It’s a bright November day, and the radio keeps me company as I drive around doing errands. I listen to the excited conversations about preparing for the holiday: how to bake the turkey, when to take it out of the oven, what side dishes to make, when to make them, how many people are coming, and more. Recipes and menus are discussed; questions are asked and answered. Worried cooks are reassured that their turkey will be just perfect. And all this is for just one meal, once a year!
How different it is for religious Jewish families, who prepare a Thanksgiving-like feast every week! Two-, three-, and four-course meals are set out for our families. And then there are the guests. The concept of inviting acquaintances and even strangers for a Shabbos meal is unique to our community. It is not uncommon to meet a stranger at a party, a shiur, or the supermarket and invite them to your house for a Shabbos meal and/or to sleep over.
Since welcoming guests is so much part of our lives, I thought it might be interesting to explore what makes a good guest or a good host and, conversely, what makes a bad guest or a bad host. Obviously, the opinions presented here are very subjective; each family and each guest has a different and unique view on the subject. I also issue this disclaimer: Nothing in this article applies to any of the guests who come to our house! I love to have all of you – and besides, I did not interview myself!
Whenever we want to know something these days, we simply “google it.” Did you know that you can google Shabbos, too? The website Shabbat.com has facilitated 511,296 Shabbos meals in 4,390 cities and 121 countries, impressive statistics that grace the site’s home page. People can sign up as hosts or as guests and can find each other all over the world.
Mr. Naftoli Edinger, a resident of Baltimore, has hosted many Shabbos guests through Shabbat.com. He often goes on the website early in the week and invites people interested in Shabbos hospitality. Many times they respond and come for Shabbos meals or to sleep over. “Once we had a young lady interested in converting to Judaism,” he says. “We got along so well that she ended up staying at our house the entire summer. Mrs. Edinger helped with geirus; we keep up with her and are very proud of her.”
Malka, another Baltimorean, has found hosts when she visits relatives in California. “I never have to worry about Shabbos in a strange city,” she says, “because I can always find families to host me.”
Shabbos happens often – at least once a week! – so many hostesses and guests start thinking about the following Shabbos as soon as the last one is over. But what if you put it off? Is it insulting to invite a guest on Thursday or Friday?
“I make my plans early in the week,” says Penina, a frequent guest. “When someone calls and invites me over late in the week, I feel it is a little condescending. It is as if the host assumes that I don’t have other friends and am just waiting for them to invite me.” Other guests are more relaxed and don’t worry when the invitation comes. “I don’t stand on ceremony,” says Dovid. “Whenever I get an invitation, I am happy. If I can go that week, fine, if not, I’ll ask for a rain check.”
“I love it when guests feel so comfortable at my house that they invite themselves,” says Chana. “I often think of inviting someone and just never get around to picking up the phone, or I am not sure if the guest will appreciate the invitation. When a guest calls me and asks if she can come for a certain Shabbos meal, it makes me feel good. Then I know that she really wants to come, and I also feel validated that we have been good hosts on previous occasions.”
Some hostesses always have room for one more and encourage their husbands to bring guests home from shul. A man who was in Baltimore to raise money for tzedaka said, “I always can count on getting invitations in shul on Friday night, even if I don’t plan in advance.” Others do not like surprise guests. As my friend Tsippy said, “I always make the right amount of food for my family and my guests. If someone extra comes, I am afraid I will not have enough.”
Words from Guests
Tova, a single mother who frequents many homes for Shabbos meals, had a lot to say about this subject. She has obviously given it a lot of thought and tries to be the best guest she can. “I come prepared with topics of conversation that will be of interest to the people at the table,” she says. “I feel responsible not to just sit there like a bump on a log but, rather, to contribute to the Shabbos seudah.” I also try to bring something special to eat or drink that is universally enjoyed, like delicious fruit, a bottle of sparkling grape juice, or a tasty dessert.”
On the other hand, Tova also has lots of opinions about the families who host her. “I feel uncomfortable in a home where there is friction between the husband and the wife,” she says. “If there is no shalom in the house, I don’t want to be there. When the conversation at the table is all about politics or other un-Shabbosdik topics, I also feel out of place.
“It is the hosts’ obligation to make the guest feel included,” Tova continues. “I love to help set the table, clear the table, etc. Also, the conversation at the table should include everyone. If the host or hostess focuses exclusively on one guest or on their own visiting children, the other guests will feel left out. If some people at the table only speak a certain language, like Yiddish, and don’t understand English, that is an additional challenge. Perhaps, someone who knows both languages can translate.
“The host should make sure that there is enough food in the serving dishes,” says Tova, “so that the guest does not feel that if he takes more there will be none left for the rest of the family. If the family will be having an unconventional meal or many other guests, I like to know in advance. The main thing is to make the guest feel that you are genuinely happy to have them there and that they are not there just to be part of the crowd.”
Tova’s teenage daughter, Peri, who often accompanies her mother, adds, “I appreciate it when the host treats me like an adult, includes me in the conversation, and values my opinions. Of course, if I am not in the mood to talk, I am happy to be politely ignored!” Peri also feels uncomfortable if a daughter in the family (who is her peer) and her parents are arguing. “Try to have your arguments in private,” she suggests.
Words from Hosts
As with most topics that relate to individuals, people have many different opinions, and what bothers one person may be perfectly fine with another one. Rivki and Fayge, the two hostesses I interviewed disagreed on most of the topics we discussed.
