Posted on | July 25, 2007 | By Eliahu Levenson | 47 Comments
We travel back to the mid 1980s. A very important ingredient in my metamorphosis from assimilated to BT were the people from my chosen community, who ALWAYS invited me to one of their homes for every single Shabbos and Yom Tov meal. These meals were rich and very rewarding experiences, and as I transitioned to frumkeit, I was of the impression that this was how all frum communities worked all the time. If you are a Jew in shul, the community finds out if you are set up for meals, and if not, they do whatever is necessary to fill that void. I found out later with my wider experiences that I was sadly mistaken about this, but that is not the subject matter for this piece.
There came a point where I began feeling awkward about constantly receiving from the community without ever giving back. After I learned the ropes of what it meant to keep a kosher home — this didn’t happen overnight — I made a radical change in my modus operandi to rectify this situation. Every Shabbos I would prepare one meal at home and invite guests. That is, I would go to a community home for one meal, and I would stay in my own home one meal and invite guests.
Typically, I would invite one or two married couples along with a number of single people. I would also seek guests who were attending services but had no scheduled place for themselves for a Shabbos meal. Typically I would have 8-10 guests, with 15 being the highest on record.
The number of guests never really mattered to me. If people were available one way or another I would find a way to make it work. I was never short of food, so that wouldn’t be a problem. I always prepared plenty and then I lived on the leftovers for the rest of the week. I was single at the time and I never got tired of Shabbos leftovers. I still never tire of Shabbos leftovers, and I highly recommend the practice of overdoing your Shabbos food preparations. You carry Shabbos with you into the week with your cuisine, and you have that much less to prepare on a daily basis.
Back on subject however, I didn’t title this writing, “Adventures in Hachnasas Orchim” for nothing, so here are a few of the many adventures that live in my memory .. learning experiences one and all.
My entire community functioned pretty much the same way during Shabbos meals. The rabbi spoke both Friday night and Saturday and we would try to recall at our tables what the rabbi had spoken about, trying to remember all of his points as best we could. Some community members seemed to have total recall, and would literally repeat every single word. For those who could do so, this was especially nice for the wives who didn’t come to shul. We would add divrei Torah of our own — I myself would also be prepared with something — and then there would always be zemiros (songs).
We had a very nice bentcher that the whole community used, which included around 70 zemiros arranged and numbered. Someone would call out a number and we would sing the zemer (song) to one niggun (tune) or another. One of the favorite jokes of the community was that we didn’t have to sing the zemiros anymore. All we had to do is call out the number and it would be as if we had actually sung the song.
If any of the female guests joined in the singing, nobody stopped her or said anything to her. In no way would we embarrass a newbie in the process of taking in a beautiful Shabbos experience.
That was the thing about hachnasis orchim in our community. New people flocked to us, probably because of our cordiality in reaching out to them. It certainly helped with yours truly. We wanted our orchim to take home with them nothing but positive experiences. Of course we also have seichal and would speak to individuals privately about various things when we deemed it appropriate, but that’s another story and not for this article.
Kol isha was one issue we were very sensitive about, and hand shaking was another. Many times, for example, my guests would want to shake my hand before departing, and that of course included the ladies. Technically speaking, this is an halachic predicament. A man is not supposed to take a woman’s hand, but then again, a man is definitely not supposed to embarrass her. I would have to choose between the two, take her hand, or say something she could conceivably find offensive or uncomfortable. My choice was to smile and shake her hand.
Speaking of offensive or uncomfortable … and I’ll throw in embarrassing … I’ll dedicate the rest of this piece to a few “sensitive” moments in my hachnasas orchim career that I will never forget. Call them golden orchim oldies.
I once had a guest who was an aspiring professional comedian. He was a Jew with zero experience at any observant Shabbos tables. As he was used to livening up parties with his humor, he kept trying to crack jokes and make people laugh. The problem was that in the world he knew and loved, his jokes were funny, but in our far more spiritual world, his jokes were embarrassing and highly inappropriate.
Nobody knew what to say to this man. All we could do was be polite and smile. Eventually he realized that he wasn’t connecting at our table in any way. I could tell he was anguishing over this, and he started sweating profusely. Finally it looked like he just couldn’t stand it anymore. He simply stood up and walked out. It was one of the more helpless moments I have ever experienced. A rare moment I might add, where I was at a total loss for words.
Another time there was a young woman at the table who asked if she could turn off a fan. I told her that on Shabbos we Jews don’t turn fans off or on. I did not realize she was seething over my answer. At the end of the meal, she chastized me harshly for my lack of concern for her comfort, telling me that any sensitive person would have permitted her to shut off that fan.
I missed my cues on that one. I didn’t have an inkling how troubled she was that I would allow a fan to bother her meal. It never occurred to me the fan was really that disturbing. After all, I had Shabbos meals with guests in my home every week and nobody ever complained about the fan before. Had I understood better, I think I would at least have offered to find her a different seat at the table, even my own. To this day I’m bothered that I wasn’t sensitive enough to see that something was going on that needed my attention. I’m sure I would have tried harder to find a way to salvage the Shabbos experience for her.
Then there’s the story of my beef stew. My beautiful beef stew. One Erev Shabbos, I was following a recipe, preparing the ingredients, cutting the meat, slicing the potatoes, carrots, onions, and dropping everything in. Then I would add the spices, which included one simple tiny little teaspoon of salt. I picked up my large round box of salt, held the spoon over the pot, and began to pour the salt slowly into the spoon. What happened next is one of the reasons I have always felt certain that Hashem, besides being perfect in everyway, also has an infinite sense of humor.
For no reason the bottom of the salt container just fell off, and the entire package of salt fell into my stew, except for the little teaspoon of salt still in my hand. I panicked of course. I didn’t have time to make a new dinner. I removed the salt from my stew as best I could. Then I emptied the pot and washed everything including washing every single piece of meat individually.
How do you think my Shabbos dinner came out that night?
I’m glad you asked. I’ll tell you. Dinner that night was a disaster, and not edible. The salt had permeated everything, particularly the meat. Most of us could only look at the food. One of my guests however seemed totally oblivious to the pain of this meal, or of the discomfort felt by the others seated at the table. He actually seemed to be enjoying his dinner, AND HE REQUESTED SECONDS, which he also finished with relish.
Was he REALLY enjoying the meal, or was he merely the perfect guest capable of sugarcoating the salt if that is what it took to please his host? I don’t know the answer, but if it’s the latter … WOW!
By the way, that incident with the salt could never happen to me today. Way back when, I didn’t understand how kosher meat was prepared and salted. In fact, I would later learn that kosher meat was already the most salted meat on the face of the planet before you ever get it past the checker at the grocery, as a result of the kashering process.
Since I discovered this about Jewish meat, never ever do I add salt to ANY meat recipe. Even when I buy things like barbecue sauces, if I see salt in the ingredients, I don’t purchase it. I find some other brand or something else to buy instead. For the same reason, I don’t buy spices that are mixtures that include salt.
When God gave the Kohanim his “bris melach” (covenant of salt), BaMidbar 18:19, that was an indication that just as salt is a preservative, so would this relationship be eternally preserved. My stew didn’t need to be eternally preserved.