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Jewish Practices & Rituals: Hospitality

In Judaism, showing hospitality (hakhnasat orchim) to guests is considered a mitzvah. When one knows of strangers who are hungry or need a place to relax, it becomes a legal obligation. Some rabbis consider hakhnasat orchim (literally the “bringing in of strangers”) to be a part of gemilut hasadim (giving of loving kindness).

The first time hospitality is displayed in the Torah happens when Abraham invites the three wanderers from Mamre to relax while he brings them water and food (Gen. 18:1-5). Later, when Abraham sends his servant to find a wife for his son Isaac, Rebecca graciously watered the traveler’s thirsty horses (Gen. 24:28-32). The Bible contains many examples of the importance of being hospitable toward strangers and the rewards that one receives for the act of kindness.

The Bible only praises one occasion of when hospitality was not offered to a stranger; this event occurred when Yael murders Sisera, the Canaanite general who escaped from the Israelites under Barak, and requested protection with Yael (Judg. 4:18-24, 5:24-27).

Also the Talmud teaches that one’s house should always be welcoming and open to strangers. In the Torah it affirms that Abraham always kept all four sides of his tent open, for guests to easily enter. The opening of one’s doors is why at the Seder on Passover an invitation is delivered to the hungry and needy. It is read in the Hagadah, “Whosoever is in need let him come and eat” (Ta’anit 20b). During the Middle Ages the custom arose of providing a guest house (bet hakhnasat orehim) for the poor; this would later be called hekdesh (“sanctuary”).

Conversely, an inconsiderate guest in a hospitable house is condemned. While hosts may not make guests feel awkward, guests are obligated to be grateful for the labors of the host. At meals, guests are also expected to recite an additional blessing in the course of Birkat ha-Mazon (Grace After Meals) for the host. Also a guest is obliged to leave some food on their plate (Er. 53b) and mind the desires of the host.

The meaning is that a guest should not impose on their host or extend their visit longer than three days. In Midrash Tehillim it states, “On the day a guest arrives, a calf is slaughtered in his honor; the next day, a sheep, the third day, a fowl, and on the fourth day, he is served just beans” (23:3).

Sources: Eisenberg, Ronald L. The JPS Guide to Jewish Traditions. PA: Jewish Publication Society, 2004.
Wigoder, Geoffrey , Ed. The New Standard Jewish Encyclopedia. NY: Facts on File, 1992.
Telushkin, Joseph. Jewish Literacy: The Most Important Things to Know About the Jewish Religion, Its People and Its History. NY: William Morrow and Co., 1991