In ancient Israel, hospitality was not merely a question of good manners, but a moral institution which grew out of the harsh desert and nomadic existence led by the people of Israel. The biblical customs of welcoming the weary traveler and of receiving the stranger in one's midst was the matrix out of which hospitality and all its tributary aspects developed into a highly esteemed virtue in Jewish tradition. Biblical law specifically sanctified hospitality toward the ger ("stranger") who was to be made particularly welcome "for you were strangers in a strange land" (Lev. 19:34 and see Ex. 12:49). Foreign travelers, although not protected by law (Deut. 15:3; 23:21), could count on the custom of hospitality. It was also the duty of the elders of the *cities of refuge to succor, as well as to protect, the unwitting killer who sought refuge in their cities until the death of the high priest (Num. 35:9–34). Isaiah states that one of the duties of the pious is to "deal thy bread to the hungry," and to "bring the poor that are cast out to thy house" (Isa. 58:7). The Bible is replete with examples of pious hospitality. As soon as Abraham saw the three men of Mamre "from afar," he hurried to invite them into his house, ministered to their physical comfort, and served them lavishly (Gen. 18). Similarly, Laban was eager to welcome Abraham's servant (Gen. 24:28–32) while Rebekah attended to the comfort of his camels. Jethro the Midianite was particularly disappointed at being deprived of the opportunity to extend hospitality to Moses (Ex. 2:20). Manoah did not allow the angel to depart before he had partaken of his hospitality (Judg. 13:15), and the Shunammite woman had a special room prepared for the prophet Elisha (II Kings 4:8–11). The extreme to which hospitality was taken is shown by the stories of Lot and the old man of Gibeah who were prepared to sacrifice the honor of their daughters in order to protect their guests, who were to them complete strangers (Gen. 19:4–8 and Judg. 19:23–24). Some acts of hospitality had specific rewards. Rahab, who had harbored Joshua's two spies, was granted protection when Jericho fell (Josh. 2), and David repaid a courtesy which Barzillai had extended to his men (II Sam. 17:27–29), with a courtesy to Barzillai's servant Chimham (II Sam. 19:32–40). Breaches of hospitality, on the other hand, were punished. Gideon castigated the elders of Succoth and Penuel for their parsimony (Judg. 8:5–9); the men of Israel made war on the Benjamites for their breach of hospitality (Judg. 19:22, 20:17); and Nabal's death was seen as punishment for having failed to offer hospitality to David's men (I Sam. 25:2–38). The killing of Sisera by Jael is the only breach of hospitality praised in the Bible (Judg. 4:18–24, 5:24–27). One of Job's claims is that "the stranger did not lodge in the street, but I opened my doors to the traveler" (Job 31:32).
Rabbinic literature widened the scope of the virtue of hospitality, which it called hakhnasat oreḥim (lit. "bringingin of guests"). It was considered a great mitzvah, an expression of gemilut ḥasadim ("kindness"), especially when it was extended to the poor (Shab. 127a–b; Maim., Yad, Evel 14:1–2). One of the virtues for which one enjoys the fruits in this world and obtains the principal reward in the world to come, hospitality is, according to R. Johanan, even more important than prayer or, according to R. Judah, than receiving the divine presence (Shab. ibid.). A person who extends hospitality to a rabbinic student is regarded as if he had offered a daily sacrifice (Ber. 10b, and see also Ber. 63b; Kid 76b). The rabbis also sought to inculcate the virtue through a gloss on certain biblical figures: Abraham and Job were said to have left the doors of their homes open on all four sides, so that strangers might have easy access (ARN2 14). The Midrash (Lam. R. 4:13) relates that even at the height of Nebuchadnezzar's siege of Jerusalem, mothers would deprive their children of the last crust in order to grant hospitality to a mourner. R. *Huna attempted to set an example by publicly proclaiming his meal times as a sign of open invitation to the stranger (Ta'an. 20b), and his saying "Kol dikhfin yeitei ve-yeikhul" ("Let all the hungry enter and eat") is used during the *seder service. In Jerusalem, it was customary to indicate that a meal was in progress by displaying a flag (BB 93b; Lam. R. 4:4). Children were taught
The tradition of hospitality was particularly apparent among Jewish communities in the Middle Ages and a separate charitable association called Ḥevra Hakhnasat Oreḥim was established for that purpose. Medieval European Jewish communities instituted a system of pletten ("meal tickets") for travelers and itinerant scholars, and in the 15th century, established battei baḥurim ("student hostels"). Nor was individual hospitality neglected; Nathan Hannover (17th century) states: "Many wealthy members of the congregation considered it an honor to have the student and his charges as guests at their table, although the congregation sufficiently provided for their support" (Yeven Meẓulah, ed. by J. Fishman and J. Halpern (1966), 83). Among Polish communities, it was also the custom to billet students with members of the community for their daily meals (Nathan Hannover, ibid.). This custom, known as essen-teg, later spread to Germany. In modern times, charitable institutions have assumed most of the responsibility for communal hospitality.
E.A. Frisch, A Historical Survey of Jewish Philanthropy (1924); idem, Jewish Philanthropy in the Biblical Era; A. Cronbach, Philanthropy in Rabbinical Literature; idem, Philanthropic Institutions in the Middle Ages; Baron, Community, 2 (1942), 319–25; Vaux, Anc Isr, 10; I. Levitats, Jewish Community in Russia (1943), 250f.; C.G. Montefiore and H. Loewe (eds.), Rabbinic Anthology (1939), ch. 18.
Sources: Encyclopaedia Judaica. © 2008 The Gale Group. All Rights Reserved.