Hosting is Like Gambling
Taking in foreign house-guests is like gambling. You may meet wonderful people from the other side of the globe arriving with a bottle of your favorite wine and flowers. As a bonus they’ll even keep you entertained with inspiring life stories.
On the other hand, your guests could be sullen, irritable people with no manners and plenty of B.O. If that isn’t enough you’ll discover to your chagrin that a few silver pieces from the closet have gone AWOL. It’s all a matter of luck and of being a good reader of people.
Jewish tradition strongly encourages inviting guests (Hachnasas Orchim) to your home. In fact the Midrash states that “Greater is the act of receiving guests, than of receiving the Divine Presence”. There are astonishing tales about how far the Torah Sages went to receive guests.
Rav Yaakov Yitzchak Horowitz, the Chozeh of Lublin, kept an open house. He himself served his guests, who were from all walks of life. One day a poor man came to the house and the Rabbi served him a meal. When the guest was finished his meal, the Rabbi cleared the table and brought the empty plate and utensils into the kitchen.
The poor man was astounded and said, “Rebbe, I understand that the Rabbi occupies himself with Hachnasas Orchim to fulfill the Mitzvah. But why does the Rabbi clear the table himself? Doesn’t he have servants in the house? The Rabbi replied, “Taking out the pan of ashes from the Holy of Holies in the Temple on Yom Kippur was part of the tasks of the High Priest. Am I more important than the High Priest?”.
On another occasion, a guest arrived in middle of the night. The Rabbi tended to him himself, serving him a meal and preparing his bed. The guest was unrefined and his strong smell indicated that he had neglected to bathe in the recent past.
The next morning, the servants in the house wanted to send him on his way due to his odor. The Rabbi rebuked the servants and responded, “Don’t wake him; let him sleep until he wakes up on his own. God provided me with the opportunity for Hachnasas Orchim, and you want to ruin it and snatch it away from me?” (Niflaos Harebbi, Ch. 90)
Being Welcome Wherever You Go
After reading stories such as these I can get the mistaken impression that when backpacking through Europe and arriving at a Jewish community for Shabbos, I can expect unconditional love and care without any obligations on my part as a guest. Don’t make that mistake! A guest has far more obligations to his host then the host has towards him.
Here’s a list of common Don’ts and Do’s in order so that you’ll be welcome wherever you go:
- Don’t invade your host’s privacy. Don’t read her mail, (snail-mail or Gmail), walk into his bedroom or ask personal unsolicited questions.
- Don’t smoke in their home (or even outside near their windows) if they are non-smokers
- Don’t get drunk at their table.
- Don’t talk non-stop or stay silent throughout your stay. Balance is the key.
- Don’t sit on their couch all day long whether you are watching TV or just spacing out.
- Don’t criticize your host; not about their kids, marriage, cooking or political opinions.
- Don’t use their electrical appliances or equipment without permission.
- Don’t take food from the fridge, freezer or pantry if you weren’t offered.
- Don’t show up without notice.
- Don’t overstay your welcome (better leave before the first subtle hint).
- Don’t live your dirty clothes or any other belongings strewn about the house.
- Don’t feed their kids or pets without getting the green light. They might be allergic or on a special diet.
- Don’t bring in other guests uninvited.
- Don’t expect the household to suddenly revolve around you.You need to adopt their customs and not the other way around.
- Don’t take anything from the house (even a roll of toilet paper) without permission.
- Nail down the dates of the visit before you arrive — and stick to them. Let your plans be known, especially if you intend to be absent in the middle and will be coming and going at odd hours.
- Be clear about who’ll be joining you (including your significant other, kids, pets or traveling companions).
- Pack smart, so you won’t need too much space nor will you need to borrow clothes from your hosts.
- Keep tabs on your stuff. You’re not staying in a hotel, so don’t treat your friend’s home like one. A good rule of thumb: When you’re not in your room, it should look like it did when you arrived. Put your clothes away, hang up your towel and straighten the bed every morning.
- Follow the house rules. If they take off their shoes at the door and wear slippers (like in Korea), respect and follow their lead.If they lock the doors at all times, do the same.
- Keep your kids in check. Just because you are on vacation, doesn’t mean your kids can go berserk in the house. Your kids are your responsibility.
- Help out with the chores. Even little things like clearing the table are meaningful to your host.
- Bring or send a thank-you gift and follow-up with a note. When you get home, send a quick note to let them know how much you enjoyed your stay. It’s the thought that count.
- If you use it, replace it. Borrowing toothpaste or sunscreen is fine. But if you end up using it up, devouring an entire box of cookies or polishing off the last bottle of milk, it’s time to go to the store and replenish the things you’ve used. Be generous and considerate, and not someone who eats their friends out of house and home.
- Be reasonable about sharing a household bathroom. If the house only has one bathroom, ask when it is convenient for you to use it and don’t stay in the shower for an hour.
- Be careful about Internet and phone usage. If you need to use the Internet or phone at your hosts’ home, rather than assuming you can use their facilities, make sure you ask them first if this is okay with them – even if they have an unlimited plan.
- Do your own laundry.
- Entertain yourself. It’s not the job of the hosts to occupy you.
- Be ready to catch public transportation and taxis. Your host isn’t your chauffeur.
- A short stay is a pleasant stay and leaves everyone feeling good about each other. As Ben Franklin once said, “Fish and visitors stink after three days.”
- Keep yourself neat and clean and brush your teeth regularly (whether you do so at home or not).
- Be appreciative. Thank them regularly for the food, the company and whatever they do for you. Don’t wait till you leave to say a short thanks.
- Do bless the host. In fact there is a special blessing for the hosts to be recited at Birkas Hamazon.
The Talmud (Tractate Berachos pg. 58A) states it succinctly:
A good guest says; “Look how much the hosts did for me. All the meat and wine they brought was for me. All the cakes they brought were for me. Everything the host did was for my benefit”.
But a bad guest says; “What did the host do for me at all? I ate only one slice of bread. I had only a piece of meat and I only drank one cupful. Everything the host did was for himself and his family”.
Be a good guest and the doors will always be open to you.