The Origins of Jewish Hospitality

Rabbi Dov Gartenberg

Sunday, December 4, 2016

The word hospitality in modern parlance is commonly understood as an industry. To study hospitality at a school today is to learn about hotel management and business practices to follow to be successful in this industry. The term has been “capitalized”, referring to a way of making money by providing travelers and tourists shelter, meal service, and the amenities.

Yet hospitality is a practice and concept that has an older, deeper meaning.   The ancient Jewish practices of hospitality certainly revolved around welcoming strangers into the home and offering them food, shelter, and protection. But Jewish hospitality practices have different dimensions. My reflection about Jewish hospitality traditions center on two Hebrew terms associated with this ancient practice.

The first term is the classic rabbinic term for hospitality: הכנסת אורחים hachnasat orchim, literally “bringing in guests”. Joseph Telushkin in A Code of Jewish Ethics, volume 2 correctly notes that the Hebrew term implies that we should actively recruit (bring in) guests and seek opportunities to invite people to our home. (p.44).   The origins of the rabbinic term flow from the story of Abraham when he sees three men passing near his tent on a scorching day not long after he had circumcised himself. (Genesis 18). The Torah tells us that Abraham ran from the entrance of his tent to greet them. He proceeds to invite them in, shelter them from the heat, bathe their feet, feed them, and even walks alongside as when they leave. The Jewish hospitality traditions arise from these core texts. (I’ll explore these texts in a future blog entry.)

A second term for hospitality arises from rabbinic literature is פנים חדשות panim hadashot-new faces. The origin of the term derives from an ancient Jewish wedding practice not mentioned in the Jewish Bible. New faces-first time guests-were to be invited to the seven days of smaller wedding parties following the wedding at which the seven wedding blessings were chanted in honor of a new bride and groom.

This practice continues to this day in very traditional Jewish communities. I witnessed the practice when I attended a party for my nephew in the Har Nof neighborhood of Jerusalem during the week following his wedding. I accompanied his friend down the elevator to the street where he called out “panim hadashot”.   A few minutes later we brought back three men, perfect strangers to the folks gathered around in my nephew’s apartment (They were also needed to make the minyan of ten men required to chant the seven blessings.). These folks knew the script and immediately joined the party (separated between men and women) to sing the seven blessings in honor of the bride and groom.

The search for panim hadashot taught me about another element about Jewish hospitality practice. Jewish hospitality is about sharing joy and abundance with others beyond our immediate circle. The deeper insight of the tradition is that our joyful life experiences are uncommon and the awareness of the earth’s abundance is rare. In those uncommon moments, we practice hospitality with strangers to share our joy and abundance.

My experience of the practice of panim hadashot led me to wonder if it was possible to broaden its application and make it egalitarian.   Could it be possible to apply this practice of seeking new faces to apply to when we gather at our Sabbath tables. Years later when I founded Panim Hadashot in Seattle I followed through on this original insight.

Jewish hospitality as I understand it then combines both hachnasat orchim-the active bringing in of guests and panim hadashot-the act sharing of our joy and abundance with strangers, new faces.

Practicing hospitality is a profound commitment. It involves openness, generosity, readiness for encounter. It involves a willingness to leave our comfort zones in encountering new, unfamiliar persons in our intimate, private space.