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The Shabbat Primer

The Mitzva Of Hospitality: Being A Host

Starting Out

How To Begin And With Whom

Conventional wisdom suggests that anyone new to Shabbat hosting should begin modestly and build from there. But in fact there is another school of thought on the matter which advocates just the opposite approach, throwing yourself in. We spoke with some hostesses who began practicing the mitzva gradually and with others who began with a completely open home. Both groups felt satisfied with the way they had chosen. The decision really depends upon your disposition and the expectations of those you live with.

Most people, especially those lacking memories of a hospitable childhood home, probably find the gradual approach more suitable. If this is your situation, then the first step is to experience Shabbat as a guest several times. Find a general style you like and can adopt as your own. Practice it in your family until you feel you have a happy, comfortable Shabbat atmosphere. Not perfect, just happy and comfortable. At the same time you might be learning more songs and customs to enrich your Shabbat.

Now you're ready to start inviting your first guests. If you're extremely nervous about the prospect, start with the least intimidating program you can imagine. Chana began by regularly inviting one of her young son's friends to Shabbat lunch. Inviting a single seven-year-old for lunch is admittedly bedrock hospitality, but it's at least a beginning. Then, one Shabbat morning at shul, Chana spontaneously asked a divorced mother with a young son to come home for lunch. Chana liked the mother and wanted to get to know her better. The fact that their two sons were friends at school helped, too. The situation was completely comfortable. Nobody had great expectations from such a spontaneous invitation, and the unpretentious cholent lunch was just fine under the circumstances. If it had been a planned invitation, Chana says, she would have cooked, fretted, and stewed for days beforehand.

This, then, is the kind of approach you can take. Begin with a child, or one or two congenial adults. You might in fact find it easier to host two people at a time, particularly if you are busy with small children. The guests can then help entertain each other, freeing you from some of the responsibility. Very gradually, taking all the time you need, increasingly open your home - more guests, more often, for more time. At last, hard as it is to believe now, you might find yourself a genuine baalat hamitzva whose home is open to every Jew seeking Shabbat hospitality.

In the same way, you can build gradually with the kinds of guests you invite. Naturally, you start with the least intimidating, your most comfortable friends. Then you progress to less intimate friends or people you'd like to get to know better. They should be people, however, who you feel can contribute something to the Shabbat. Pleasant bridge partners, if that's all they are, can wait for another evening. Finally, when you feel secure in your Shabbat observance and experienced enough as a hostess, you may want to include students, newcomers, strangers in town - all your newly discovered fellow Jews.

This is the "sensible" approach to beginning Shabbat hosting. Others, however, recommend the diametrically opposite approach. "Just jump right in," says Malka, one of our most seasoned resource women, "The water's fine! I was a bit nervous at first, but I got over it very quickly. And I feel I made much faster progress than if I had been more cautious." Sarah, Batya, and Esther all told us they had always wanted a home open to guests, but shyness held them back. It was their outgoing hospitable husbands who gave them the necessary push.

"Soon after we were married," says Batya, "my husband invited five guests for Shabbat dinner without consulting me first. His mother is a warm, casual person who always loved to have lots of guests in the house, so he thought nothing of it. But I freaked out. After I saw that I could cope, though, I just kept on with it. As the satisfaction grows, your desire to keep inviting people grows."

Devorah agrees with the plunging-right-in approach, if you're the type of person who can take it. She adds one proviso, however. "I think husbands who sail into the mitzva of hospitality should be sensitive to their wives and be prepared to help out. It's not right that he should bask in the joy of all their extra guests and leave her with all the extra dishes!"

When And How To Invite Guests

If at all possible, try to invite Shabbat guests you already know by Wednesday night. This gives them the feeling that you have been thinking about them and that they are your first choice. If you invite them later in the week, try to offer a decent excuse. Otherwise, they may feel they've been asked in place of preferred guests who cancelled. For less experienced or nervous hostesses it's also comforting to know early on exactly how many to prepare for.

Strangers seeking Shabbat hospitality and hosts running open homes don't expect such formality. A Jew from out of town will be delighted with a spontaneous invitation offered just before Shabbat comes in or right after Shabbat morning services. The experienced hostess routinely has extra portions ready for such an eventuality. "My husband once invited seven men to come back with him from shul," says Devorah. "Ever since that day, I've been prepared." Now she always makes three or four additional portions which she has available for guests, the freezer, or weekday leftovers, as the case may be.

If you want to practice the mitzva of hachnasat orchim fully and open your home to other Jews, there are many places to start. If there is a college or university in town, you can contact the Hillel House rabbi. Or if there is any other place where Jewish students gather - a synagogue, reading room, dormitory, or deli - you can post an index card and spread the word. If you keep a strictly kosher and observant home, get yourself on the hospitality list of the nearest Chabad House. Most synagogues and central Jewish agencies have hospitality lists or committees as well. Hadassah and other women's groups will want to hear of you. And, of course, you can always keep your eyes open at synagogue services for new faces. Once you let it be known that you are happy to have guests, you will probably never have to go looking.

Just remember, your manner is very important. In telling uninformed guests the few "rules of the house" they need to know, keep it casual and pleasant. (See "Uninformed Guests" section later in this chapter.) And be sure you're ready to offer a warm, sincere invitation.

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