Rivki explains, “If you have an allergy to certain foods or don’t want to eat some foods for some other reason, please let me know in advance. A host’s greatest pleasure is to feed her guests, and it is very frustrating to prepare a delicious meal and then have the guest not be able to eat it. Once I prepared a big milchig meal especially because I thought my guest was a vegetarian. I was really upset when she arrived and told me she was not a vegetarian anymore.”
But Fayge, the wife of a rabbi, also a frequent hostess, disagrees, “I am not really interested in changing my whole menu to suit my guests. I make a variety of foods, and I am sure they will find something to eat. If someone is allergic to mushrooms and tells me in advance, I will just not cook mushrooms that week, but in general, I assume that my guests came for the camaraderie and conversation and not only for the food!”
Rivki continues, “If a meal is being served family style, first take a piece and make sure you like it before taking two or three pieces and then not eating them. I also don’t like it when guests bring me a gift of food without telling me in advance.”
Fayge disagrees again, “Get a life,” she says, “I appreciate whatever my guests bring, and if I do not want to serve it for that meal, I just save it for another time.”
Rivki, a big fan of a Shabbos afternoon nap, doesn’t like guests who overstay their welcome. “There is something about the cholent on Shabbos that makes me very tired after lunch. After benching, I would like the guests to realize that it is time to go home. If they don’t take the hint, I sometimes excuse myself and go to take a nap.
Fayge, on the other hand, doesn’t like it when her guests eat and run. “I prefer that they stay for a little while after the meal so that I can enjoy their company,” she says.
What happens if you want to have guests but your family is not perfect? Maybe your Shabbos table is not always peaceful and happy. Perhaps your children are sometimes rude, or they fight with each other and eat with their fingers. You would think that a family like that should not invite company, especially if their goal is to show the beauty of Shabbos to a secular family.
I heard a story about just such a situation. Mrs. Green had a very tired husband and many children who were not always on their best behavior. A friend urged her to host a certain irreligious family for a Shabbos meal. Reluctantly, Mrs. Green agreed. The meal went as Mrs. Green thought it would, and she was very sorry she had invited the guests. “If anything, they probably decided never to keep Shabbos again after seeing our dysfunctional family,” she thought. A few years later she met this guest at the supermarket, now obviously fully observant. Seeing Mrs. Green, her face lit up and she came to say hello. “It was because of our Shabbos meal at your house that we finally committed to becoming observant,” the guest said. “When we left your house, I said to my husband. “I see that Orthodox families are normal; neither they nor their children are perfect, just like us. Maybe we can also commit to keeping Shabbos.”
Extraordinary Hachnasas Orchim
Some unusual families take the mitzva of inviting guests to new levels. One such special woman was Henny Machlis, a”h, who recently passed away. Sara Yocheved Rigler describes Mrs. Machlis in an article on Aish.com. In answer to the question what was special about Mrs. Machlis, she writes, “Jerusalemites would say it was her cooking for and serving up to 300 guests every Shabbos in her cramped Jerusalem apartment. The guests – almost 150 for the Shabbat night meal and over 100 for the Shabbat day meal – ranged from curious tourists and university students to lonely widows and singles to drunks and mentally ill people who considered the Machlis family’s love and warmth more delectable than even their ample food. Henny cooked 51 weeks a year (except only for the week of Pesach) from her tiny kitchen. Starting as newlyweds, 35 years ago, the Machlises’ open Shabbos table expanded gradually over the years until the overflow of guests had to be seated in the courtyard and outside the front door.”
Later on in the article Mrs. Rigler continues, “For the Machlises, the tremendous scale of their success cost them over $2,500 every Shabbat, a financial load that defied Rabbi Machlis’s modest salary as a teacher, supplemented by donations from well-wishers. But unlike most of us, their adamantine faith in G-d and love for the Jewish people kept them from compromising on their ideal. They mortgaged their apartment to the hilt, took out personal and bank loans – and kept on going.”
On a smaller scale, some hosts go way out of their way to please their guests. I read an article recently, where a guest describes her remarkable host. She was visiting Puerto Rico, in a community where there were very few Jews and was invited to the Cohens, a frum family in a remote area of the island. “When it came time for the seuda,” she writes, “Mr. Cohen asked me if I was Lubavitch…. He seemed disappointed [that I was not], which confused me because I knew he was also not Lubavitch….Finally, with my curiosity piqued, I asked him why he was so interested….Thinking I was Lubavitch, Mr. Cohen had purchased two chickens in Brooklyn with a Chabad hashagacha, packed them in his suitcase and carried them from New York to the mountains of Maricao so I could eat a piece of chicken with my hashgacha on Shabbos. It was without a doubt one of the most incredible acts of hachnasas orchim I have ever experienced.” (Ami Living/December 2).
Children of One Father
I hope that you, my readers, have found this article informative and inspiring – encouraging you to connect with other Jews in breaking bread together on Shabbos. Such meals enhance the Shabbos for both host and guest, and trigger feelings of Jewish unity. Aren’t we, after all, one family, children of one Father?
The mitzva of hachanas orchim is not always easy, however. It is actually complex, simply because it involves human relations. Some hosts may sound a little opinionated – Rivki, for instance, who had so many expectations of her guests. And I suppose Tova, the guest, also has a bit too much advice for her hosts, as well. But please remember that we are all on the “road” to perfection, though we may not have attained it yet. Remember, too, that each host and each guest is different and has different needs. The idea is to be thoughtful and kind, and do what you can to make the other side comfortable in this journey we take together.