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The Shabbat Primer

The Mitzva Of Hospitality: Being A Host

Handling Problematic Guests

Invite Only Sincerely

What if you have a strong suspicion that that lonely-looking bachelor or those third cousins from out of town you know you should invite may well be total bores who will dampen your Shabbat? Even worse, what if the person you feel obligated to include at your table is an amateur anthropologist doing fieldwork on "exotic fossil peoples surviving in today's urban society" (i.e. an alienated Jew), a parent or other relative hostile to your new "fanatical" ways, an intimidating in-law, a shy, withdrawn student, or a couple who are terrified by the thought of spending the first Shabbat of their lives in a "really Orthodox" home? Any one of these prospects can be daunting indeed, regardless of how experienced you are in your Jewish observance or your role as Shabbat host(ess).

It is one of those obvious truths often obscured by a false sense of duty that an invitation should only be offered sincerely. If you are deeply reluctant to invite someone, ask yourself if you absolutely must. Not "ought to" for the sake of the family or the mitzva, but must. Will it make a real difference in that person's life or yours a year from now if you didn't? In fact, with the possible exception of the close relative or in-law, none of these prospective guests has to be included at your Shabbat table at all.

If, however, you have made the decision to invite him or find the problem guest already upon you, there are ways to cope. Let us start with one of the less harrowing, if more stultifying problem guests, the bore.

Bores

As Barbara Walters has observed, bores often know they're bores.[67] This realization, however, doesn't help their hostesses very much. Trying to elicit the interesting real person behind the "uh-huh, uh-uh" silent bore or the totally unfocused, yaketty bore is extremely hard work. In a sense, you have to assume the responsibility which the bore himself has neglected, the responsibility of listening to himself and discovering who he is. Most of us have done that job at least to some extent; that's how we can express more or less succinctly our opinions about a certain subject. The bore, on the other hand, has not done his spade-work.

Here we need to distinguish between the nervous talker and the true bore. The nervous talker can usually be calmed down by a good question, lively singing - anything which allows him to forget himself. The bore, however, needs to find himself. And that requires the kind of attention which few busy hostesses can spare.

Our resource women generally use two methods in dealing with bores, the first pragmatic and the second, philosophic. If they feel they have really tried to no avail with this particular guest, they politely retreat. They offer him more to eat, books to read, somebody else to talk with, a child to read to, photo albums to peruse - anything that allows them to slip away gracefully. Children are a great escape hatch; nobody begrudges it if you have to "go take care of the kids." If they're not so little, you may suddenly remember it's story time. During the day, you can also plead tiredness and go take a nap.

Barbara Walters tells of an excellent technique the late Truman Capote used.[68] First he tried analyzing exactly what it was that made this person so boring - what he lacked, what he hadn't done in life. Then Capote speculated about all sorts of things - what kind of wife this person had, his likes and dislikes, what kind of childhood he'd experienced. Then Capote tried asking these questions aloud. By that time he usually found he was no longer bored.

A second approach to use with bores is the philosophic or, more accurately, the compassionate one. We Jews all share a common neshama, our resource women remind us. We must learn to overlook the externals of this person's boring mannerisms and concentrate on the fact of his oneness with us. "If you had a long-lost brother who suddenly returned home, would he be a bore to you? This person is your brother."

Nechoma reflects, "If this person is so difficult, something must have happened to him. He must have a real problem. I have to put up with him only one Shabbat, but he has to put up with himself a whole lifetime."

A sad experience also colors Nechoma's attitude toward bores. A certain girl studying at an institute for baalot teshuva was conspicuous because of her lethargy. She hardly ever came to classes on time, cut many of them altogether, had few friends, and appeared totally uninvolved. One day when she failed to show up at all for breakfast and early lectures, one of the rabbis felt a sense of foreboding. He and some of the girls rushed to her room, unlocked the door, and found her unconscious. An empty bottle of sleeping pills stood by her bed. Fortunately, the doctors revived her in time, but her classmates felt terribly guilty.

