Abrahamic Hospitality

It was around midnight on a dark and windy seder night – the first night of Pesach (Passover) when Jews conduct a home ceremony centred around a meal to mark their freedom from Egyptian slavery and birth as a people. The night had begun with the traditional invitation, “Let all who are hungry come and eat,” and we had reached the point when the children are sent to open the front door of the house to welcome the Prophet Elijah. The children called back to the dining room, “There’s a man there.”
“Very funny,” we all called back. “Close the door, come back and sit down.”
“No! There really is a man there!” they shouted.

Trudging to the door, wondering who would be there at this time of night, we did, indeed find a somewhat bedraggled man. We invited him in, gave him some food. It turned out that he was a resident in Jewish sheltered accommodation in another city, and had come to our town for an important football game. After the game, he had remembered that it was Pesach, and walked several miles to the Jewish part of town on the hunt for some Matza. He had encountered our neighbour returning home from his parents’ seder, who had helpfully directed him to our door. After some hot soup and a meal he was happy to go on his way with a little package of food.

The quotation with which the seder begins – Let all who are hungry come and eat – is taken from the Talmud (Ta’anit 20b)

Rabba asked Rafram bar Papa: “Can you relate to me the good things which R. Huna did?” And he replied: “I do not remember anything of his youth; but when he was of mature age …. [several examples follow. Finally] … When sitting down to a meal, he would order a servant to throw open the doors and call out: כָּל דִכְפִין יֵיתֵי וְיֵיכֹל Whoever desires to eat, let him come in and do so.”

It follows in the tradition of Abraham, whose hospitality to wayfarers is legendary. His treatment of three travellers in Gen. 8:1-8 is a primary source. Over the centuries, the rabbis subjected each word and nuance of this account to interpretation and exegesis so that every last skerrick of learning can be pulled from it. It pays, therefore, to read the text in full.

1 And the LORD appeared unto him [Abraham] in the Plains of Mamre, as he sat in the tent door in the heat of the day; 2 and he lifted up his eyes and looked [into the distance], and, lo, three men stood right over him; and when he saw them, he ran to meet them from the tent door, and bowed down to the earth, 3 and said: “My lord, if now I have found favour in your sight, please do not pass, I pray you, from your servant. 4 Let now a little water be fetched, and wash your feet; rest under the tree. 5 I will fetch a morsel of bread so that you can refresh yourselves; then you can continue on; after all, you have come to your servant.” And they said: “Yes; do as you have said.”
6 And Abraham hurried into the tent to Sarah, and said: “Quick! Three measures of fine flour! Knead it! Make cakes!”
7 Abraham ran to the cattle, and fetched a tender and choice calf, and gave it unto the young man who rushed to prepare it. 8 And he took butter (or curd/cottage cheese), and milk, and the calf which he had prepared, and set it before them; and he stood by them under the tree as they ate.

One of the things the commentators want to know is whether Abraham knew the identity of the guests. On this hinges a number of questions. For example, in TB Kiddushin 32b Rabbis Eliezer, Joshua and Zadok were at the wedding of the son of Rabban Gamiliel, who was the nasi. (The position of Nasi was the highest in the Jewish community, roughly equalling President and being translated as “prince.”) They discuss whether it was right for Rabban Gamiliel personally to serve them drinks. All agree that Abraham – who was far greater than all of them – personally served his guests. But if he knew his guests to be angels, this would suggest that mere humans might not merit such treatment. There is evidence both ways in the text. On the one hand verse 2 suggests that he saw the men in the distance, and a mere moment later they were up close to him without enough time having elapsed for them to walk as humans do. On the other hand, in verse 4, he asks them to wash their feet. Traditional sources explain that he thought they were idolaters who worshipped the dust on their feet. He could not countenance such a thing in his home, so he asked them to wash the dust off before entering.

This last detail has surprising contemporary relevance. One of the questions about the way Australia treats its immigrants is about whether we should, or even have the right to say, “You are welcome to be here, but we do things in a particular way here. There may be activities and attitudes you are accustomed to in the place you come from, but we don’t do things that way here.” Or should we say, “Make yourself at home and do whatever you like.” Abraham’s example suggests he felt quite comfortable in making clear to his guests what was, and what was not acceptable in his place.

At a recent inter-faith conference one participant suggested this was a limitation on Abraham’s hospitality. I disagreed. I suggested that as a guest I might be on edge not wanting to do anything that might offend my host. Once I know that my host will tell me – openly and respectfully – if I get close to the point of offence, I can relax, relying on him not to let me do anything wrong.

Another controversy in the text concerns verse 3, and who Abraham was addressing. The difficulty is that the word Abraham used – Ado-nai, in Hebrew – has two quite different meanings. It usually refers to G-D, but also has a non-holy usage, roughly equivalent to “Sir.” (A closely related word – Adoni – is used exactly that way in modern-day Israel.) On the secular reading, he was addressing the visitors, and asking them not to depart without first receiving something from him. But understanding the word in the first way reveals an altogether more profound lesson.

Don’t forget that Abraham was in the middle of a Divine revelation, as we read in the first verse. On this reading, he literally asks G-D to wait for him while he attends to his visitors. This led the Talmud to the following startling conclusion (TB Shabbat 127a):

R. Yehudah said in the name of Rav: Hospitality is even a greater merit than receiving the Divine Presence (Shekhina), as it is written [Genesis xviii. 3]: “And he said, My Lord, if now I have found favour in thy eyes, pass not away,” etc. (showing that Abraham let the Lord wait while he went to receive his guests).

So powerful a statement on the importance of receiving guests was this, that it became normative Jewish law, codified by Maimonides (Mishne Torah, Hil. Avel 14:2), and quoted in numerous other locations.

Every detail of Abraham’s behaviour held lessons for the rabbis. He said initially that he would fetch a small amount of bread, but then produced a banquet fit for a king. This led the first century sage Shammai to instruct (Mishnah Avot 1:15) “Say little and do much, and greet every person cheerfully.”

Even the opening of the passage is instructive as to the attitude we should adopt. The rabbis explain that the incident occurred on the third day after Abraham’s circumcision (at the age of 99!) when the pain is said to be at its most intense. G-D caused the sun to shine extra hotly, so that any potential traveller would stay indoors and not trouble Abraham. But Abraham, whose tent famously had four doors opening in every direction to welcome guests, was even more distressed by the absence of visitors. So G-D send the three itinerants for him to entertain.

A contemporary rabbi once offered a beautiful analogy. Some of you may have had the experience of sending a child to another town or another country for study or work. The moment you leave your child at the airport, you worry about them. Will they have enough food? Will they be comfortable where they are living? Will they be lonely? Will they be alright? So if you hear of a person in that place that took your child into their home, was kind to them, gave them a meal, offered them reassurance, how thankful and well-disposed towards that person would you be?

Every human being on earth is one of G-D’s children, so when we look after them, are kind to them, encourage and sustain them, how well-disposed towards us would our Father in Heaven be? In the end it comes down to the fundamental lesson that the Bible teaches on its first page and every page thereafter. Every human being is made in the image of G-D and must be respected and treated with dignity in that fact alone. The test of our humanity comes when we look in the face of the stranger. Even though in that face I may not see my image, I must keep looking until I see G-D’s image, and then I will know what to do.