Guest Etiquette

From: Marsha

Dear Rabbi,

My husband and I (we were recently married) will be traveling during the summer break and we will be staying with family and friends for various lengths of times. Does the Torah offer any advice that we should keep in mind on how to be good guests?

Dear Marsha and Hubby,

Mazal tov on your recent marriage. I wish you a pleasant vacation together.

Jewish sources do, in fact, discuss how to be a good guest.

The Talmud makes an interesting statement: One who wants to derive benefit from his host should do so as Elisha the Prophet benefited; one who does not want to benefit from his host should do as Samuel the Prophet who avoided receiving benefit (Berachot 10b).

The events referred to in the first instance are as follows:

Tanach describes a certain woman, referred to as the Shunamite, who urged the prophet Elisha (not knowing at the time he was a prophet) to accept her hospitality. The prophet agreed to eat bread, and from then on would turn in to his hosts’ home when passing by during his travels on behalf of the Jewish People. Eventually, the woman told her husband that this man seemed to be a holy man, and that they should prepare a special room for him to use while on his journeys in which they placed a bed, table, chair and lamp.

Later, the prophet was told that the couple had no children. In appreciation of their hospitality, he blessed them, and after many years of being barren, they had a son. Elisha took special interest in the boy, and, after the lad suddenly died, Elisha made a special journey to their home and miraculously brought their son back to life.

The Talmud infers that the Shunamite woman had to press Elisha to accept their hospitality, and even once he did, he only ate bread. This shows that he went out of his way to avoid burdening his hosts. Similarly, the fact that they prepared for him a small room that was only sparsely furnished also suggests that they realized this was all he’d accept, and offering any more might make him uncomfortable. On the other hand, while he took little, he gave a lot: not only did he effect their having a child, he saved the boy’s life.

From here the Talmud teaches that someone who derives benefit from his hosts should do so only sparingly, and avoid doing or saying anything that might make them go out of their way for him. Of course, every person and situation is different. For example, parents generally enjoy providing even for their grown children and such a “child” should graciously, with moderation, give the parents the joy of giving. But in general, this is the spirit behind being a good guest: take as little as you can and give much more.

This includes reducing your host’s burden you as much as possible by doing your own cleaning, laundry, cooking, dishes etc., while helping your hosts in any way you can beyond things directly related to you. This would be just to help them with some need of their own whether it be fixing something, mowing the lawn or whatever might be a special way of giving more than you receive.

The other instance mentioned in the above teaching is regarding Samuel the Prophet of whom the Talmud notes that on his journeys throughout the country to teach and inspire the people, he literally carried anything he would need with him from home in order to avoid troubling anyone on his behalf.

From here the Sages instruct us that one should bring as much of his own belongings with him in order to avoid using those of his host and in order to spare the host embarrassment or difficulty in acquiring things for his guest if he doesn’t have. Here too, each situation is different, but even if a person can’t carry all he needs, he should still make an effort to buy upon arriving at least what he’ll consume during his visit, and preferably leave behind more than what he used. This would apply to food, toiletries, fuel and the like. Of course, in addition to this, one should give a nice gift to the hosts as a token of appreciation.

In these ways, you’ll make it easier to host you, benefit your hosts in ways they’ll appreciate, and hopefully increase their appreciation for the Torah and its ways.

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