My grandfather, Rabbi Eliyahu Chaim Carlebach was a rabbi in New Jersey at a time of changing demographics. An older bachelor, a chazzan of a shul some distance was a regular at their Shabbat table. One Rosh Hashanah he really delayed. He finaly did arrive beaten and dishevelled. “The only thing that kept me going was the thought of the Chamin waiting for me at your house”. Problem being that everything had been served and cleared from the table. Quick thinking Shiena (my aunt) was in the kitchen and immediately scraped all the leftovers together and served him. For years he could not get over how delicious the food tasted that Shabbat!
While for some people hachnasat orchim seems like second nature, for others it can be challenging. “How do I know if this guy is safe to have in the house, maybe he is a complete loony”?
Kabdeihu vechashdeihu, honour him while suspecting him, as the sages in the Gemora tell us.
The Pele Yoetz brings the story of a man who invited a stranger to stay in his attic. The host then removed the ladder to the attic. The guest got busy collecting valuables and then stepped out of his attic room in the dead of the night only to awaken the host by his cries of agony…
This story does not justify not inviting guests.,If anything, it goes to show us that even when we have suspicions, we must still think of ways of doing hachnasat orchim.
Having a guest in your sukkah is a guaranteed method of hachnasat orchim where the guest will not overstay his welcome.
(The concept of “honour him and suspect” obviously cannot be applied to our enemies who we know wish to harm us. Remember Gedaliah’s mistake? These two ideas need to be balanced when applying them to the issue of refugees and migrants. More of that for another time.)
To get a perspective of this: If “what is mine is mine and what is yours is yours,” then the above advice of kabdeihu v’chashdeihu is understood. This is the law, after all, since Pirkei Avot calls this “a median characteristic”. But there is also lifnim mishurat hadin, beyond the letter of the law. “What is mine is yours, and what is yours is yours,” says Pirkei Avos, “is the attitude of a pious person”. It is about perspective. We can have a much deeper Sukkot and a much deeper relationship with our guests, our fellow Jews, if we have the more pious attitude.
Rabbi Chaim of Sanz once ran after a guest who had just stolen something from his house calling out to him, “Don’t worry, I declared it hefker (ownerless)”. He took the “What’s mine is yours” literally.
We understand that all that we have is really Hashem’s. What seems stable and what seems to be permanently yours only appears as such. One moment we are sitting at the top of the world, and then, G-d forbid, everything changes…Sitting in the fragile sukkah, unprotected from the elements, we come to realise that we are (always) in Hashem’s hands. (Indeed the s’chach covering the sukkah is meant to represent the divine shechina, and the walls, G-d’s hug. Halachicly, the minimum amount of wall needed are two walls plus a tefach (handbreath) of a third wall. In an embrace, the upper arm and lower arm are like the two walls, and the hand hugging is like the third handbreadth.) So if all we have belongs to Hashem, then my wealth is only mine so that I could share it with others. Indeed, what I give to the poor is actually his which G-d gave me to watch over and give to him when he needs it.
So we both, host and guest, sit together in this sukkah, for it is both of ours.
Every time I host someone I know that I am sharing with him what is truly his. It is therefore a privilege that he comes to me and I get to give him this in a way which I gain both his friendship and a mitzvah.
I experienced such hachnasat orchim when I was a student in Israel. I arrived at my Yeshivah shortly before Shabbat finding that the Yeshivah building was closed as Yeshivah was not starting until Monday. I was invited in by a family who did not know me from Adam, who were already hosting a dozen people and who convinced me that they actually wanted to sleep on the marpeset (porch). WOW! Now that is kabdeihu without chashdeihu!