The director of the institute devoted his weekly Shabbat talk to the case of this young woman. "When Hashem gave the Torah on Mt. Sinai, He didn't give it only to the beautiful, successful, or popular. He gave it to all of us, for all of us. Now, whom do we usually want for guests? Those who we feel will appreciate us and our efforts, those who will be interesting or amusing. But these people will always find a place to be invited for Shabbat; the others won't. A mitzva is done because Hashem commanded it. We don't do it just because it's rewarding for us. It's tempting to avoid so-and-so saying, 'Not her!' But then who am I doing the mitzva for? Only myself."

Thoughts like these help experienced Jewish hostesses cope with bores and, indeed, with all problematic guests.

Alienated Jews

Nearly every observant host has had at least one alienated Jew at his Shabbat table. In the case of baalei teshuva, the alienated Jew is usually a family member. In the case of everyone, baalei teshuva or not, who opens his home to Shabbat guests, he is typically a young adult uninformed about Jewish matters who is attending college nearby or passing through town. Sometimes, he is even a Jew who has abandoned Judaism completely.

Our resource women had to comb their memories hard to recall him. In their experience, the scores of guests eager to learn about and participate in Shabbat dominate. The alienated Jew is rare. Often he passes notice just by his silence. But eventually, every woman replied, "Oh, yes, I had one....." Nechoma's turned out to be a Jew for Jesus. Sarah's turned out to be mentally ill. Malka's kept the family up one Seder night till 4:00 a.m. pushing his contentious views of Judaism. Rachel's was a doctrinaire secular Zionist. And everybody dredged up at least one anti-religious Humanist.

Except for hostile relatives, whom we will discuss later, the occasional alienated Jewish guest is not a looming problem. In most cases, our resource women say, he warms toward Judaism after experiencing a real Shabbat. And if he does not, he probably won't be back to bother you again.

What helps her deal with an alienated Jew, says Malka, is wondering why he is with her in the first place. Either he is trying to convert her to something, to make her see the light - in which case he will simply fail - or else deep down he really wants to be convinced. Even those Jews who come simply out of curiosity she assigns to the second category.

Sarah, who opens her doors to unknown Shabbat guests nearly every week, claims to have encountered very few truly alienated ones. "You feed them, you teach a little Tanya, you sincerely answer their questions. If you show warmth and acceptance, you touch almost everyone. You plant seeds. Sometimes it takes a year or more for the seeds to sprout, but you've planted them. I believe that no good word is lost."

Esther has a similar faith in the power of truth and good communication. "We've had people with us who have had prejudices against Hassidism," she says, "but David, my husband, can explain things in their terms. Usually they end up saying, 'Is this Hassidism?' It's so interesting!"

Not everything is a matter of teaching, though. Esther gets her guests, alienated or not, into the swing of Shabbat by asking them to help out with the last-minute chores and by putting on rousing cassettes. "Sometimes guests just want caring, light talk," she suggests, "not only Torah."

All our resource women emphasize keeping one's cool when under attack. "Listen and be polite," advises Rachel, who confesses to being irritated by dogmatic secular Zionists. "Instead of scoring points, I'd rather listen between the lines. If you attack someone, he will usually defend himself strongly. Nothing is gained. So lay off. Set a good example. Arouse curiosity." Ilana is calm with guests who make fun of her torn toilet paper and unscrewed refrigerator bulb. "I just try to explain and go on," she says. 'Actually I tend to stay away from too much Judaism talk with unobservant guests. I answer any questions, and just let the relaxed, friendly atmosphere speak for itself." Chana finds that many belligerent guests are disarmed by frankness and humor. "I felt it was weird, too, when I first started," she will confess. "Sometimes I still feel that way. But it's part of the whole of Shabbat, and it works for me."

Children can often contribute. Some Jews who are distant from their Judaism are taken aback by seeing the kids' obvious enthusiasm and joy in Shabbat. It may start them re-thinking. Then, too, alienated guests are often less hostile if children explain the Shabbat laws. It's a less potentially argumentative situation than if such a guest hears them from another adult.

Finally, advises Rivka, be alert to the currents underneath. She tells of a cousin who was always asking questions in a challenging, but not antagonistic way. "He seemed afraid of his interest," she says. "He still does."

Perhaps Shabbat has ended now, and your confirmed alienated Jew remains a confirmed alienated Jew. If you feel somehow depressed or irritated, try to take it philosophically. You've done what you needed to do. "It isn't all up to us," Sarah reminds us. "Some of it is up to Hashem. At least you can think that if this alienated Jew has had a good experience with you, he won't go around saying, 'All those Orthodox Jews are so - .' Maybe you've opened the door a crack."

