Shabbos Hosting and Guesting – Simple, But Not Always So Simple
Over the years, like most people, we have hosted numerous Shabbos guests from various walks of life. And, like most people, I have been a Shabbos guest at the tables of countless families.
After a few decades of serving as host, some thoughts on the topic come to mind, especially when challenges in this area arise. Although these issues seem very simple and may appear to not merit discussion, there are situations that need to be thought out and carefully discussed. Hence, developing some general guidelines, each person or family as is appropriate to the specific case, can be quite worthwhile and important.
There are potential challenges to both hosting and guesting. On a personal level – and I’m sure this applies to most everyone – I have some real horror stories of serving as host and as guest. And I also have some great success stories in both directions, so to say.
The Shulchan Aruch (Orach Chaim 170) addresses the conduct of host and guest, including the rule that a guest must comport with the general desires of his host, and the rule that a host may not behave in an imposing manner toward those at his table (ibid. s. 6-7). Furthermore, we are well aware of the halachos of speech that can be easily violated when people gather together, especially as host and guest. But there are other areas outside of the purview of the Shulchan Aruch – areas that belong to its “fifth chelek” – that often need to be discussed.
Here are some points for consideration which come to mind:
- People need to determine if they can host guests. In some families, the parents are not able to spend much time with their children, or with each other, during the course of the week, and the one occasion that they can be together face-to-face is the Shabbos seudah. The need for this private time is often of priority status, and it may be a reason to hold off with guests.
- Hosts need to consider the ramifications of refusing a guest. Many people who ask to come for a Shabbos meal will end up eating their seudah alone (with food that may be very undesirable) if they are not hosted. The apparent “imposition” of squeezing in an extra guest at the table is nothing in comparison with the potential guest eating an unappealing Shabbos seudah in isolation.
- Guests should realize that the host and his family need to maintain their family dynamics and relationship at the meal. When guests monopolize the conversation – especially when this prevents the children at the table from speaking with their parents, discussing their parsha sheets, and so forth – it can become a real issue. Guests should be aware that the host family, and especially its children, need to conduct regular conversation, receive adequate attention, and be able to focus on each other’s needs during the meal.
- Be sophisticated. The most important thing I learned from my high school public speaking teacher was not the skill of public speaking, but was rather an insight about relating to others: “Being sophisticated means knowing how to interact with people at their particular level and mindset”. If a host or guest has something controversial to say, it should not be said, unless each knows that the other will receive it in good spirit. If there is reason to believe that a host or guest is sensitive about something in particular, it must be taken into consideration. If a host sees that a guest is not so learned, divrei Torah recited by the host should be presented in a fashion that makes them understandable to the guest; and vice versa.
- Guests can offer to help, but there’s a limit. Obviously, when there is a table full of people and one or two of the hosts are so busy serving and cleaning up between courses that they are absent from the table for most of the meal, others should come forth and offer to assist. It’s nice to offer to assist even when things do not seem as hectic. But for guests to unilaterally help serve and clean up, as noble as the intentions may be, is usually not a good idea. In some cases, courses are intentionally served slowly, as there is not sufficient counter space in the kitchen for everything to be bought in and out at once, and having extra people helping makes it more difficult for the host. In other cases, certain sinks or counters in the kitchen are designated for dairy or meat use only, and for a well-intentioned guest to insist on entering the kitchen to bring in the used bowls of chicken soup, and then proceeding to innocently place the chicken soup bowls into the dairy sink, is not something welcomed by the host (!). A guest should offer to help, but should not impose his help.
- Be punctual. If you are interested in hosting Shabbos guests, try to invite them well in advance. This is a basic courtesy to the guests’ Shabbos planning. And vice versa regarding guests seeking to be hosted. (There are always very legitimate exceptions, but early planning is well advised and should be expected as a norm.)
- Be clear about timing (I). If hosting guests, and your Shabbos meal will be much longer than the average person’s Shabbos meal, notify the guests in advance. I recall once being a guest at a four-hour Shabbos meal. This impacted my entire Shabbos schedule (not in a good way!), and I would have really appreciated knowing before accepting the invitation that being a guest at that meal meant missing my Shabbos chavrusa and not being able to rest. The same applies to guests; if a guest needs to be done with the meal by a certain time, he should ask the host about it before accepting the invitation.
- Be clear about timing (II). If serving as host, and you plan to start the Shabbos morning seudah an hour after davening ends, it is necessary to tell the guests in advance. It is inconsiderate for them to arrive at your home after shul is over and have to wait for an hour. And vice versa – if you are a guest and you plan to daven at a minyan that ends much later than most, thereby delaying your arrival at the host, notify him before accepting the invitation. It’s otherwise very unfair.
- Respect the other person’s religious conduct. If the host lives in an area with an eruv that he does not use and a guest wishes to bring the host a bottle of wine, the guest should do so before Shabbos. If a host has reason to believe that a guest eats only yoshon food, the host should see if he can accommodate, and he must discuss the issue with the guest before they finalize their plans. Conversely, if a guest knows that a host does not normally adhere to the guest’s own level of stringency regarding yoshon or anything else, the guest should be considerate and not impose upon the host to provide these special foods for him, unless it is clear that host was intending to do so anyway or really does not at all mind.
- Notify potential guests about your ability to host. There are few things more frustrating for a person in need of a Shabbos meal than not having a place to go for the meal and waiting to be invited. If you are willing and able to host people in general, it’s a major courtesy and chesed to notify them that you are typically available, and that they should feel free to approach you about coming for future Shabbos meals. This makes things immensely easier for potential guests who need meals but will not invite themselves over, as it were, without an advance invitation.
