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8 rules of Jewish hospitality

Warmth for the soul, food for the mind, joy for the stomach

There’s a joke that Jews invented Skype so they wouldn’t have to waste money on feeding guests. Perhaps there’s a grain of truth in this, but certainly not on Shabbat.

As Saturday approaches, every God-fearing Jew prepares the most delicious and favorite dishes, and also considers it an honor if guests come to his Shabbat meal. Many wise people of different generations have refused themselves the best things all week, in order to serve them to guests on Saturday.

Jews all over the world “switch off” everything material all week and hold the day of Shabbat in calm and gratitude to the Creator. For Shabbat is one of the foundations of Judaism. For good reason, they say that observing the laws of this sacred day preserved the Jews as a people, and the people preserved the Shabbat. There is a simple pattern here, as for over 3,000 years now Jewish women all over the world have lit candles, laid the table with a white tablecloth (as a symbol of the manna that fell in the desert and was the nourishment of the Jews), put the most traditional and exquisite kosher dishes on the table, and in the warm family circle wait for guests at home impatiently. Hospitality is a separate and very important commandment for the Jewish people.

As you can see, guests in the Jewish home have long been in special honor, and receiving guests is a special mitzvah [good deed – note by L.L.] for each Jew.

In the capital of Ukraine, the “Shabbat host” has been working for three years, which has helped guests in a warm family circle to celebrate Shabbat, and hosts to fulfill the commandment of hospitality in the best way. Jewishnews.com.ua already started to discuss the project in an interview with Rabbi Mordechai Neuwirth, “Who visits people on Shabbat acts wisely!”

Yevgeny Feldman, one of the founders of the project, says: “The project ‘Shabbat host’ through a home atmosphere of an observant family allows non-religious people to learn about and feel the value of Judaism from the middle, to feel the ‘spirit’ of Shabbat in a relaxed environment. This was the original idea of the project. As the project developed, guests started to visit families to expand their circle of friends, and discovered new values of Shabbat for themselves” [author/The Seventh day of Creation is Saturday, on which it is ordered “not to do any work”].”

Almost immediately after it was launched, “Shabbat host” began to grow swiftly, showing its demand. Yevgeny recalls that at the beginning he and other initiators of the project (Misha Pikovsky, Sasha Bychkov, Rabbi Mordechai Neuwirth) not only tried to contribute money to tzedakah [contribute to charity – note by L.L.], but to do full mitzvah. The task was to organize the project as a stable system which would over time work independently and continue to fulfill its original goal – to help people to learn more about Judaism.

Since the day the project was founded, it has been coordinated and hostels (guests) have been searched for by Iolanna Veksler. She sent hundreds of invitations to spend the day of Shabbat in one of ten hospital Jewish homes in the capital: “I invited young people through social networks, and informed them of the opportunity to spend Shabbat in a warm and happy Jewish home. The families were prepared to invite guests and waited eagerly for each new arrival. They had also “got a little hungry” for new faces over time.”

Today this non-commercial project has become independent and has significantly expanded its geography. Guests are expected not only by families in Kiev, but also in Dnepropetrovsk and Odessa.

Rabbanit Inna Markovich and her husband have lived in Ukraine for almost 15 years. All that time in their home there are up to 20 guests for each of the three meals of Shabbat. Both of them grew up in religious families. Saturday for them is about candles, wine, challah and guests. After she got married, Inna was not yet able to cook, but there were already people in their home on Saturday.

Inna Markovich talked to Jewishnews.com.ua correspondent Liba Liberman about why her family was one of the first to embrace the idea of “Shabbat host”, and why guests on Saturday are so important.

People nowadays are more withdrawn. The older generation still remembers the tradition of hospitality, when it was not only customary to visit each other at home, but to stay the night. Now people don’t meet “face to face” or on private territories any more, but in cafés. The home is the external reflection of the inner being of the person! By letting someone into our domain, we automatically open up a piece of our inner self, we reveal our true nature, give people the chance to know us, and we open our most valuable things to our guests – our home, family, atmosphere, traditions… Everything that is a profound understanding of the commandment of “Hospitality”.

