Hachnasat Orchim – A Delicate Balance

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Reb Yosef was an Iranian man, no longer young, who used to stop by our house from time to time. My husband had met him at a wedding, where he was collecting money to buy insulin for his sick mother in Iran. He felt an affinity for us because our last name, Ben Shushan, indicates that my husband’s family originally came from the same area of Iran that he was from, and because he enjoyed speaking the French he had learned in Iran with us. He would come to the house, accept a cup of tea and something to eat, then take a donation to help his mother and leave. We never knew when he would show up and were never clear where exactly he lived or how he kept himself fed and clothed.

On his last visits, he complained of feeling sick and said the doctors said something was very wrong with his liver. We tried to trace him subsequently, but without any success. We only know that he suddenly disappeared from our lives, and we never knew for sure if he was who he said he was, or a charlatan, or perhaps Eliyahu HaNavi in one of his many manifestations.

In order to show his gratitude whenever he enjoyed our hospitality, Reb Yosef, who was a Cohen, would give us a blessing before he left. “Thank you very much, Mrs. Bracha,” he would tell me, “I bless you that your house should always be open like the house of Avraham and Sara, that you should always have many, many guests and give them kindness like you give me.” Then he would say birkat hacohanim (priestly blessing) over the head of the baby and the little kids before he departed. I was never quite sure how I was supposed to respond, especially since I never knew exactly who he was, but I figured a bracha couldn’t hurt and did my best to accept it with good grace.

In recent years, I have often thought about Reb Yosef, usually with the eerie conviction that his bracha must have wielded great power, because ever since his departure our house has never ceased to be open for very long. There always seems to be somebody camping out in the kids’ playroom or popping up from overseas or sent by a friend (“Why don’t you try the Bensoussans — they always have people over”). My husband and I are both sociable types who are happy enough to be of service where we can; however, I have noticed over time that this is a mitzva with as many different faces as our guests.

We recently read parshat Vayera, where Avraham rouses himself after brit milah (circumcision) on a particularly hot day in the desert to implore three guests to abide with him a moment and to serve them the best his household had to offer. The kind of mesirat nefesh shown by Avraham in order to do the mitzvah of hachnasat orchim (welcoming guests) is way beyond the capacity of most of us today. But we do accept sacrifices on a smaller scale when we open our homes to guests.

I have seen both extremes when it comes to hachnasat orchim. I know families who almost never take Shabbat guests, valuing their privacy, family time, and hard-earned hours of rest. Not everyone is at ease with guests, particularly total strangers, or has energy to make conversation on a Friday night. I also know families who undertake every week to receive six, ten, even fifteen guests at their table. There is a family in my neighborhood that is known for taking practically a minyan every week of “older singles” into their home — not lively young people in town for a shidduch, but middle-aged, often eccentric folks who have been alone for many years and have no one else they can count on for a steady invitation.

I know families of Lubavitcher shlichim (emissaries) who also receive small crowds week after week in their homes, people of every conceivable size, color and orientation, and do it always with unflagging enthusiasm and ahavat Yisrael (love of Israel). The wives in these families deserve tremendous credit for the institutional quantities of food they prepare, not to mention clean up. Instead of sitting tranquilly during the meal, they are constantly popping up to serve or clear, and there’s no guarantee of snuggling into bed early on a Friday night. The expense is also not negligible when one is preparing for a small army. I greatly admire such people, wondering when they manage to rest when they dedicate themselves every Shabbat to serving others!

I have to admit that when, in the early years of my marriage, we started inviting guests, my motives were less pure and more selfish. I would get bored being stuck home all Shabbat with little babies, so it livened up the day for me if a new face came to participate in our meals. Physically, the whole enterprise was less taxing as well; there were quite a few less of us then, and the kids who were there did little more than mouth a piece of challah and fall asleep in the high chair. We could have four or five guests and still not be feeding more than seven people. Now we are more than seven people all by ourselves, bli ayin hara, and many of us consume serious quantities of food, so if we invite five or six guests my Shabbat preparations resemble catering for a minor simcha (happy occasion or event).

