Hosting a single person as an overnight guest falls under the mitzvah called hachnassat orchim, "receiving guests," which is an aspect of chessed—showing lovingkindness [Leviticus 19:18; Rashi 127b s.v. hachi] A single guest in Talmud-speak often means a wayfarer, someone coming to town needing temporary lodging, typically a stranger, and for our purposes perhaps also a single friend, acquaintance, extended family member, or visiting scholar. Hosting guests is a such a powerful mitzvah that the Talmud teaches: "Hospitality to wayfarers is greater than welcoming the Presence of the Shechinah (G*d)." [Talmud, Shabbat 127a] In this article we will look at what that might mean in the context of hosting a single guest. Several questions will help launch our exploration of this powerful open question:
What if you, the host, are also single?
This circumstance makes it importance to keep in mind the specific mitzvah "lifnei iver lo titeyn michshol--refrain from setting a stumbling block before those who are (literally or metaphorically) blind"—be it the guest, or yourself who could be subject to temptation. Further, we live in litigious times, where there are no additional eyes to speak to your exercise of integrity. It is prudent to attempt to find an alternate host or to add a second guest.
And if you have a family at home?
In our times it is important to check out how safe the person might be and as the Chofetz Chayyim teaches--when lodging a stranger do so "if possible, in a private room." [Ahavat Hessed: The Love Of Kindness, 3:2]
Must one accommodate food needs of a guest? There's so much of this these days.
Today we know so much more about diet and health than in ancient times. The mitzvah of pikuach nefesh—saving a life and shmirat ha-guf—caring for the body, certainly apply here. Be sure to inquire about allergies and preferences and to avoid putting tempting foods in front of those struggling with diabetes, weight issues and such, in accord with the mitzvah of "lifnei iver lo titeyn michshol--refrain from putting a stumbling block before others."
It is also vital that you and your guests have been vaccinated for all communicable diseases if you are a host, or host family, because: In Deuteronomy 4:15 we learn: V'nishmartem m'ode l'nafshoteikhem--greatly guard your souls.” This phrase has long been read in Jewish bioethics as a duty to protect the community from disease. In Kuntres Hanhagot Yesharot, Rabbi Nachman of Breslov teaches: “One must be very, very careful about the health of children...One must inoculate every baby against smallpox before one-fourth (3 months) of the year, because if not, it is like spilling blood (murder).” The Shulchan Aruch Choshen Mishpat 427: 8-10 teaches “it is a "positive commandment--mitzvah assei" to remove anything that could endanger life… be very careful to guard yourself and guard your soul." The Ralbag also offers an essay on parenting in his commentary on the Book of Proverbs which emphasizes the parental role in teaching safe living practices in order to avoid addictions, diseases, and obesity. [Chapter 23]
Is one expected to dress up for a guest?
While your attire may be so casual as to be revealing when you are home alone or a partner, dressing modestly at home around guests is essential to prevent causing fear or discomfort, or misperceptions regarding your intentions. Dressing nicely, albeit casually at times, shows positive regard for a guest and honoring a guest, is the essence of the mitzvah of hachnassat orchim.
Can you leave a single guest alone in the house at amealtime when you have other plans? Is it better to be late or cancel some of your own activities in order to properly care for your guest?
Judaism offers a wonderfully rich and thoughtful wisdom literature in regards to best practices for hosting guests. Many draw particular inspiration from the Biblical story about how Abraham received unexpected guests:
"God appeared to him in the plains of Mamre, while he was sitting at the entrance to the tent, in the heat of the day. He looked up and there were three people standing before him. He saw them and ran to greet them from the entrance of the tent, and bowed toward the ground. He said: "My Lord [Adonai—notice this is in singular not plural], if I have found favor in your eyes, please don't leave your servant. Take some water, wash your feet and rest under the tree. I'll go get some bread so you can satiate yourselves and then go on, in as much as you have come your servant's way." And they said: "As you say…[please] do so."
So Abraham hurried to the tent, and said, "Hurry! Three measures of fine flour! Knead them and make cakes." Abraham ran to the herd and took a good, tender calf and gave it to the youth who rushed to prepare it. He took cream, milk and the cooked calf and placed these before them. He stood with them, under the tree, while they ate.
The mitzvah of hosting guests would have us do similarly--offer a drink, a shower to remove the dust of the road, and time to rest without disturbance while a properly generous meal is prepared and then served with the host staying present.
What about inviting an eligible single(s) to one or more meals with your single guest?