- Plan ahead for the difficult guest. If one is hosting a guest who is somewhat difficult to handle, a bit of advance strategizing can go a long way. Inviting additional guests is often a good idea in such cases (it depends on the specifics), especially if these additional guests are known to get along with the difficult guest. Making sure that things which particularly irritate the difficult guest are not present or are not mentioned at the table is also very beneficial. Good planning for such situations can make the difference between a great Shabbos seudah for all and one that people can’t wait to end and not repeat.
There is much more to say, and even though most of this is simple, common sense, it often needs reinforcement.
Have a good Shabbos!
Great article?! I would add that the host and hostess as a matter of Shalom bayis should determine how often they wish to have guests as opposed to just having a quiet Shabbos just with the family. I would also add that I have heard from very informed sources in the Heights that there are wonderful Machnisei Orchim in that neighborhood who just don’t have talmidim for meals but also many who would not otherwise have a Shabbos meal elsewhere.
you make two excellent points, the potential tradeoffs in shalom Bayis, and the pluses of hosting people who really have no one to go to. Both IMO should be considered more.
I have been fortunate enough to be a guest in many religious Jewish homes on both Shabbat as well as the Yom Tovim for many years now. I have both positive and less-than-positive things to say about these experiences. On the positive side, let me first say that when I am enjoying myself in any one of these given homes, that it really is the highlight of my entire year. I so much look forward to it, that I dwell on it even months before the major holidays roll around. Thank G-d for such Jewish holidays, as it gives me something to look forward to, keeping my life from getting too drab and, as a single man, too sad and too lonely.
So what is it that makes these experiences so enjoyable for me? Well, first of all, just the fact that these families are willing to have me be one of their guests at all. It continues to amaze me how they open up their homes to me, letting me eat their invariably delicious, abundant food, giving me a glimpse into their otherwise private family life, letting me be a part of it all. The very best of those homes are the ones where they make me feel so welcome, so special, that I feel as if I am a part of their family. And the ones who are especially outstanding hosts, know how to bring out the best in me. I could come to those homes feeling down about myself and my life, and yet by the time I leave their homes typically a couple of hours later, I feel like I am flying as high as a kite. I have to say that as much as I love to read Torah books, that nothing quite encourages me to be a part of my Jewish people, as do these positive experiences as a guest in these religious Jewish homes.
So far, so good, right? Unfortunately, there is also the downside. There have been a small minority of homes, where they seem determined to make me feel bad about myself. I believe it was King Solomon, the wisest man who ever lived, who remarked how “There is no man so righteous that he never sins,” and yet these people treat the admittedly irreligious me as if I am some kind of pariah. One ongoing sense of frustration I feel at many of these homes, is that they seem to not be interested in finding out who I am at all, other than insisting on finding out the exact street address of my home. I am not sure why the answer to this question so fascinates them, although I suspect that what they are really trying to find out is whether or not I am really religious, and if i am not, then they feel they have the perfect excuse to not have me over to their home ever again. Putting aside the issues involved in travelling on Shabbat, it seems to me that far worse than that, is to embarrass one’s fellow Jew in public, which is exactly what they are doing when they ask me that same question over and over again. Three such families used to have me over their home so often, that I felt as if I were part of their families. Then they stopped inviting me cold turkey, and every time they see me since then, they ignore me, as if I do not exist. Perhaps they seek to push me away from ever fully living a religious Jewish life. Maybe they even see me as not being authentically Jewish at all, which would be pretty ironic given that I am a descendant from my mother’s side of the Holy Ba’al Shem Tov.
I will stop here in saying anything more that is of a negative nature, because I do not want to create the misleading impression that most of my experiences as a Shabbat/Yom Tov guest have been negative ones. Like i said, for the most part, my experiences in this regard have been absolutely wonderful.
I have some more ideas to add:
For hosts: if a guest asks a host to come over for a Shabbos meal, give him/her the courtesy of a prompt reply so if the answer is no, the would-be guest has the chance to make alternate arrangement. Running out the clock, where a host doesn’t inform the guest whether he/she could come by a certain point, the guest has to treat the no reply as a no anyway.
Have grape juice available for kiddish so a guest who can’t drink alcohol is not embarrassed. Also have extra lechem mishne on hand for late guests.
If you’re a frequent host but don’t want to have a particular guest over, don’t lie and say you’ll have that guest over eventually bc that guest will likely see you in shul taking other guests home week after week and will see through your charade eventually.
When possible, try to invite guests in advance so they know not to prepare their own meal.
Make sure before inviting guests, you consult with your roommates or spouses so you don’t overextend yourselves. It’s awful to have to rescind an invitation Thursday night bc your spouse invited other guests without your knowledge.
While emergencies can come up that require you to cancel guests, please tread carefully. Otherwise, your guest may be left scrambling last minute. This is especially true if your guest works full time and lives in a place with limited takeout options.
For guests: arrive on time or tell the host if you’ll be late so they can start without you.
Even if you can’t reciprocate by having your hosts over for a meal, consider taking them out to dinner, a ballgame, etc.
For both: If you’re a guest allergic to or afraid of pets, let the potential hosts know to see if you can be accommodated. Hosts should be honest about their willingness or unwillingness to put pets away for the duration of a meal and if they know a pet wary person is coming, ask that other guests not bring their pets.