Tzedekah and Hospitality

The Journey to Unity - 73

The following letter is part of our series on "Tzedakah" - the Divine mandate to share our resources with those in need:

Tzedekah and Hospitality:

Regarding the extended hospitality of our father, Avraham, the Torah states: "He planted an eshel in Beer-sheba, and there he proclaimed the Name of the Compassionate One, God of the Universe" (Genesis 21:33). The verse states that Avraham planted an eshel, and there he proclaimed to all who came to the eshel that the Compassionate One is the God of the Universe. What is the "eshel" and why did it attract people? The classical biblical commentator, Rashi, cites the interpretations of two sages in the Talmud, Rav and Shmuel, and Rashi writes:

"One says that it means an orchard from which to bring fruits for guests at the meal. And one says that it means an inn for lodging, and in it were all sorts of food." Regarding the second opinion that "eshel" is an inn, Rashi explains that the Hebrew word for "planting" also appears in our Scriptures with regard to the setting up of tents. Rashi writes: "And we have found the Hebrew word for 'planting' used regarding tents, as it says, 'And he will plant the tents of his palace' (Daniel 11:45)."

Dear Friends,

Avraham, our father, planted an eshel in order to provide hospitality for travelers free of charge. According to one view, it was an orchard which provided fruits for travelers, and according to another view, it was an inn which provided lodging and food for travelers.

The Torah teaches that Avraham and Sarah also welcomed travelers into their home, and the Torah describes the humble and respectful way in which Avraham greeted these travelers as he stood outside his tent (Genesis 18:1-8). In our previous letter about Sarah, we discussed various traditions about her loving hospitality to the needy.

Many travelers are poor and needy; in fact, even a rich man traveling for a long period, especially in a barren wilderness, can run out of food. Hospitality can therefore be an act of tzedekah, and it is also a warm and personal act of tzedekah, as one is welcoming the needy into one's home. As the Prophet proclaimed, "Surely you should break your bread for the hungry, and bring the moaning poor into your home" (Isaiah 58:7). In this spirit, the Mishna teaches:

"Yose ben Yochanan of Jerusalem says, 'Let your house be open wide for relief, and let the poor be members of your household.' " (Pirkei Avos 1:5)

Rebbenu Yonah, a leading 13th century sage, wrote a commentary on Pirkei Avos, and in his explanation of the words, "Let the poor be members of your household," he offers the following advice: One should make poor guests feel totally at home by showing them a happy face and by giving them free reign of his home, just as one does with the members of one's family. In this way they will not feel embarrassment through receiving hospitality.

In this spirit, the Chofetz Chaim, a leading sage of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, stresses the following idea: When the Mishna tells us to "let the poor be members of your household," it is telling us not to think that we are excused from this mitzvah - Divine mandate - if we don't have fancy food and accomodations to offer. What is most important is to allow our needy guests to feel as members of the family, even if all we have to offer is simple fare.

Allowing our guests to feel at home means that we should also make an effort to talk to them and include them in our conversations. For it is important to remember that just as human beings may be needy in a material sense, they can also be needy in an emotional and/or spiritual sense. Warm hospitality which enables our guests to feel at home can help meet all these various needs in a way which makes our guests feel both loved and respected.

We cannot speak about the ancient Jewish tradition of hospitality without mentioning the beautiful practice of having guests - including strangers - for the Shabbos (Sabbath) and Festival meals. This practice is especially strong in traditional Jewish communities, and familes in these communities usually feel that their Shabbos or Festival is incomplete without guests. For example, in my own neighborhood of Bayit Vegan, Jerusalem, guests at the Shabbos table can include tourists, new immigrants, students who live in dormitories, widows or widowers, single people, and non-Jews who are interested in Judaism.

During my own life, I have traveled to various communities in the United States, Canada, and other countries, and I am happy to report that the hospitable spirit of Avraham and Sarah is alive and well in many Jewish homes. For I have seen how Jews from diverse communities and backgrounds welcomed travelers and other guests into their homes in a loving and respectful manner. This experience made me grateful that I am part of a people that were taught by their righteous ancestors that we all part of one extended family.

Have a Good and Sweet Shabbos,

Yosef Ben Shlomo Hakohen (See below)

Related Teachings and Comments:

1. In the loving spirit of our ancestors, our people became known for their warm hospitality, moreover, many Jewish communities established non-profit inns for needy travelers. These inns supplemented the home hospitality that Jews gave to the wandering poor. In his book, "With all Your Possessions," Dr. Meir Tamari, a noted economist, describes the ways in which Jews thoughout the ages fulfilled the Torah's laws regarding tzedakah and other forms of economic justice. Regarding the mitzvah of hospitality for those in need, he writes: "There was a long tradition of providing inns or other forms of lodging for needy travelers at the expense of the community. Sometimes there was a suitable building adjacent to the synagogue; sometimes the community financed private lodgings."

2. There are other spiritual traditions which have been influenced by our Torah - such as Christianity and Islam - which place great importance on hospitality, especially to the needy. In fact, both Jewish and Islamic tradition recognize that the Arabs are the descendants of Avraham's first son, Ishmael. And Rashi, the great classical biblical commentator of the Jewish people, cites the tradition that Avraham trained Ishmael in the art of hospitality (commentary to Genesis 18:7).

3. Acts of hospitality enable us to fulfill the mitzvah of lovingkindness, and in many cases, the mitzvah of tzedakah. Our Tradition teaches that we should warmly invite travelers or other guests into our home, and provide them with food, drink, and a place of rest; moreover, we should escort our guests part of the way when they leave. The minimum requirement is to escort a guest at least 4 amos (approximately 8 feet), and blessed is the person who goes beyond the minimum requirement. The first mention of escorting guests appears in the Torah's story of how Avraham enthusiastically welcomed three travelers into his tent, and the Torah reveals that, after the meal, when the guests were ready to leave, "Avraham walked with them to escort them" (Genesis 18:16). Why is it so important to escort one's guest? In practical terms, an escort can direct the traveler to the right road and warn him against dangerous areas. I found the following additional explanations in the daily e-mail lessons which I receive from the Chofetz Chaim Foundation on the mitzvah of lovingkindness: After the guests have been greeted, after they have been made comfortable, given food and drink and rest, an important juncture of the visit is reached. How a guest leaves one's home can be the defining moment for the entire visit. A guest can be treated royally throughout his visit, but if he is left to wander out the door alone with a vague "good-bye" issued from another room, he will not walk away with the feeling that his presence was valued. He might feel that the hosts are relieved to have discharged their obligations - that "good-bye" was really "good riddance." The taste left in his mouth will not be that of the delicious meal, but rather that of the shabby send-off. On the other hand, if he is walked out the door with warmth and friendliness, with sincere thanks for his presence and hopes for his return, the aftertaste of the visit will be sweet. For escorting a guest out of one's home and down the block or to his car tells him that the host wishes to prolong the visit. It imparts the sense that the guest is valued as a person, and is not just the object of one's mitzvah. His thoughts, his conversation and company are being sought out, even pursued, past the threshold of the home. (To subscribe to the daily e-mail on lovingkindness, write to:  . ).

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