HACHNASAT ORCHIM: Welcoming the Stranger as a Jewish Virtue

The Torah portion, Vayera (GENESIS 18:1-22:24), is one of those wonderful sections that is simply chock full of powerful stories and lessons.  It tells of how Abraham and Sarah received the news that in their old age, Sarah would finally bear a child.  It tells of how, when God revealed to Abraham the Divine plan to destroy the sinful cities of Sodom and Gomorrah, Abraham actually argued with God on their behalf.  It then goes on to tell of how those cities were destroyed because they did not merit Abraham’s defense of them.  It tells of what happened to Lot and his daughters after their escape from Sodom.  It tells of the birth of Isaac.  It tells of how Sarah, fearing for Isaac’s safety, forced Abraham to send away his son Ishmael and Ishmael’s mother, the handmaid, Hagar.  It then goes on to tell of how Hagar and Ishmael almost died of thirst in the wilderness but instead, God saved them and promised to make Ishmael a great nation.  It tells that most famous account – the one we read on Rosh Hashanah morning – in which God tested Abraham by asking him to offer up his son Isaac as a sacrifice.  Yes, this particular Torah portion offers us much to consider, study, and discuss.  It is a treasure trove of important lessons.

Tonight I wish to focus our attention on just one of the stories – one of the lessons – from our Torah portion.  It is one I have yet to mention.  It is the account of how Abraham and Sarah were visited by three angels, and how they received them.  According to the Torah text, Abraham was sitting at the door of his tent in the heat of the day when he noticed three strangers approaching.  They were angels, but he did not know that at the time.  As soon as he saw them, he jumped up and ran to greet them, offering them the hospitality of his home.  Though he had no idea of who they were, still he bowed down before them and treated them as nobility, calling them “My lords.”  He offered them a little food and then provided them with a feast of cakes and beef and curds and milk.

The rabbis of the Talmud and the Midrash saw this story as being a very important one when it comes to Jewish life.  They spoke about it extensively, and from it they derived one of Judaism’s most time honored and practiced virtues; the virtue of Hachnasat Orchim – the virtue of welcoming the stranger; of offering hospitality.

The medieval commentator, Rashi, asked, “Why was Abraham sitting at the door of his tent?”  His answer was that he did so in order to see if any strangers were approaching so that he could welcome them as soon as possible.  The Midrash goes further in saying that Abraham would pitch is tent at a crossroads and then raise up its flaps on all sides so that he could see if any travelers were approaching from any direction.  Such was the extent of Abraham’s desire to offer hospitality.

There is another midrash which is very telling and very powerful.  It centers on the question of who was deserving of Abraham’s hospitality.  According to this midrash, one of the many travelers who Abraham welcomed into his tent was an old man.  This old man was happy to accept all that Abraham offered.  After he had bathed, and rested, and had eaten a luscious meal, he opened his pack, took out his collection of idols, and started to pray to them.  Witnessing this, Abraham was quite distressed.  “What do you think you are doing?” he shouted at the old man.  The old man simply replied, “I am offering my thanks to my gods for such good fortune.”  “But,” Abraham stuttered and stammered in rage, “your gods did not provide this food and drink and shelter and respite for you.  My God provided it and it is to my God – the One God – that you should be offering your prayers of gratitude.”  “You are wrong,” replied the old man.  “While I was traveling down the road, I prayed to my gods to lead me to a place were I could find food and drink and shelter and rest, and they led me here.  They answered my prayers and it is to them that I should be grateful.”  Well Abraham would have none of this, and in his outrage, he kicked the old man out of his tent and sent him on his way.  Shortly afterwards, God called to Abraham and asked, “Where is the old man?”  Abraham then shared with God what had happened as well as his anger and frustration at how, after receiving all that bounty, the old man still rejected God in favor of his idols.  To this, God rebuked Abraham saying, “For all these years, I have taken care of that old man.  Now you have the audacity to toss him out?  If his idol worship has not bothered me, why should it bother you?”  Hearing this, Abraham was greatly ashamed, and in his shame, he rushed down the road in search of the old man.  When he found him, he apologized, sought his forgiveness, and he invited him to return to his tent and to his hospitality.