While it's not easy to find a life-partner, in Judaism embarrassing someone is "like shedding [that person's] blood." Just as Sefer Hassidim emphasizes that we don't ask for Torah teachings from a guest who might not be knowledgeable, lest we cause embarrassment. So, too, it is inappropriate to assume that a single guest aspires to marriage, or wishes assistance in finding a partner. Guests are entitled to privacy.
It is a Jewish tradition to assist those who want help finding a life partner, so if asked and you know of individuals who are openly seeking a mate, by all means share and if your guest so wishes, make efforts to bring them both together. Keep in mind that today we are aware that there is a spectrum of gender, rather than solely two poles, and so respect for nuances in preferences is also important.
What if the single guest and you are both looking for a life partner?
Readers of this website range across the entire spectrum of Jewish life and learning. In some ultra-Orthodox communities three chaperoned dates are allowed before a decision about engagement must be made; so there would unquestionably be separate host homes. Beyond that point in the spectrum, I recommend reflection on your capacity for self control in order to limit the risk of damaging a potentially good thing by getting too physically close, or emotionally invested, too soon. Meet in public spaces for meals, go to museums and political events, get to know who the other person truly is before allowing their physical energy (and medical history) to further enter your being, i.e., before becoming temporarily blinded and temporally bonded by a premature pheromone or other hormonal/physiological connection.
What if guests wants to bring more guests or non-marital partners of their own to stay overnight in their room(s) or bed(s)?
What principles do you intend to maintain regarding sex between single persons at, or over, the age of consent in your home? Make sure each guest knows your household rules and agrees to uphold them before finalizing plans to host them.
Can I talk about a guest to others?
In Judaism, whatever you learn about a person, including a single guest's status, opinions, life story and behaviors is confidential unless there is a threat to life posed by something you've learned--per the mitzvah found in Leviticus 19:16: "Do not go about gossip mongering." We learn from Kahati, among many sources: "One who does not have good character traits and does not represent the epitome of interpersonal conduct "lacks Torah" in the sense that one's Torah study will have no value, and so one's very conduct degrades the majesty of the Torah."
The upshot is to think these matters through deeply—your and the guest's personal integrity, health and wellbeing are at stake.
My teacher of blessed memory, Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi liked to quote the Hassidic aphorism: "The body is the instrument upon which the soul plays life for God." The metaphor of a divine listener and the body as your Stradivarius, may prove helpful to setting boundaries.
What about being late to school, work or religious studies in order to ensure a good visit for your guest? E.g., Escorting them to a destination that's difficult to find?
Rashi's commentary on Genesis 18:1 points out Abraham and Sarah's guests arrived only three days after his "circumcision—brit milah"—which established his covenant as a male to use his image, i.e., body that Torah teaches is made "in the image of God", and accordingly his organ--in healthy and holy ways. Rashi wants us to appreciate how Abraham appears undeterred by the pain in fulfilling his sense of spiritual obligation to guests. Hosting a guest is so primary, that yes, the tradition allows one to be late to studies, even in the beit midrash*, where one engages in religious studies. In the Talmud as cited early in this article, Rav Dimi of Nehardea teaches that hosting guests is more important than arising early to ensure timely attendance at communal learning* with study partners of Jewish sacred texts. The MaHaRaL teaches: "Hospitality is extending honor to God. By inviting a person who has been created in God's image and form—into your house and honoring [that person's] needs—one is in effect, honoring the Divine Presence, and this is greater than according honor to the Torah."
Indeed, the story of Abraham and Sarah hosting guests begins with "God appeared to him." How? As guests. He cares for them—his human guests who quite clearly do require drink, food, rest, etc. and then addresses God as present in that encounter as Jews do--directly, "Adonai—My Lord", or "My Threshold", as the root of Adonai, Ehden also means Threshold in Hebrew.
[Notice how he is at the opening to his tent, and through his brit—circumcision—his covenant to live in God-consciousness at the Threshold of his home, of his sexuality, of his encounters. This may be part of the original of placing a mezuzah on every "threshold" of our homes.]