Hostile Relatives

We were interested to discover during the course of our interviews that it is not only baalei teshuva who have serious religious disagreements with close relatives. One woman who was raised in an observant home - "but without Torah" - encounters pointed barbs from both her parents and her now unobservant sister as she becomes more "ultra-Orthodox." Another woman from a non-Hassidic family always has to smooth ruffled feathers since she's moved into the Chabad Hassidic world.

It is the baalei teshuva, however, who experience the problem of hostile relatives most painfully. As they move ever farther into a different world, into a different way of evaluating almost everything, both the baalei teshuva and their families can feel an ever-widening gulf opening between them. Parents interpret their child's choice as rejection of them and everything they stand for, which may, in some cases, be the truth. Brothers and sisters can't comprehend this "crazy extremism" which puts the right sets of dishes before visits with the family. In some cases there is no closing the gap, so the baal teshuva and his relatives split permanently. Fortunately, however, this is not usually the case. The baal teshuva wants to remain close with his family. His increased happiness and new sense of peace within himself may even allow him to love them more than before.

As the experience of our resource people suggests, much depends upon the closeness of the family before the baal teshuva's decision, upon the time that has elapsed since, and upon the tolerance of both sides. Ruth, who comes from an observant family, nevertheless feels her parents' annoyance from time to time as she moves "right" along the Jewish religious spectrum. But since she's had a reasonably comfortable relationship with them all her life, she can handle it. When her father once snapped at her that she was "becoming a fanatic," she replied, "Daddy, I'm just doing what your mother did." He came to approve after a time. "Be friendly and warm," she advises, "so they'll know they haven't lost you." Anyhow, you're not supposed to bear the whole burden of keeping close to your family. Let the others do it, too.

Rivka, who started becoming observant about thirteen years ago, comes from a casually Conservative home. Her parents kept kashrut and lit candles, but that was about the extent of their observance. At first they were pleased with her interest in doing more, but as time went by they began to feel threatened. When she started unscrewing the refrigerator bulb before Shabbat, they were convinced she'd gone crazy! However, since she's always had a good relationship with them and with her non-observant older sister, they've been able to get along. Her parents agreed to certain kashrut changes and held more traditional Shabbat meals. They would watch TV in their room, and she would read in hers. Their discussions with her remained generally calm, although some tensions arose between her and her mother.

The change began when her parents moved from New York to Florida. Suddenly her mother "saw" things Rivka had been doing for years. "Why do you have to wear those long sleeves?" she fretted. Rivka realized that her mother was now seeing things through the eyes, not of people who had always known and liked their family, but of new neighbors whose acceptance still had to be won.

Last summer she was to spend a whole month with her parents in Florida, and she felt nervous. The Shabbat days were long. There was no reliable kosher butcher. At last she decided to speak with a Chabad rabbi, and he gave her advice which worked beautifully with her parents. For example, the family used paper plates throughout the visit, and on Shabbat she went to stay with a Chabad family. This approach was helpful, Rivka feels, because it was not "Rivka the fanatic" who was laying all these strictures on them, but a respected neutral authority.

Rivka and her parents continue to have a tacit live-and-let-live arrangement when together. Her parents try not to violate Shabbat in her presence. They watch TV privately in their room, and her father steps out for his smoke. It works because of their good relationship, confidence, and mutual tolerance.

Rachel is not as close to her parents as is Rivka. Still, with determined patience, she manages to keep things fairly smooth. With her father she can discuss things calmly enough, but with her mother she doesn't always succeed. Whenever possible she tries to be pleasant in discussing religious issues, but sometimes her mother "makes stabs," and "unfortunately," she admits, "I sometimes stab back." Now, occasionally, her mother comes before Shabbat, tastes everything, and leaves. At other times, when Rachel, her husband, and her children stay with her parents, they have a tacit understanding. If her parents want to use the phone or watch TV, Rachel takes the kids out for a walk. "We should have the same tolerance for the non-observant family member as we do for the non-observant man in the street," Rachel says. Besides, she claims she sees subtle gains in the family, even with the additional friction. "There's a certain awareness of Jewish matters that wouldn't be there otherwise."