Why were the rabbis so fixated on this Torah story?  Why were they so fixated on this matter of hospitality; of welcoming the stranger?  Perhaps it was because of another statement that appears and reappears throughout the Torah, that statement being, “for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.”

The Torah is constantly concerned about the well being of the stranger, and therefore so were the rabbis.  That concern is based upon the fact that of all people, we as Jews should know what it feels like, and what it means, to be a stranger.  We know what it is like to be on the outside, looking in.  We know what it is like to sometimes feel excluded or ignored or  evenworse, and we do not like it.

If we do not like being the stranger – if we do not like being treated that way; as somehow less than others – then from our unpleasant experiences we should learn to do better and to be better when we find the tables reversed; when we are the hosts and others are the strangers.  If we do not like to be made to feel unwelcome, then it is incumbent upon us to go out of our way to welcome others.  And, as the midrash about the old man instructs, it should not matter whether or not we agree with those others.  It should not matter whether or not they are like us or dramatically different from us.  For in the end, as different as we may be, they, like us, are still God’s children and should be treated accordingly.

Our rabbis were truly wise because while they understood that this issue of how we treat strangers most certainly has societal, national, and international dimensions – it impacts such issues as how do we as Americans treat immigrants, both of the legal and illegal variety, and how do Israelis in the Jewish state treat the non-Jews residing in their midst – if we are ever to effectively address such issues properly, we must start our efforts, not so much on the big scale but rather on the small scale, the intimate scale, the personal scale.  The rabbis clearly understood that if we ever want our society to be welcoming to the strangers in its midst, then we have start by building homes that are welcoming to strangers.  That if we start by promoting this virtue of Hachnasat Orchim – of welcoming the stranger – on a family level then surely it eventually will take hold on a societal level.

The rabbis understood that we need to turn to Abraham as a model of personal behavior.  Abraham lived a world that was not very welcoming.  Twice – once in this week’s Torah portion – Abraham and Sarah found themselves in foreign lands where they were so unwelcome that if they did not conceal the fact that they were married, Abraham most likely would have been murdered by lecherous rulers.  Yet, even so, Abraham decided that his world was going to be different.  His home would be a place in which strangers would feel welcomed rather than afraid.  Therefore, as Abraham’s home was welcoming to strangers, so should every Jewish home be welcoming to strangers.  There should always be at least one seat open for guests at our Shabbat dinner table.  Guests should always welcomed to the Passover Seder, even as we begin that service by stating, “Let all who are hungry come and eat!”  Nor should we consider these seats to be reserved for people we know.  Rather, when it comes to this, it is the stranger who should enjoy priority seating.

As we welcome strangers into our homes, so should we, as Jews, welcome strangers into our synagogues.  When we see someone we do not know, we should feel it to be our obligation to approach that person, introduce ourselves and help them to feel at home among us.  I am sure that there are among us tonight those who have found themselves in other communities on Shabbat or on holidays.  There are those who, while in those communities, have gone to local synagogues.  In some of those synagogues, we felt left out in the cold.  We were alone, and no one even acknowledged our presence.  It was as if we were not there.  And after the service, we left the building feeling worse than empty; feeling somehow wounded.  Then there are those who, finding themselves in a similar situation, entered synagogues in which people approached them, welcomed them, wanted to get to know them, and tried to make them feel at home.  And that felt great!  The point being that Hachnasat Orchim may start in our homes but should naturally flow into our synagogues.

But in the end, Hachnasat Orchim need not exclusively be a Jewish value, practiced solely in Jewish venues.  As we incorporate this virtue into our lives, ideally it should become a part of our daily lives, no matter where we are and no matter who we are with.  And then, hopefully, it will grow in our hearts to the point where we come to understand that our communities, our states, our nation, and even our world are but extensions of our homes, and as such should be havens in which strangers as well as natives should feel welcomed and safe.