Abraham's covenant with God—to live a mitzvah-centered, rather than a self-centered life--extends to every one, as we are all made "b'tzelem elohim—in the image of God". This points to the reason that at the outset of this article the Talmud is cited: "Hospitality to wayfarers is greater than welcoming Presence of the Shechinah." [Divine presence as one might experience in prayer, or during a moment of profound love or awe.] The Maharal explains: "Because when one welcomes the Divine Presence, one does not actually see the Divine Presence, because “a human cannot see Me and live.” [Exodus 33:20] He then explains that each guest, even someone well-known to us, comes with "a new face"…[which is also] the Image of God." [Netivot Olam, Part I, Netiv Gemilut Chasadim, Chapter 4] In his inimitable way, the MaHaRaL shows us how those we know well, when returning as guests, are coming to us with a new face from their life experience--and they are to be received with respect for this within them is an expansion of our encounter with the divine. That said, our tradition would not have you push this to the point where you risk losing life, limb or your job. Healthy self-care comes first.
The idea of escorting a guest towards a destination is very much within our tradition. [Mararasha, Sotah 46b] Typically we escort them on their way when they are leaving us—if you live in an apartment, then to the elevator would be appropriate, or from your house out to their car--lest the guest think we are glad to be rid of them. Or further, if the guest is likely to get lost.
In conclusion, the implication for your question is that your single guest is the most precious, direct encounter with the divine presence possible for a human. Since a mitzvah-centered life also involves the mitzvot [pl of mitzvah--conscious acts of behavior that is best engaged in or refrained from] of self-care, this article looks at how to do both so that the context remains divine.
Opening one’s home to host those who are in need of shelter is a supreme Jewish value. “Hachnasat Orchim” (lit. bringing guests in) is considered a subcategory of “Gemilut Chasadim” (acts of kindness), which according to Mishna Pe’ah 1:1, neither has a ceiling, i.e., one can never exhaust one’s responsibility to carry out such activities, nor is its reward confined to this world or the Next, but rather the benefits that accrue from this Mitzva constitute a constant, ongoing source of spiritual and material benefit.
Nevertheless, as positive as any religious ideal may be, if in order to effect the value under consideration, other equally important spiritual and ethical concerns end up being overlooked or even consciously violated, the principle (Avot 5:10) “Yatzta Sechara BeHefseida” (its benefit has been negated by its loss) per force comes into play.
Naturally, a meaningful discussion of a topic such as this one can only be conducted if it is devoid of dishonesty and assumes appropriate sensitivity regarding the values of the hosts on the one hand, and the approach towards living together of the guests, on the other. It would be arch hypocrisy for the host family to impose rules and expectations upon their guests if they themselves do not live lives committed to such standards. But once we posit that the host family is committed to the concept that a prerequisite for individuals wishing to be intimate with one another is first to be married to each other, it is not unreasonable for hosts to insist that anyone to whom they are extending hospitality should not only respect but also adhere to, at least for the time that they are sharing the host’s roof, the values and lifestyle that are regularly practiced in this particular home. While guests could maintain that how they conduct their personal, private lives is not anyone else’s business, by accepting hospitality from someone, courtesy and etiquette require that guests strive not to give offense as long as they are benefiting from someone else’s generosity and willingness to share.
Halachic categories that therefore impact upon the manner in which one fulfills an ideal such as “Hachnasat Orchim” will include: “Lifnei Iver Lo Titein Michshol” (before a blind person do not place a stumbling block) and “Mitzva HaBa’ah BeAveira” (a Mitzva that is fulfilled by means of a transgression-- not only may not be viewed as a Mitzva, but becomes an abomination due to the inherent contradiction that the terms Mitzva and Aveira entail). Directly enabling individuals to engage in activities that one himself considers morally and religiously objectionable, not only constitutes a shortcoming on the host’s part, but even categorizes him as an accessory to the transgression which he apparently finds objectionable. While it is possible that the guests have been brought up within, and consequently have been deeply influenced by societal values that are non-judgmental and extremely indulgent when it comes to whatever someone wishes to do, as long as it takes place between consenting adults and no one is hurt as a result, this does not therefore mean that a person acting as a host for others is bound to be similarly accepting and broadminded. And if guests realize that their behavior is deeply objectionable to the hosts, but nevertheless choose to do as they wish regardless of what others may think, such an attitude reflects abject insensitivity and disrespect.
Our interactions with one another throughout our lives entail negotiation. We will not always agree with one another, but mutual respect is the sine qua non for creating a positive social environment. In the public square, pluralism and tolerance should inform all that goes on; in the private sphere, those who are benefiting from others must accept the burden of not giving offense and making the experience a positive one for all involved, particularly from the standpoint of the hosts, who are putting themselves out for the sake of their guests.
Question: How to handle overnight unmarried guests?