Esther tells the ultimate baal teshuva-parents culture clash story. Once she and her husband were staying with Esther's parents in California during a time when Shabbat was followed immediately by a two-day yom tov. They had completed all the cooking and arranged everything so that no work need be done and no lights lit for the three-day period. Just as they were finishing the Friday night meal, however, Esther's mother remembered the burglar alarm sensor which flicked on whenever anyone moved about the room. The family sat there aghast. What could they do? If they moved away from the table, they would activate the sensor and violate Shabbat. Obviously, they couldn't phone a rabbi to ask his advice; they couldn't even go out to get a non-Jew to turn off the alarm. Her parents yelled that it was absurd. How could they stay there in their chairs for three days? But Esther and her husband insisted on sleeping on the carpet under the table. When they woke up in the morning, they found the alarm turned off.

Today Esther can chuckle about the story. Relations between a baal teshuva and his family, however, are not always such a laughing matter. Some of our resource women reported bitter arguments, frequent "cheating" by parents who had promised to keep the Shabbat "house rules," and even refusals of parents to stay with their children on Shabbat. One woman told us that her mother is extremely upset that her grandchildren will not attend services at their grandparents' temple. Another grandmother is obsessed by the thought that her grandchildren, who are Cohanim, can't attend her funeral. In yet another case, the grandparents were so afraid of being exposed to ridicule because of the mechitza at their grandson's bar mitzva that they celebrated the event without inviting any other relatives.

There is no end of horror stories. But what can one do about the problem? Obviously, it extends far beyond hosting and visiting with one's parents on Shabbat. But Shabbat tends to be the flash point.

The experiences of our resource women show the range of possible solutions. Some family members, including parents, will be able to maintain a tolerant connection, especially if grandchildren strengthen the incentive. They will listen attentively to their children's explanations, share in their Shabbat, and even acknowledge that their new life is beautiful, "though not for US." When their children visit them, they will keep kosher pots and dishes on hand. As Rivka's experience shows, the authority of a respected third party, the rabbi, may also help. Sometimes, if parents aren't willing to abide completely by the Shabbat house rules, their children will be able to tolerate it, as long as the parents act privately and discreetly.

Some parents have come around, but only after years of watching their children's growing happiness. "You have to be persistent," says Malka. "It took us over ten years to convince our parents we wouldn't revert." Many times, however, the parents don't become reconciled to their children's observance at all. Batya's artist mother who rejects any "limitations on freedom" found a single Shabbat in Batya's home "depressing," She never returned for another. In that case, the only solution is to develop a philosophy of loss.

"At first," Batya says, "most baalei teshuva keep trying to 'educate' or 'enlighten' their parents. I did the same thing, but then I could see in their eyes that they were slipping farther and farther away. So I stopped. It's just as well. You can't live in your world and their world at the same time." But it hurts, she admits. "As you progress in Yiddishkeit, you learn about and feel more and more the centrality of the family in Judaism. Baalei teshuva want closeness with their families maybe more than anybody else, especially when they're always seeing big, happy frum families about them. Maybe it just can't be, though, at least not in this world."

"It's very painful, and it never stops," says Devorah. "You're always explaining. I think it's a great test of a baal teshuva to remain respectful toward his parents. It can feel like a spiritual emergency room, always having to decide instantly about things. I can tell you, though, that I've learned to be more assertive over the years. Now I can say, 'No, you can't call a cab while the kids are watching.' "

Although Batya and Devorah have been able to keep some links with their parents and welcome them into their homes, at least on weekdays, others cannot do even that. Every one of our baalei teshuva resource women knew of at least one person who had had to move away from his family entirely. For some, the break made their decision to come on aliyah to Israel that much easier. And they have found some compensation. "We have five sets of foster parents now in Jerusalem," says one baal teshuva, "and a big circle of substitute relatives among each other. But nobody ever quite replaces your real family. I hope we don't have to wait until Mashiach comes for our family to be with us again."

Shy Strangers

The best way to handle shy people, suggests Chana, who considers herself one, is not to focus on them. Don't draw a lot of eyes to them, at least not in the beginning. Until they can forget themselves, shy people suffer under attention.