But the more delicate issue involves the children, who no longer fall asleep in the high chair but who come home with reams of parsha questions, divrei Torah and personal news to give over. As the family and the tuitions have grown, my husband is more frequently obliged to be absent on weekday nights to make ends meet, meaning that Shabbat meals are one of our few windows of opportunity for all-family communication and relaxation. When there is a horde of guests, some of whom may also be hungry for attention, it’s not so easy for a seven-year-old to get his two cents in.

Not only that, but after a certain age the kids have the nerve to actually start having opinions about people. “Oh, not HIM again,” groaned my son as few weeks ago upon learning that a certain person was coming for Shabbat. “All he does is shmooze and shmooze with Papa and then I’m so bored!” So I then tried to give over something I’ve come to realize myself over the years: sometimes you do hachnasat orchim because it’s a pleasure, and sometimes you do it because it’s a mitzvah. But try telling that to a kid who hasn’t seen much of his father all week. He may understand it intellectually, but what it feels like is, “The guest is more important than me.” So the wise parent tries to make sure that the child gets his piece of the pie, as it were, as much as everyone else.

The personal qualities of the guests have a lot to do with the children’s willingness to have them join our Shabbat table. As Rabbi Dessler points out in “Michtav M’Eliayahu,” in this life there are givers and takers. While by definition a guest is someone who accepts hospitality from you, a guest who is giving by nature will show his or her appreciation in some way: a bouquet of flowers before Shabbat, a bottle of wine, some candy for the kids. Heaven knows we as hosts don’t actually need these things, in fact perhaps they even lessen the s’char (reward)we get for the mitzvah. But the gesture of appreciation is always taken to heart. Even a compliment on the food is like a gift to the wife who has spent time trying to make it nice. I have a particular soft spot for guests who take time to show some interest in the children, so they do not get bored or feel themselves to be invisible (not to mention disappearing from the table in frustration).

The “takers,” on the other hand, are those needy people who dominate the conversation with their personal issues, who usurp a husband’s attention so that the wife and children are left abandoned at the other end of the table, and who don’t say thank you when it’s all over. Some guests are basically well-intentioned but insensitive, such as the overly enthusiastic bochur (young man) who can’t wait to regale everyone with his latest chiddushim (original interpretations), meanwhile failing to notice that half of the table is getting an early start on their Shabbat naps. Then there are some singles and/or ba’alei teshuva who, in their earnestness to share the details of their life struggles with a sympathetic ear, sometimes forget that much of their audience is underaged and only allowed to attend “G” rated conversations.

While guests like these can put a strain on a family’s Shabbat time together, the truth is that they also need a place to eat and someone to talk to. Those are the cases where I sometimes feel Hashem is trying to test me: “You said you liked to do hachnasat orchim? Ha! See if you’re still so eager to keep doing it when it means giving up family time to spend Friday evening with So-and-So!” It takes no small effort to maintain the balance between time for the family and time for guests, and between hosting guests who are a pleasure to receive and hosting guests who are less easy yet equally in need of a place to go.

Reb Yosef’s bracha has brought us many interesting people over the course of time, and I hope we have been able to be helpful to them without also neglecting the needs of our children. We live in a time of great prosperity, where even poor people rarely go hungry, so it is hardly difficult materially to share our food with a fellow Jew. But we also live in a time of great emotional and spiritual hunger, where the warm family ambiance and divrei Torah of a Shabbat table are deeply important for so many people who are lost or alone. May Hashem grant all of us the strength and the means to fulfill this mitzva to the best of our abilities, whether the Shabbat table can hold one or a dozen courses of food and one or a dozen guests.

Barbara Bensoussan has worked as a college instructor and social worker and written for many Jewish magazines, newspapers and websites. She is awaiting the release of her first novel, A New Song, from Targum Press and lives in Brooklyn with her husband and six children.

The words of this author reflect his/her own opinions and do not necessarily represent the official position of the Orthodox Union.