How should one receive guests correctly?

1. It’s important to create psychological comfort for the guest. People may not know you personally at all. They have simply called the project and expressed the desire to spend Shabbat in a family. Accordingly, they’ll feel uncomfortable and awkward, especially as they on a “strange” territory and among unfamiliar people.

2. It’s appropriate to ask guests whether this is their first Shabbat. This may also be another factor for their embarrassment: they will be afraid to do something wrong, or sit tensely through the entire meal, not understanding what is happening and why. Remember that you should carefully explain each part of the meal and say what will happen next. And don’t teach them manners, the person is not your pupil, but your guest!

3. In receiving new people, provide dishes without meat or that are not fried, as your guest may be a vegetarian or may have stomach problems.

4. If there are factors for the receiving side which are fundamental in the home (not to ring the doorbell, not to talk on the telephone, or for example not to take off shoes), agree on them at the moment of invitation, but not as a request. For example: “Please knock on the door. We don’t use the doorbell on Shabbat”. Don’t increase discomfort by showing the guest’s lack of knowledge.

5. When a guest asks what to bring, I reply: “A big smile!” But if a secular person even turns him with a present, for example with flowers, you shouldn’t tell them at the doorway that this is incorrect. Over time they will realize this themselves. Your task at this moment is to provide them with experience and not crush their desire to learn about the fundaments of Judaism. It is important not to offend a person while observing Halakha [the rules of Judaism].

6. Make toasts properly. My husband and I take it in turns: if a person needs to leave while most of the guests are still sitting at the table, one of us stays with the guests, and the other sees the person off. We express our gratitude that the guest shared Shabbat with us. It is not customary to watch a person leave, so as not to embarrass anyone: we close the door “without long goodbyes”. On one side of our stairwell there is lift, and on the other a staircase. On Shabbat we don’t use the lift, but it’s up to the guest to decide how to leave.

7. In a situation when a guest has been there for a long time, remember that the goal of hospitality is not the personal comfort of the hosts, but of the guests who have come to visit. Perhaps the person feels unhappy and needs to talk to people. This need is just as important for people as food! When you hear that a guest is hungry, you lay the table and feed them, don’t you? There are people who also have a spiritual hunger. When they come to a family, they start to melt and enjoy the family warmth and hearty conversation.

8. We also try to organize guests according to their groups of interests. If we realize that our guests have a good understanding of Halakha, we may raise profound topics at the table, discuss a chapter of the Torah in detail and hold a dialogue.

Difficulties in fulfilling the commandment of “Hospitality”

Every housewife wants to show that she is ideal: the table is heaving, the house is sparkling, the children are educated. Many people say that until you build a house, you cannot invite people to visit your home. For letting people into your home these days means showing who you really are, and what financial capabilities the family has.
This is where pride comes in.

The commandment of receiving guests does not concern the future of your position, but your duties for today. If you wait until the walls are spotlessly white, the children are well-bred and the table really does break under the dishes, we will never start to fulfill this important commandment.

The taste of Shabbat through prayer

The task of the housewife is not to be ideal, but for everything to be clean, delicious and comfortable. People don’t so much need a chicken today as an interesting conversation.

When I was at school, I went with other pupils to spend Shabbat with one family. They were very poor. On the table they had challah, wine, tahini, and we were given a little piece of fish. We left, and if someone had offered us a sandwich, none of us would have refused. But the atmosphere in this family was so exulted and divine, that I still remember this Shabbat!

When I am unable to prepare a lavish feast for financial reasons, or if I am tired and can’t prepare as much as I would like, I ask the Almighty to give me a part of the atmosphere from this memorable Shabbat for my meal.

Sign up for Shabbat beforehand. Contacts of the administrator of the “Shabbat Host” project in Kiev: 096 214 86 00 (Yulia). Join the Shabbat Host group on Facebook by subscribing to their page

Shabbat shalom!

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