One of the items mentioned in the Talmud Yerushalmi - allowing one to eat its fruits in this world while its principal benefits are received in the World to Come - is hospitality to guests and strangers. The Jewish trait of hospitality is an inheritance of ours from the first Jewish home in history – the tent of Avraham and Sarah.
The trait of hospitality is what allows the angels to enter that tent to inform Sarah of the miraculous tidings that she will bear a son in spite of her advanced years. The sin of hostility to any form of hospitality is what dooms Sodom to destruction. The humane response of Lot to the angels begging hospitality in Sodom is what saves him and his daughters from their destruction in Sodom.
The act of generous hospitality to the prophet Elisha by the woman of Shunam allows her to bear a child after years of barrenness and that child will grow to become one of the prophets of Israel. In short, Jewish tradition is replete with incidents of hospitality and its rewards and throughout the ages. Hospitality to others has become a given in Jewish societal life.
In most Jewish locations and times a stranger without a place to eat on Shabat could rely on the fact that he or she would secure an offer from such a host when he attended the Friday night services in the local synagogue. Hospitality became second nature in Jewish society from Morocco to Russia and all places in between.
There are different levels of hospitality. Everyone is anxious to have interesting and famous guests frequent their homes and eat with them. However, people who are troubled and depressed, ragged in appearance, poor in hygiene, or those who may be difficult in social situations and relationships with others are less desired guests.
The prophet Yeshayahu in the famous haftorah which is read on the morning of Yom Kippur speaks of bringing “the downtrodden and bitter poor” to one’s home as guests. Not all of us are up to this sort of hospitality. I know of cases where the children of the household were turned off completely to any type of hospitality of their own in later life by the continued presence of strange and even disruptive guests at their parents’ Sabbath table.
The effect that guests can have on any household is definitely something to be considered in extending hospitality to strangers. The Torah, its values and commandments, is always a healthy balance of thoughtful behavior and the realization of the consequences that flow from that behavior, no matter how noble the motives.
And one should always realize upon whom the burden of hospitality falls in the household. Being a great host at the expense of one’s spouse’s labor and sleep is not always the fair and correct way of going about the fulfillment of the core value of hospitality. One should never assume the mantle of righteousness at someone else’s expense.
One of the great features of hospitality is that it helps, even if only temporarily, to alleviate the feeling of loneliness that guests or even hosts experience. It is the companionship of other people much more than the food or drink that ultimately matters and is the true benefit of hospitality extended and received.
Even those that have enough resources for all of the necessary food to eat and enjoy desire human company and interaction. In our time and place I think that this latter feature is the true measure of current hospitality. Soup kitchens and charitable distribution of food packages are great examples of goodness and fill a vital physical need. Yet filling the stomach does not always fill one’s soul and spirit.
It is necessary to view hospitality in its broadest sense, not as the barest requirements, fundamental and axiomatic as they may be. The rabbis praised the sharing of food and drink with others “for it brings closer to us those who are far distant.” We are not speaking any longer about physical distance – those who may be from a distant location, but rather about those who are physically near us but distant.
The rabbis realized the value of hospitality as companionship and bonding. As such, perhaps hospitality in our age and place has taken on a different dimension than the usual traditional understanding of food and drink. We should and can raise hospitality to a new and important level in our social and home lives.