Thursday, October 25, 2007

Hakhnassat Orchim: The Eternal Model of Abraham

Hakhnassat Orchim: The Eternal Model of Abraham

by Rabbi Daniel Z. Feldman, author of The Right and the Good: Halakhah and Human Relations. This essay will be included in the forthcoming second volume of The Right and the Good.


Hospitality, or hakhnasat orchim, occupies a unique position of honor even within the distinguished plane of chesed. The Talmud teaches that its importance is such that it outweighs even receiving the Divine presence.[1] This is derived from the behavior of Abraham, who received a Divine visitation during his recuperation from his circumcision. Nonetheless, he interrupted that experience to greet the three mysterious guests, apparently in need of hospitality, who appeared afterward. This interpretation of events is based on a specific reading of the Biblical text, one that is itself debated, and, if understood in this manner deepens the astonishing nature of Abraham’s behavior.

Prior to welcoming his guests, Abraham says, “Please, my adon, do not pass from before your servant.” The Talmud[2] records a debate as to the proper understanding of this verse. According to one interpretation, the phrase “my adon”, my master, is a respectful eference to one of his potential guests. The verse thus relates his extending of hospitality to the travelers who were passing by. According to the second possibility, though, “my Adon” is meant to be read as G-d’s Name. If so, Abraham was essentially asking G-d to wait, and to not remove His presence, while he interrupted so that he could attend to guests.[3] The notion that Abraham not only ended a session with G-d, but asked that He wait in the meantime, makes the decision all the more remarkable.

R. Yonatan Eibshutz[4] emphasizes that Abraham had to chase after the guests. Consequently, he not only left the Divine presence, but turned his back on it, a more impressive act of prioritization[5] R. Yosef Tzvi Dushinsky[6] notes that in doing so, he proved himself a man of genuine chesed, not only unencumbered by ulterior motives, but also uninterested in even a spiritual reward, as he abandons a Divine audience to focus instead on the needs of his guests.

While Abraham’s descendants have the benefit of his behavior to learn from, it is unclear how Abraham himself knew such a bold move was appropriate. This difficulty was posed by the author of the Responsa Noda B’Yehudah, R. Yechezkel Landau, to R. Ya’akov Shimon of Shpitokova[7], who responded that this lesson was derived from G-d Himself. As Rashi relates,[8] G-d initially wanted to protect Abraham from being burdened with guests, and thus made the day unusually hot so that travelers would not be outside. However, this seems unnecessary. If G-d was visiting Abraham, this fact itself would have stopped him from interrupting the meeting to attend to guests. Apparently, that premise is incorrect, and extending hospitality is a greater priority than receiving the Divine presence.[9]

Similarly, R. Dushinsky suggests that Abraham, in his characteristic religious sensitivity, understood that God had sent the visitors just at that moment, to convey that attending to them should take priority. Others credit this sensitivity even further, asserting that Abraham’s instincts, fully refined in spirituality, correctly guided him to this conclusion.[10] R. Yechiel Michel Charlop[11] observes that hospitality, like other acts of chesed mentioned in the Torah, was also modeled by God Himself. This happened in the garden of Eden, where we are told “And the Lord God took the man, and put him into the garden of Eden to dress it and to keep it” (Bereishit 2:15). The word for “put him” (va-yanicheihu) can also be read “He allowed him to rest”, indicating that God provided hospitality for Adam in the garden. Similarly, R. Nachum Matlin[12] suggests that Abraham derived this message from the fact of God modeling chesed as a whole, which is the underlying arena of imitatio Dei. Thus, Abraham understood that hosting guests, which benefits others, was a higher priority than experiencing the Divine presence, which benefits him. Along these lines, R. Eliezer Menachem Mann Schach[13] notes that following in G-d’s path may be understood to be even greater than receiving his presence.[14]

R. Mordechai Kahan, in his introduction to his book-length treatment of this obligation[15] theorizes as to why this activity is set aside from even other acts of chesed.[16] Citing the Alter of Kelm[17], he notes that hakhnasat orchim, when following a fully realized, “Abrahamic” model, involves placing one’s resources and attentions completely at the disposal of one’s guests. Other acts of kindness, generally fulfilled outside the home, can be accomplished in an exemplary fashion while still drawing upon one’s assets in a limited fashion. Haknasat Orchim, by contrast, involves bringing the beneficiary into one’s realm completely.

Most interestingly, the statement of “Hakhnassat Orchim is greater than receiving the Divine presence” is recorded not only as a statement of emphasis, but is brought by the Rambam in his practical code of Jewish Law, the Mishneh Torah.[18] The inclusion of this phrase in such a text is an implication that this dictum has a practical application.[19] The founder of the Chasidic movement, the Ba’al Shem Tov,[20] asserted that this statement does bear relevance to everyday life, in that welcoming guests often requires that one divert attention away from his own personal spiritual strivings. The demands of making small talk, with the possible inclusion of inappropriate speech, can serve as quite a frustration to one who is impassioned toward Torah study and exalted discourse. Nonetheless, we are therefore reminded that ultimately, extending hospitality is considered to be greater than more obviously spiritual experiences.[21]

(Continued here - DOC)

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