BY AVROHOM GORDIMER
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. My high school public speaking teacher (who is not reading this – no worries) was a real witch, but the one thing I appreciate from her lessons was that “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.
There is much more to say, and even though most of this is simple, common sense, it often needs reinforcement.
Have a good Shabbos!