The Mishna on daf 125b tells us that one is permitted to clear out 4 or 5 boxes of straw from one’s property on shabbos to make place for visitors or for people to learn Torah.
Although this is clearly limited to moving them within a private domain, this flies in the face of the prohibition against טרחה יתירה (exertion) on Shabbos, which in turn could fall under the prohibition of performing weekday activities.
The Gemara on daf 126a deduces from this leniency that hosting guests is as great, or even greater, than Torah learning, seeing as it is mentioned in the Mishna together with, and indeed before, Torah learning.
In Parshas Vayeira (Beraishis 18/1), we are told how Hashem appeared to Avraham when he was sitting at the entrance of his tent.
We are then told that he lifted his eyes, saw 3 people standing in front of him, and ran to greet them.
He then beseeched “Please my Master, do not leave”, and instructed his family to bring them some water to wash their feet.
The word אדני used in this passuk has a dual purpose- it can be used as קודש (a holy expression referring to Hashem), or as חול (a regular noun referring to a human master.)
There is a debate (Shvuos 35b) regarding what the meaning of the word is in this context, which in turn has major ramifications for the narrative.
One version is that the word “master” mentioned here is a term of respect for the one whom he believed to be the leader of the 3 guests.
Hashem appeared to him by sending 3 angels in the form of men. He rushed to great them and asked the leader not to leave while he arranged for their hospitality.
The other view is that the “Master” being referred to is indeed Hashem- Hashem first appeared to Avraham (prophetically) to ask how he was doing after his circumcision. While Avraham was “talking” to Hashem, he saw 3 visitors coming, and ran towards them, asking Hashem to wait while he arranged for their hospitality.
The Gemara continues with the incredible statement that hospitality is even greater than greeting Hashem!
This is learnt from Avraham who asked Hashem to wait for him while he sorted out the needs of his guests.
Tosfos here points out that our Gemara supports this later reading, and the Gemara in Shvuos itself makes this observation.
Are we supposed to treat this statement as a possibly exaggerated or at least non-halachik aggadic statement, or is to be taken at face value in a halachik sense?
Are we truly supposed to interrupt our engagement with Hashem, such as davening, or even Torah study, for the sake of hospitality?
After all, we know that although one is permitted to interrupt the Shema and its Brachos under certain limited circumstances to greet someone or return a greeting (Brachos 13a), the same permission does not seem to be applied to one’s actual davening (Shmona Esrei,) during even which even the presence of a non -venomous snake is not considered enough of a reason to interrupt (Brachos 33a.)
We were also told the story of a certain pious person who refused to interrupt his tefilla even to answer an envoy of the king, seeing as he was speaking to the “king of kings!” (Brachos 32b)
Yet from the context of this statement, in the midst of the very halachik discussion about being permitted to exert oneself on shabbos for hospitality as well as Torah study, it seems to be a rather halachik statement, and indeed, the Rambam )Aveil 14/1) quotes this statement, almost word for word, and rules that although hospitality is a rabbinic commandment, it is also included in the biblical command of ואהבת לרעיך כמוך (love your neighbor like yourself.)
Perhaps tefilla is not the same as “greeting Hashem” but something even more serious, that indeed cannot be interrupted for the sake of guests, but it seems rather far fetched to assume that our tefilla is more important that the prophetic revelation that Avraham experienced.
One could also suggest that tefilla is different, in that it is us who are praising Hashem, asking him for OUR needs as a collective, and thanking him for what he has done for us, whereas in the case of Avraham, Hashem was “coming” to check on Avraham’s individual well-being only, which Avraham was entitled to put on hold for the needs of his guests.
Once again though, this sound far-fetched, seeing as at the end of the day, Avraham was indeed asking Hashem to “wait” for him , after “coming especially” to visit him, and it is doubtful that our tefilla can be viewed as less delayable than this precious visit.
I would like to suggest that the distinction lies rather in the reason for the disruption.
When a person is distracted by a non-dangerous snake, his interruption is not due to his caring for others, but rather for his own peace of mind.
The same applies when he is distracted by a king.
Although it is obvious that if there is danger to his own life or that of others, he would clearly be required to interrupt his davening, this is not necessarily so for his own peace of mind.
However, when greeting guests, particularly travelers in need of basics such as food, water, and a place to sleep, this disruption is not for one’s own needs, but for other people, whom Hashem himself has commanded us to look after, and for whom even the basic rule of דרך ארץ קדמה לתורה would probably require one to look after, at least in the absence of such a clash of values.
In such a situation, the Torah teaches that the value of looking after other people’s needs takes priority over your personal Tefilla.
As is made so clear in in numerous places, and summed up so clearly by Yeshayahu (58), in the famous excerpt which serves as the Haftarah of Yom-Kippur, the purpose of fasting (and other divine service) is not “bowing one’s head like a fish-hook”, but rather “removing the bonds of wickedness” and “giving out your bread to the poor, clothing a naked person when you see him.”
Hashem is more than happy to “wait around” while one performs one of his most precious mitzvos.
It should be noted from here that the main mitzva of hospitality involves hosting travelers and other people in need, not simply having people from one’s own circle of friends over for the sake of socializing.
While it could be argued that this is also a form of chesed or even included in this mitzva, after all most people , at least in today’s world, have social needs, the main source we have seen regarding Avraham Avinu specifically refers to strangers and others in need, as does the logical explanation we discussed above.
Indeed, the Beis Yosef (O.C. 333,) discusses this in detail and rules explicitly that the leniencies regarding the mitzva of hospitality do not apply simply to social meals, as does the Rema O.C. 333/1.
The biggest thrust of one’s efforts should thus specifically be hosting travelers, students who are away from home, the poor, single people or older couples who are alone, and the like, and not those who we personally prefer to have around!
These posts are intended to raise issues and stimulate further research and discussion on contemporary topics related to the daf. They are not intended as psak halacha.