the entrance of his tent in the heat of the day, recovering from his recent circumcision. According to Rashi, G-d has taken the sun out of its cloud-cover, resulting in intense heat, in order to discourage guests from interrupting Abraham’s recuperation.

Abraham, however, is distressed by the lack of visitors, so the Al-mighty sends three people, really three angels, to Abraham’s home. According to tradition, each of the angels has been assigned an important mission. The first angel is sent to heal Abraham, and then to save Lot; the second, to inform Sarah that within the year she will bear a child; and the third, to destroy Sodom.

Despite his pain, when Abraham sees potential guests in the distance, he quickly runs toward them and, bowing before them, begs them not to pass by his tent without accepting his hospitality. “Wash your feet, rest against the tree, and I will bring you a little bread,” says Abraham (Genesis 18:4-5) to his guests, “Then you will continue on your journey.”

Instead of delivering modest refreshments as he had suggested, Abraham runs to the tent, tells Sarah to whip up a multi-course meal with special breads and cakes. He himself hurries to slaughter a calf, and together with his boy, probably his son Ishmael, prepares a sumptuous repast for the guests.

The rabbis of the Talmud, Shavuot 35b, ask how Abraham had the temerity to spontaneously bolt, and run to the arriving guests. After all, he was standing before the Divine Presence. The rabbis declare that a pivotal religious principle is learned from Abraham’s actions: that the mitzvah of welcoming guests is even greater than receiving the Divine Presence!

According to tradition, Abraham had multiple reasons for his avid pursuit of welcoming guests. Not only was he eager to provide wayfarers with lodging (since there were no hotels in those days), he also hoped to influence them religiously, convince them to abandon their idolatrous practices and embrace a monotheistic Deity. The Midrash Rabbah on Genesis 49:4, indicates that Abraham would urge his guest to recite a blessing on the food he would give them. They would say, “What blessing shall we make?” Abraham would then respond: “Blessed be the G-d of the Universe, of Whose food we have eaten.”

Despite having many servants, both Abraham and Sarah were personally involved in serving the guests. Genesis 18:7-8, describes the family’s actions: וְאֶל הַבָּקָר רָץ אַבְרָהָם…וַיִּתֵּן לִפְנֵיהֶם, וְהוּא עֹמֵד עֲלֵיהֶם . And Abraham ran to the flock… and placed the food before them, and stood over them. Abraham had his entire family involved in the mitzvah. His boys serve alongside him, because, over the years, Abraham had made a special effort to provide them with meaningful and personal examples of hospitality.

The contrast between Abraham’s manner of welcoming guests and Lot’s welcoming of his guests in Sodom, is quite stark, even though Lot had learned the mitzvah of hospitality in Abraham’s house, and invited the guests into his home at great personal risk. As already noted, scripture describes Abraham as being personally involved in many of the preparations, scurrying around the house, and running to the flocks. Yet, when the strangers arrive in Sodom, there is no mention of Lot hurrying or exerting himself in any manner on behalf of his guests. And, of course, Lot serves alone, there is no one to help him, because no one has been nurtured to appreciate the importance of the mitzvah of hospitality.

The story is told of the famed Rabbi Levi Yitzchak of Berdichev, who, in his travels, came to the city of L’vov. Seeking lodging, he approached one of the wealthy townsmen, and, without identifying himself, asked for a place to stay. The wealthy man shouted at him angrily, “We don’t need wayfarers here. Go to a hotel.” Reb Levi Yitzchak then approached a poor melamed (teacher), who welcomed him graciously, offering him food to eat and a place to sleep.

On the way to the poor man’s house, someone recognized Reb Levi Yitzchak as the famed Rabbi of Berditchev. Soon all the townsfolk came out to greet and see the face of the venerable rabbi. Among them, of course, was the wealthy man, who proceeded to ask for forgiveness, and beseeched the rabbi to stay with him at his home.

In response, Reb Levi Yitzchak turned to the gathered people and said, “Do you know the difference between Abraham, our father of blessed memory, and Lot? Why does scripture go into such detail about the full meal Abraham served the angels? After all, Lot also baked matzot and prepared a feast for his guests? Why is Abraham’s hospitality considered special and not Lot’s?” Reb Levi Yitzchak of Berditchev answered his own question by pointing out the fact that, when the guests came to Lot, scripture states (Genesis 19:1), וַיָּבֹאוּ שְׁנֵי הַמַּלְאָכִים סְדֹמָה , the two angels came to Sodom. Whereas with Abraham it says, אֲנָשִׁים , “And behold he saw three people standing upon him.” Lot saw angels! Who wouldn’t accept angels into his home? Whereas, Abraham saw poor wanderers, ragged, fatigued and covered with dust, in need of a place to rest and a little food. The message to the people of L’vov was stingingly clear.

It may very well be that the message of Rabbi Levi Yitzchak of Berdichev is intended for us as well. It is rather ironic, that in the wealthiest land in all of human history, and in the wealthiest Jewish community in all of Jewish history, hospitality has become a somewhat forlorn and neglected mitzvah. Even when close friends and relatives come to be with us, they are often housed at local hotels, despite the fact that many homes have full-time maids and housekeepers who care for everything. Before the war, in Europe, in the most impoverished shtetls, even the poorest people, would go to the synagogue on Friday night, to vie for the privilege of taking home an “Oyrach far Shabbos,” a guest for the Sabbath, whom they would welcome into their homes with kindness, love and thoughtfulness, despite having perhaps, only a few slices of meager black bread and some herring to serve.

Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik, of blessed memory, in a eulogy for the Talne Rebbitzen, Rebecca Twersky, talks of the Rebbitzen’s zeal for hospitality. The “Rav” declares that in our day and age, what we consider hospitality, welcoming guests into our homes for Shabbat–prominent lawyers, doctors, investment bankers, the best and the brightest-–is really not hospitality. Rav Soloveitchik maintains that welcoming such guests, the so-called “beautiful people,” is more an honor for the host, than a service to the guests. הַכְנָסַת אוֹרְחִיםHachnassat Orchim–-hospitality, says Rav Soloveitchik, is when a poor person begs for a place to sleep, just overnight, and remains for a week, or two, or three, or for a month or longer. Hospitality is when it hurts, not when it’s an honor and a pleasure.

It is time to restore the mitzvah of “Hachnassat Orchim” to its ancient glory. We can learn much from Father Abraham and Mother Sarah. Welcoming guests is a precious mitzvah, whose preciousness, we dare not diminish.

May you be blessed.