In our gregarious society we tend to assume that unless somebody is "actively participating," he isn't enjoying himself. A hostess feels duty-bound to bring everyone in, to see that everybody talks and therefore is "part of things." Now it's true that a shy person who can be brought to forget himself and talk comfortably feels much better about himself afterward. But a shy person can also be enjoying herself, even if he doesn't talk much. He can be taking in the atmosphere of the group and listening intently to what everybody is saying. The one thing that will make him unhappy is to feel that he "made a total ass of himself when everybody was looking." So if there are more than, say, two other people around him, it's better to let the shy person judge for himself if and when he wants to dive in. If the general conversation is engrossing, if the singing and smiles are warm, he probably will, sooner or later. Otherwise, don't worry about him. Shy people can often generate their own private sense of pleasure.

Outside the large group setting, there are many things you can do to set a shy guest at ease. If you don't know him well and sense he could be shy, you might suggest he bring a friend along. Ask him or her to help you with something - the more tasks, the better. A shy person dreads having to stand by the wall, not knowing how to begin talking with people. He'll usually be delighted to have an excuse to move about and seem busy.

He can be a real help to you, the hostess, as well. Esther says that when her guests arrive, she is at the peak of the pre-Shabbat rush and truly needs their hands. Guests have swept her floors, bathed her little daughters, chopped her salads, and performed any number of other vital last-minute jobs. She noticed that they almost always join in gladly and feel more at home, especially the shy ones.

Children are a great help with a withdrawn guest. A shy person often blossoms with children. You can send a child over to talk with him or ask the guest to read or play with your pre-schooler. A good opener you might suggest to your guest is for him to ask to see the child's favorite Shabbat toy or book. An older child could approach the guest under the guise of showing him "what we'll do tonight." Or perhaps the child might ask the guest what his Jewish education was like when he was a kid. That could lead to a lively discussion.

The hostess can also try to get the guest involved in a pleasant one-to-one conversation. Maybe she can chat with a woman visitor alone in the kitchen for a bit as she bustles about. As was mentioned before, bustle, casualness, and lack of riveting attention often puts a shy person more at ease. If the hostess talks about absorbing, but not overly personal topics, the guest may well be drawn in. You might discuss issues concerning the kids' Jewish education. If you're a baalat teshuva, you can talk about how learning to make Shabbat was for you. Or you, the hostess, might ask your guest in a friendly, casual way (no inquisition please!) how she feels about her Jewish life now, what she's looking for, etc. A host can engage his male guest in the same sort of conversation.

In general, shy people are most comfortable with warm, gentle peers of their own sex, children, and motherly or fatherly older people. This is not a hard and fast rule, but it's a good base to start from in finding a first conversation partner for a shy guest. Of course, if you know that two people share a common interest, introduce them and mention it. But don't be too eager to rush in with somebody else for the shy guest to meet. Shy people need time to get into gear with someone and, once they do, are quite content to stay where they are. They don't require variety. In fact, it's difficult for them to begin all over with somebody new. One good connection for an evening is quite satisfying enough, and usually more than they're used to.

The actual meal part of the visit is often the most pleasurable time for the shy guest. This is what he's there for, to see, experience, and learn about Shabbat. He'll enjoy the host's teaching, the divrei Torah, the schnapps (especially helpful for a withdrawn guest), the singing - all those things he can share in without being the focus of attention. Encourage questions from him and everyone else, but when you answer his questions, don't keep your eyes fixed on his. Glance briefly at him as well as at everyone else as you answer.

If the shy guest is staying with you all Shabbat, you can probably expect one of two things to happen. He may emerge from his cocoon and want to talk with you about all sorts of issues connected with Shabbat and Yiddishkeit. Shy people are usually miserable making small talk, but become happily engrossed in deeper matters in which they can lose themselves. They may prefer to let you do most of the talking while they listen, but it could still be a real give-and-take. The other thing that may happen is a sudden return of shyness and a desire to withdraw. Your customary Shabbat rest will be a welcome time for the shy guest to take a break from all the unaccustomed socializing, relax in privacy, and recoup his energy for more life with people.

You will probably find the shy guest easy to entertain. He'll be happy with a good book and without your exclusive attention. Later on you may hear that his Shabbat experience with you has affected him deeply.

