Good Guesting and Hosting in the 21st Century

Hospitality is defined as “the quality of being friendly and generous to guests.” (Webster’s New World Dictionary) In this week’s Torah portion, Va’yera, we have examples of the best and the worst of human behavior towards strangers.  What timeless wisdom from our tradition should we keep in mind as we get closer to Thanksgiving, a time when many host or are hosted, to make sure we are good guests and hosts?

Abraham, sitting at the entrance of his tent during the hottest part of the day, sees three ‘men’ approaching. He runs out to greet them. To Abraham they are travelers in need of his hospitality which he and his wife Sarah provide without reservation. The guests (we learn are divine messengers) predict that Abraham and Sarah will have a much longed-for son.  On the other hand, there is a clear intimation that the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah are to be destroyed as punishment for the immoral behavior of their citizens. The text makes it clear that their worst offense is the terrorizing and cruel treatment of strangers, an extreme kind of negative hospitality.

One of the most well-known phrases about hospitality comes from the Passover Haggadah, “Let all who are hungry come and eat.” We may view this as a “fire drill,” a training exercise to sensitize us to the needs of others, to be repeated any time we gather to celebrate. In Pirkei Avot we are asked to “Let your home be wide open and the needy be members of your household,” and “greet each person with a cheerful facial expression.” Traditional wisdom extends to the guest as well. Talmudic texts teach that guests should avoid causing hosts extra work. They should accede to their host’s or hostess’s requests. A guest should not bring along another, uninvited guest.

This wisdom from the first few centuries of the Common Era is still relevant, but are there other ideas for good guesting and hosting in the 21st century? Jason Fitzpatrick posted a list of things to keep in mind, noting that” Being a good host in the 21st century isn’t what it used to be. Your guests have to deal with Wi-Fi passwords, confusing home theaters, and more.” He suggests making a guest information packet, a one pager  full of all the information your guests may need when you’re not around—things like Wi-Fi passwords, emergency numbers, instructions for using your complicated home theater setup, and good places to eat and relax nearby. A guest packet could include useful information like informing your guests about household oddities. Make a note that they should run the hot water while they brush their teeth to get the hot water shower-ready. Quirky neighborhood parking regulations? Make sure your guest knows their rental car will get the boot if they park on the street after 2:00 a.m.

Most notable about a stay at a nice hotel is that the staff of the hotel has anticipated your needs. Nice hotels make sure that you have adequate towels, toiletries, and other necessary items. It’s awkward to feel like you’re always pestering your host for stuff. You want to make your guests feel as autonomous and comfortable as possible. Remember Sage Hillel’s articulation of the Golden Rule: What is hateful to you, do not do to your fellow: this is the whole Torah; the rest is the explanation; go and learn.

Poor communication can doom a visit. Before your guests even arrive at your home you should shoot them an email or call them and ask some basic questions. The two most important questions (if you don’t already know the answers) are about meals (and food allergies) and the general goal of the visit. The other important thing is to get a feel for what your guests want to do when they visit. Do they want to take it easy and lounge around, take in all the cultural sights your city can offer, spend tons of time with you catching up? Knowing what your guests have in mind for their visit can help you stave off any hurt feelings or boring down time.

The following are points to help you be a good house guest:

  • Nail down your exact arrival and departure times;
  • Let your host know exactly who will be arriving with you (kids age and stage!)
  • Make every effort to be on time;
  • Pack efficiently and keep your belongings to your space;
  • Respect house rules—but ask if you can chip in with chores or at mealtimes;
  • Be a good sport and BE FLEXIBLE;
  • It seems like old school- but bring a gift and write a thank-you note!

And if you are invited to a religious ceremony, either a different denomination or a different faith, here are five questions from “How to be a Perfect Stranger” (Skylights Path Publishing) that can help you fit in:

  • How should I be dressed?
  • What will happen during the service?
  • What will happen after the service?
  • Should I bring a gift?
  • Will I be expected to participate in any way?

The Jewish Federation of Greater Washington is justifiably proud of its work in community building and the support it provides to the many agencies that adhere to the model provided to us by our ancient sources and by 21st century manners. The extension of hospitality in the broadest sense – i.e., making all feel welcome and valued in every aspect of our communal life – continues to be the guiding principle of both the Federation and the many agencies and organizations that make up our community. Hosts and guests should check all behavior with the value of kavod- that every person has gravitas and is deserving of dignity and honor.

At a time when some of the fundamental values that underpin a just and moral society are being sorely challenged, we must call upon all of our resources to continue in the spirit of Abraham and Sarah.