Explore posts in the same categories: Antisemitism, God, Hachnasat Orchim, Hospitality, Immigration to America, Intolerance, Jewish, Passover, Shabbat, Slavery in Egypt, Synagogue Life, Uncategorized, Values, Welcoming Guests, Xenophobia

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8 Comments on “HACHNASAT ORCHIM: Welcoming the Stranger as a Jewish Virtue”

  1. James Says:

    Excellent teaching, thanks Rabbi Karp!!! 🙂

  2. Jeff Says:

    A great post, Rabbi, thanks. I know this isn’t the point of your writing above, and it’s not my intent to take this discussion in a different direction, but there is something from the story that caught my attention, and I would appreciate your thoughts on it.

    At the end of the 2nd paragraph, we learn that “He (Abraham) offered them a little food and then provided them with a feast of cakes and beef and curds and milk”.

    It seems strange that Abraham would be serving a non-kosher meal (beef and milk). Your thoughts?

    • ravkarp Says:

      Thanks, Jeff! I am glad that you liked the post.

      As for your question, actually, it brings back a fond memory. It was back in the days when I was serving Congregation B’nai Jeshurun in Lincoln, Nebraska (1977-1982). It was during the oneg on a Shabbat in which that story was part of the weekly Torah portion. One of my congregants came up to me at the oneg table and asked why it was that in the Torah Abraham was serving his guests milk and meat together! In religious school today, that would have been submitted as one of the “Stump the Rabbi” questions.

      There are a few answers which address the issue.

      The rabbis of the Talmud believed in the principle of “Ein mukdam v’ein ma’achar baTorah – There is no early or late in the Torah.” By that they mean that Torah time is not linear, as we experience time. Therefore, even though Abraham – on a linear time line – preceded the establishment of any rules of Kashrut, still he was totally familiar with Kashrut and completely observant of it. For them, your question poses a serious problem. Their answer, however, is not as serious. They decided that what Abraham did was perfectly permissible because he allowed the required time to elapse between the courses (According to the laws of Kashrut, one must wait 3 hours after eating dairy before eating meat, and 7 hours after eating meat before eating dairy).

      Another answer, which is far more practical, is that, as I stated earlier, Abraham pre-dated the establishment of any of the laws of Kashrut. Therefore, he would not be expected to observe them. The only divine injunctions he would have been expected to observe were those which appear in the Torah prior to this point in the narrative. This is especially so when it comes to the separation of meat and dairy. For that separation NEVER appears in the Torah. It is a later rabbinic ordinance, based upon a statement in the Torah that one must not “boil a kid in its mother’s milk.” Indeed, today there are those who claim that they observe biblical Kashrut and not rabbinic Kashrut. By that they mean that they do not eat food expressly forbidden in the Torah, and they only eat kosher slaughtered meat. However, they do not observe any separation of meat from dairy. Actually, the first time I ever heard of such an interpretation of Kashrut was when my rabbinic class was invited for dinner to the home of one of our professors – Dr. Eugene B. Borowitz, one of the preeminent liberal Jewish theologians of the second half of the 20th century. It was there that he explained to us that in his home only biblical Kashrut was observed.

      I hope that this has helped to answer your question.

      Thanks for reading my blog, for sharing your positive response to it, and for seeking answers to questions which it brought to your mind.


      Rabbi Henry Jay Karp

  3. […] his blog, Rabbi Henry Jay Karp of Davenport, Iowa, notes a prominent instance of this essential Jewish virtue. He cites the Torah portion Vayera (Genesis […]

  4. Rabbi, thank you for your post , it was very encouraging. I was searching with google on the concept of because yesterday aJew, one Nitay Guggenheim , from Israel spoke to me about this at our house .We have a Hostel where we invite strangers in, and this Israeli told us about Can you tell me please the meaning of this , in particular the meaning of the word Mellon and the way it relates to the word ?

    • Hi Mr. Wallace,
      Thank you for reading and commenting on my post Hachnasat Orchim: Welcoming the Stranger as a Jewish Value”. I am sorry, but I do not understand your question. It seems as if certain words or phrases are missing from it. Could you please clarify what it is you are asking about?

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