Uninformed Guests

The nervousness many religiously illiterate guests feel upon being invited to a "really Orthodox" home is a common problem for the observant host who wants to extend genuine Shabbat hospitality. Ironically, the nervousness may be greater if the guest has some knowledge of Jewish rituals than if he is almost totally ignorant. The host who senses this may, as a result, feel uncomfortable and self-conscious.

In such a case, both host and guest should try to remember why they are together. The host is extending his invitation out of love of Shabbat and the desire to share it with someone he sincerely wants to include. The guest is there, despite all his nervousness, because he at least feels some curiosity about what he has heard is a beautiful experience. He may feel much more - a sense of lacking something basic in his life, a longing for something he can only faintly imagine. If he has had some Jewish experience, he may now want to learn how to go deeper and farther. Both the host and the guest have a desire to overcome the obstacles and make Shabbat together.

Fortunately, there are several practical steps the host can take to ease the situation. If possible, the host can explain to the guest beforehand a few of the basic ground rules. If this is done in a friendly, non-authoritarian manner, the guest will probably be relieved to have an idea of what will be expected of him. You might want to tell your guests in advance about showering before coming, proper dress, the necessity of arriving before candlelighting time and walking home at the end of the visit, and of not carrying anything after candlelighting time. When the guest has arrived, you can casually tell him about not switching lights on or off, where to put the meat and milk dishes, and about hand washing. Try to keep the list to the basic minimum unless the guest asks about something else. Don't throw the entire Shulchan Aruch at him on his first Shabbat experience. If the first one is positive, he will presumably want to learn more. If it is negative, he may have no desire to come near Shabbat again. Tone is also very important. A few remarks in a warm, casual voice go farther than a solemn lecture. Remember, the guest may already be concerned about offending in these matters and will take your words to heart.

When your company has arrived, try to be natural. Be yourself. Guests need friendliness and warmth. Nobody needs formality and elaborate meals, which, all too often, make for tension on both sides. You may feel that you're an ambassador for Yiddishkeit, but you don't have to entertain like one. If you don't normally use an eight-piece place setting and a solid silver soup tureen, there is no need to try to impress.

There are several good ways of countering stiffness. You could let the guest help in the preparations before, during, and after the meal (with a few short, gentle directions to avoid transgressing mitzvot). You could be your usual distracted self and let the guest read to or play with the little kids. Batya sometimes mentions to her guests that she was terribly nervous the first time she was at a Shabbat table. Just being yourself and doing all the things you usually do on Shabbat will make the guest feel at home, like part of the family. If rousing singing isn't your Shabbat style, it won't do to pretend that it is for the sake of somebody's ideal.

With uninformed guests, it is also very important to be a good teacher. Let visitors know that you would be pleased to answer any questions they have. Then keep the climate conducive. Don't act shocked, appalled, or tight-lipped. Even if you can't believe the ignorance of your Jewish guests, don't respond with a gaping mouth and "you mean you've never heard of...?" It is certainly not their fault that they've "never heard of" and, in any case, now they are trying to hear of. In a world in which a Los Angeles Chabad rabbi was asked if sniffing cocaine, which contains milk powder, is permissible after a meat meal, anything is possible....

What's more, neglecting to take the initiative in explaining what's going on can have some bizarre consequences. Nechoma once noticed that her young student Shabbat guest was drinking glass after glass of water, so that she was continually refilling the pitcher. Puzzled, she asked if the meat was too salty for him. "No," he replied, "but how do you religious Jews stand it, eating bread with salt before each bite of your dinner?" Nechoma at once reassured him that "religious Jews" have the same water balance as anyone else; they simply eat bread with salt once, after the blessing on bread which precedes the meal.

In many cases it is good that the guest spoke up and asked his questions, otherwise, he or she might come away with misconceptions about important mitzvot. A young woman who stayed with Nechoma's family all day one Shabbat sometimes saw Nechoma wearing a scarf and sometimes a wig. Apparently believing that the wig was Nechoma's own hair, the guest asked Nechoma why she kept covering and uncovering it. Taken aback, Nechoma told her that Torah-observant women who cover their hair as a sign of modesty do so all the time.

