From ancient times to today, hospitality means we will take care of you

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The word “hospitality” is derived from the Latin word hospes, which means guest, host, stranger.  In the ancient world, where inns were dangerous, people preferred to stay at someone’s house; you were a guest when you traveled and a host when travelers came to your area.  This system included strangers – people not known to you personally, but through family, business or another relationship.  From the Latin stem, we also get the words hotel, hosted, host, guest, hospital and hospice.

There are many definitions of hospitality, but it all comes down to treating the other as if he or she were a friend, offering food, drink and a place to stay. 

Guests had their own rules – they were not to overstay their welcome.  In midrash Tehillim it states, “On the day a guest arrives, a calf is slaughtered in his honor; the next day, a sheep, the third day, a fowl, and on the fourth day, he is served just beans” (23:3). This is the precursor to Benjamin Franklin’s statement that “guests, like fish, begin to smell after three days.”

Many stories deal with a test of hospitality. For example, in Genesis XVIII 1-8, three strangers approach in disguise and ask for hospitality. Abraham grants it, and then they promise that Sarah will give birth to a child.  In Kings II 8-17, Elisha (Elijah’s successor) receives hospitality from a Shunamite woman, and he tells her that she will have a child.  Note the similarity in the gift!  This giving/taking is very similar to the Latin phrase do ut des, I give so that you give – a reciprocal relationship between the host and the guest.

Another story, summarized here, involves Elijah: 

The prophet Elijah and a rabbi were traveling together; the only requirement Elijah made was that the rabbi could not question anything that Elijah did.  They came to the house of a rich man, who grudgingly allowed them to stay in the house but did not offer them any food. During the visit, the rich man complained about a damaged wall.  The next day, to thank him, Elijah fixed the wall. 

Then they went on their way, and came to the house of a poor man.  They were received very well, and given the best food the poor man’s family had to eat and his own bed.  In the morning, Elijah thanked the poor man.  On the way out of that town, Elijah made the poor man’s cow die.

Finally, the rabbi could not keep quiet.  “How could you treat the rich, stingy man so well and the poor, generous man so badly?” demanded the rabbi.

“I fixed the wall for the rich man, since there was a treasure hidden under the wall, and he would have found it when he repaired the wall.  I allowed the cow to die instead of the poor man’s wife, whose time had come.  Never doubt or seek to understand what the Lord does,” Elijah replied.

Thus hospitality is repaid, even though the workings might seem unfair.  This story, with a few additions, in also told in the Quran (18:66-82).

 In the Middle Ages, especially after the Crusades, hospitality became a necessity among the Jews. Traveling beggars and students were given hospitality by the families in the town (although sometimes they were presented with a bill).  Even today, some will open their houses on Shabbat for those who can’t make it home on Friday night. 

Many communities also had a haknasat  orehim, a special place for travelers. In Providence in the late 1800s and early 1900s, there were two houses, one on Jefferson Street in the North End and another near Willard Avenue in the South End; today, the Chabad House fulfills this function.

In modern times, hospitality is often viewed as part of the hotel industry; when you Google “hospitality” you get hundreds of sites for hotels, spas and the like. It seems that hospitality has gone corporate. 

At the Passover Seder we say, “Let all who are hungry come and eat.”  We do not mean this literally, but rather as an ideal.  In Newport in the 1700s, matzah was handmade at Touro Synagogue and distributed to the poor.  Later, in Providence, the Montefiori Ladies Aid helped with matzah. 

Nowadays we fulfill this ideal by giving money or time to a food bank, pantry or Meals on Wheels.  Here in Rhode Island there are also many Jewish agencies that help: Jewish Family Service and some temples run Kosher Meals on Wheels and Kosher Senior Cafés, while Jewish Senior Services runs The Louis & Goldie Chester Full Plate Kosher Food Pantry.  So the idea of hospitality has endured through the millennia, in different forms, but with the same message: we will take care of you!

RUTH BREINDEL is president of the Rhode Island Jewish Historical Association.