Biblical stories often form prototypical frameworks that define and shape later Jewish behaviors. The hospitality of Abraham and Sarah in Parashat Vayeira, for example, becomes for later commentators the quintessential moment that defines how Jews ought to welcome their guests. The moving scene of their hospitality to three messengers (really, angels sent by God) who visit during their sojourn in Mamre contains all the key elements of the best hospitality even today. Abraham and Sarah offer their guests a friendly response on arrival, proffer for them some delicious food, refer to them respectfully, and keep one eye directed toward their guests' comfort at all times:
18:1] The Eternal appeared to him by the oaks of Mamre as he was sitting at the entrance of the tent at about the hottest time of the day. 2] Looking up, he saw: lo-three men standing opposite him! Seeing [them], he ran from the entrance of the tent to meet them, and, bowing low to the ground, 3] he said, "My lords, if I have found favor in your sight, please do not pass your servant by. 4] Let a little water be brought; then wash your feet and recline under a tree, 5] and let me bring a bit of bread and you can restore yourselves. Then you can go on-now that you have come across your servant." And they responded: "Very well, do as you propose." 6] Abraham then hurried toward the tent, to Sarah, and said: "Hurry, knead three measures of wheat flour and bake some [bread-] cakes!" 7] Abraham then ran to the herd and took a young calf, tender and sound, and gave it to the servant lad, who quickly prepared it. 8] He took sour milk and [sweet] milk and the calf he had prepared and set [it all] before them; and as he stood over them under the tree, they ate. (Genesis 18:1-8)
In this idyllic, shady setting beneath the large oak trees of Mamre, Abraham and Sarah welcome their visitors and provide for all their needs; taking them into the shade; plying them with food and drink; helping them to relax, recline, and enjoy the hot afternoon. As they receive this hospitality, the angels serve their own salutary purpose: they promptly share the good news of the coming of the next generation in the family of our patriarch and matriarch.
Not long after this benign scene, a related individual rolls out the red carpet for two of these angels, but in a starkly different setting. Lot, Abraham's nephew, welcomes these same angels to less-than-idyllic Sodom (19:1-3) by entreating them to wash their feet, inviting them to stay in his home overnight, and generally looking out for their welfare in what one might consider to be a pretty rough neighborhood. Despite Lot's considerable efforts to protect his guests, the other inhabitants of the town have different, far less-worthy goals in mind, and their very lack of hospitality (read: hostility) is enough to confirm their evil character. Because of his hospitality, Lot and his family (sans his wife, who meets her famously salty end) escape the highly destructive leveling of two cities that results, and the hospitable once again survive and thrive.
This is simply one of many examples of the fine hospitality to human and angelic characters that inform our tradition and the excellent rewards given those who offer it. Later in the Book of Genesis, we read of Laban's kindness in welcoming both Jacob (29:13) and Abraham's servant Eliezer (24:31-33), which leads to the further development of the line of the patriarchs and matriarchs and the ongoing sustenance of their relationship with God. In the Book of Judges (13:15), Manoah's welcome of an angel leads to the birth of his son Samson, whose immense strength defeats the Philistines almost single-handedly. Hospitality has its rewards it seems, with substantial and long-term benefits for those who practice it.
Post-biblical literature is similarly replete with poignantly crafted examples, both positive and negative. In the ancient apocryphal book, The Wisdom of Ben Sirah*(chapter 31), we find the adjuration's source to be a generous host coupled with the stern reminder that one must be careful not to abuse the hospitality of another such host by commenting overmuch on the lavishness of the banquet, grabbing food too quickly and colliding hands at the serving dish, eating too much, or otherwise behaving inconsiderately of one's host or other guests. In chapter 10 of The Testament of Job (a creative version of the last words of the biblical Job [first century BCE-first century CE]), we learn that Job ran a highly hospitable buffet for the poor, featuring over thirty tables spread with delicacies at all hours, plus another twelve tables just for widows, stocked regularly by a network of fifty bakeries. Similar statements urging us on to better hospitality appear regularly throughout Rabbinic literature, the Haggadah, musar texts, and throughout virtually all of the Jewish canon.
In our contemporary context, too, we know the value of a good welcome, and the pain that can come with a botched one, whether with friends, associates, or even family members. In an unforgettable scene in his 1990 film Avalon, Barry Levinson captured the value of welcome and the pain of its opposite: when one part of the family arrives late to Thanksgiving dinner to find the rest of the family had already "cut the turkey" without them, it leads to a serious rift in the family. The message is clear: how we behave as welcomers often determines the outcome of our relationships, and the implications are serious and long-term.
A personal, instructive story: many years ago I spent Shabbat as a speaker in a small, rural synagogue. I arrived early, and as the service began on Erev Shabbat, I took my seat toward the back of the little sanctuary, singing along with the music and mentally preparing for my talk later in the service. What struck me that night was something I had never before encountered in a synagogue: from the moment I entered the building, not one person aside from the rabbi spoke to me, welcomed me, or even went so far as to acknowledge my presence. Only after I spoke did anyone even notice me or approach me to wish me Shabbat Shalom. After such an experience, would I ever join that shul if I were a member of the local community? It's unlikely. But it did teach me an important lesson: from that evening, I learned that the way we welcome the anonymous other defines who we are and how others view our community. And, so often, we can do better.
Early second century text, probably written in Jerusalem
At the time of this writing in 2010, Rabbi Aaron D. Panken, Ph.D., was teaching Rabbinic and Second Temple literature at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in New York.