As much as one wants to avert misconceptions, however, it's hard always to nip them in the bud. All one can do is to explain briefly as much as is comfortable and hope that the guest will see it as his responsibility to ask and to learn more about the mitzvot later.

Inadvertent transgressions should be handled tactfully. Remember, "One who publicly humiliates his fellow man...has no share in the world to come."[69] A baal teshuva, now a professor, recalls how Rabbi Krinsky of Chabad in Brooklyn once invited him to spend a yom tov in the rabbi's home. Unaware that he was violating several central mitzvot, the guest arrived with his suitcase in a taxi after sundown. Without saying a word about the transgressions, the rabbi greeted him warmly and carried his guest's bags upstairs. Only much later did the young man realize the greatness of what the rabbi had done.

When one invites uninformed guests for Shabbat, one should be prepared for inadvertent violations of mitzvot and be prepared to accept that calmly. Remember that your intention in performing the mitzva of hospitality far outweighs any unintentional mistakes and that your grace at such moments may have far-reaching consequences.

Fortunately, there are things one can do to minimize mistakes. You can, of course, tape the light switches and briefly explain why. You can say to your guests, who will probably be carrying muktzeh items, "would you mind putting your purse (or wallet) up here?" Then explain - and don't check on them. You can tell them where to put the milchik and fleishik dishes.

If you see a woman guest slip into the bathroom Shabbat morning with her make-up kit, you needn't correct her and give her a lecture about how applying make-up on Shabbat is considered dyeing. Try not to overwhelm your guest. Her make-up will not affect anything essential in the kedusha of your home. In general, nagging, forcing a mitzva on your guests, or following up on them should be avoided. Nothing is more certain to leave a bad taste and turn them off to Torah observance.

One guiding principle from the Sages helps to keep us realistic on this point. "Better they should be sinning unintentionally than intentionally."[70] That is, if you know that a person is going to be doing something anyway, it is better to keep it unintentional. Stick to helping the guest perform "doable" mitzvot for him or her, and you will have performed a real service.

But what about the effect on your children if they see guests transgressing fundamental mitzvot? Some people are so concerned about this possibility that they will only invite people who they know are 100% "positive" models. This, we believe, is a mistake. First of all, few children are so completely naive and isolated from the facts of life that they would be surprised by the behavior of uninformed Jews. At any rate, the parents can and should explain to them in advance about "our guests who are coming to learn about Shabbat with us, because they never had a chance to learn about it when they were your age."

This, then, becomes a perfect opportunity to involve the children and give them a feeling of doing a mitzva. It can be their responsibility to help the guests with hand washing, blessings, and the like. Many people find it more face-saving to be guided by children than by adults in these things. Children's matter-of-fact, gentle seriousness can be totally disarming to them.

Finally, when children see that such guests are genuinely welcome and wanted in their home, and that they contribute greatly to Shabbat joy, it becomes the most effective lesson of all in hachnasat orchim and ahavat yisrael.

Conclusion: Who Shall We Invite?

Among our resource women, there were some who invite only those guests they think their families will enjoy. "I don't invite good friends only," says Rachel, for example, "but I don't take just anyone from the bus station, either. I feel the need to be a bit selective." Others, though, open their homes on Shabbat unconditionally. "I rarely invite guests anymore," says Sarah. "They come to me now." And so they do, every week, complete strangers, approached perhaps at the Western Wall or the bus station, or referred by Jewish hospitality groups.

Women like Sarah, who remain a marvel no matter how many of them one interviews, are indeed mistresses of hachnasat orchim. They brush off praise with a shrug, however. "It's our way of life." "We're used to it, and we love it." "What's Shabbat without guests?" "They give us at least as much as we give them."

Nechoma concludes, "No guest is a 'problem.' He's your fellow Jew. And even closer than that. We are all one - one body, one mind, one heart. He is me. How can I view him as a problem? He is always welcome."

Notes:

  1. (Back to text) "Difficult People," How to Talk with Practically Anybody about Practically Anything (N.Y.: Dell Publishing Co., 1979), p. 110.
  2. (Back to text) Ibid., pp. 113-114.
  3. (Back to text) Pirke Avot, III:11.
  4. (Back to text) Talmud, Tractate Shabbat 145.
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