Judaism teaches modesty and sexual self-discipline, so it would be quite straightforward to frame an answer to this question that mandates separating the guests. Nonetheless, I do not believe that such an answer is the correct one for all the situations that are grouped together within the broad wording of the question. To explain this, a bit of historical analysis is necessary:
Our most classical sources speak of a man seducing a virgin (woman), not herself betrothed to be married, and then, as a penalty, being required to pay a full dowry and to marry her (if she will consent to be his wife) (Exodus 22:15). It is noteworthy that the Bible treats the sexual intimacy from the standpoint of financial loss to the father of the bride. Presumably, the dowry for a virgin was higher than the dowry for a non-virgin. This is very different from the case of rape, which the Bible treats as a capital offense (Deuteronomy 22:25-26).
In Rabbinic times, we see evidence of a development in the legal status of the (adult) woman. Rather than her father receiving dowry money in exchange for her hand, she herself receives the ketubah upon marriage. (The ketubah contains several financial pledges that she can collect should she be divorced or widowed.) If an adult woman has been seduced, according to the Rabbis, she receives compensation from the seducer for “disgrace and deterioration” (Mishnah Ketubot 3:4).
From this brief overview, we ought to recognize that both the Biblical and the Rabbinic strata of our tradition operated in a society where the virgin status of a bride was both socially preferred and economically quantifiable. Now, there are some Jewish circles where that preference is still the case, but by and large, the attitude that the loss of her virginity constitutes "disgrace and deterioration" is not operative in the part of the Jewish community that affiliates with the several non-Orthodox denominations of today’s Jewish world. There is also a generational divide in attitudes towards pre-marital sexual intimacy, with Jews who came of age during and after the social revolutions of the late 1960’s and 1970’s holding different views from the (now, senior) generation.
Therefore: if the traditional penalties—and the disapproval on which those penalties are founded—stem from a social attitude that is no longer felt, and if the sources themselves treat the behavior as a matter of financial loss rather than a capital case, is not the question ready for a fresh examination? That is why the most straightforward answer is not the correct one for all situations.
Turning to the realm of positive guidance: I believe there are two intersecting parameters that would inform the specific answer to be given to this question:
1)The relationship of the host to the guests;
2)The relationship of the guests to each other.
1) In certain areas of life, the hosts set the rules of their households, and guests are expected to abide by them, regardless of their relationship. Hosts are competent to lay down the rule that guests will not smoke inside their houses; that guests will not bring non-kosher food into their homes, and the like. That is because those actions can harm the hosts directly. This argument does not, however, cover the situation of refusing to let unmarried guests share a bedroom, because bedrooms are not the public areas of the house.
The question does not specify the relationship of the hosts to the guests, but it may be that the hosts are parents (or grandparents, etc.) of one of the guests. In this instance, there is the added issue of the duty to provide moral instruction to one’s children. But here, too, there is a sliding scale. A wise parent will invoke the “rules of the house” more sparingly with grown children than with teens.
2) It is important to understand the relationship of the unmarried guests to each other. Are they a couple, already building a life together in their own home, visiting the parents of one of them? It borders on the foolish to tell an adult couple, already committed to each other, to suspend that commitment because they are guests in one’s home. One could, of course, say to them that they ought to stay in a motel, but it is likely that the end result of that stricture would be a strain on the bond that the parents-hosts would like to strengthen.
The Jewish ideal setting for physical intimacy is kiddushin, the marriage relationship. But the ideal may not be the only way in which consecration to one’s partner can be lived out. Within the sector of the Jewish community which I serve, it is quite common to see couples who, for various and understandable reasons, have avoided formal marriage, but who build their lives together on the basis of fidelity, caring, and certainly love. It is not hard to see the holiness in their relationship, even while hoping, at some level, that they would see fit to declare their relationship in the most formal of rituals.
On the other hand, if the guests are not in a committed relationship, then the traditional Jewish disapproval of promiscuity reappears with greater weight. Parents are not obliged to give tacit approval to “hook-up culture”.
I would recommend to the questioner the book by my colleague, Rabbi Michael Gold, Does God Belong in the Bedroom? Rabbi Gold defends the right of the parents to set the standards of behavior for their homes (p. 70) more broadly than I have, in my response, but I value his central image of “the ladder of holiness”, and I would apply that image to this question. If the partners wishing to share the bedroom in one’s house are striving to make their physical relationship part of a life of holiness, then they can be considered to have climbed "several rungs of the ladder", and in such case, I would counsel not choosing to make their stay a battleground.
One more point seems appropriate to add: if the hosts are happily married, or if the sole host was happily married at a former time, then the varied interactions between host and guests may give opportunities to guide unmarried guests to an affirmation of marriage by persuasive, not coercive, means. Hosts are well advised to remain alert for such opportunities to show their values in a positive way.
The obligation of hakhnasat orkhim, welcoming guests, is a powerful one that reaches back to the very earliest levels of Jewish life. The Torah (Genesis 18) tells of Abraham running out to greet the men (who turned out to be angels) in the heat of the day, despite the fact that he was still recovering from his circumcision. Midrash Tanhuma (Lech l'cha) teaches that Abraham fed all passers-by generously and when they wished to thank him, since they did not know of a greater God, he taught them to thank God instead. The midrash makes the point that he did not limit his guests to those who agreed with his worldview, nor did he do anything that might embarrass his guests. They were welcome regardless of whether they shared his values or not.
Abraham's open tent policy stands as a background against which to consider this question, though it does not provide a complete answer. There are two sides to this question and they need to be considered separately. (1) Do you as host have the right to tell your guests how they should behave, at least if they want to be good guests? (2) Do you have the right to set standards of behavior for your home, which one might consider one's holy space?
We aren't privy to the specific situation the questioner envisions. Would it make a difference if the guests were:
your 80 year-old, widowed aunt and her 85 year-old steady companion;
a long-time couple in their 40's or 50's who simply choose not to get legally married;
your 23 year-old who brought home his girlfriend of 2 weeks;
or your daughter's 18 year-old friend from school who just brought along a friend?
Would it make a difference to you if the couple were same-sex, and you didn't know if they were a couple or if they simply were traveling together?
Is the question about the behavior of your own kids who are visiting in their parent's home?
Does the question involve a party to a divorce that has articulated certain standards within a divorce or separation decree?
I would understand if you evaluated each of these scenarios differently, perhaps coming to different conclusions about how you think they should behave as guests.
In general I don't believe a host has the right to tell a guest what their behavior should be. There are limits. A parent can impose reasonable limits on the way a child behaves in the parent's house. If you know that your guest is party to a legal agreement with a former spouse, it is reasonable not to enable or encourage behavior that runs counter to that legal agreement. But those are exceptions. You may not approve of your friends choosing to live together for decades without getting married, but it would be wrong to impose your standards on them. They are free moral agents and have the right to make their own ethical decisions. They deserve your respect, even if you do not share their values.
At the same time you, as host, are due respect from your guests. We refer to one's table as a mikdash me'at, a mini-altar. Your home is your holy space and you have the right to define what adds to and detracts from that holiness. It may help to begin by thinking of other ways in which we set standards within our own home that we expect our guests to respect when they enter our space. Here are a few common standards that come to mind. We might ask friends
not to smoke under our roof;
not to use illegal drugs;
to limit the consumption of alcohol;
not to bring food that we find objectionable (not to bring treif into a kosher home, not to bring allergens that could affect us);
or not to carry concealed weapons, assuming the host has an objection.
By extension from those examples one might well say that there is a standard for how couples behave in this space – that there is an expectation of a formal or informal arrangement that is the equivalent of marriage before we offer our guests to share a room. The hosts would likely need to explain their reasoning with a bit more detail, but such a limitation is possible. Note that it does not tell the couple how they should or should not behave sexually or as a couple, only that you have certain limitations. It's me, not you.
It might be reasonable to consider that certain circumstances might change the way one thinks about this question. For example, if there are young children in the house, would one want to control certain behaviors?
One aspect of this question that puzzles me is that usually when we have invited guests we know them well enough in advance that this situation would not come as a surprise. The time to have such a conversation is well in advance of a visit actually taking place in a setting in which one could articulate issues that cause you discomfort or concern. If the guest knew that the hosts were uncomfortable, for whatever reason, with them sharing a room with a single companion, would they even ask for such hospitality?
It must be added that if this situation led to a sudden confrontation – for example, the guest showed up with an unexpected companion and was told at the last minute that their expectations could not be met – I imagine that the friendship itself could be at stake. I would caution any host to think carefully about the ways in which their standards, however well-intended, might affect future relationships.
Abraham remains our standard. He conducted his life according to his own, high values, making him an exemplar in many ways. He also welcomed all who passed his way, understanding that their values differed from his. He chose to lead by example and in doing so drew many to follow his path. Abraham's standard is a high bar for any of us to meet, especially when we discover that our values clash with those we hold dear. May your home be filled with guests who add to the holiness of your space.
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