Monday, November 27, 2006

On Hosting

Several years ago, I partook in a meal of some sort - I think it was Shalosh Seudos - sponsored by a husband and wife observing a yahrzeit, I think of the wife's father or grandfather. I think I was in Baltimore, Los Angeles, or possibly Toronto, but I don't remember for sure. (If anybody can figure out from the following account where I was or who the family was, please tell me.) Anyway, during the meal, the sponsoring husband spoke about the man whose yahrzeit was being commemorated. He had apparently been a rabbi in eastern Europe - Lithuania, I think; not one of the really famous ones, but a talmid chacham and respected leader of his community nonetheless. I don't remember much of what the speaker said about him, but one thing stuck in my mind. The speaker related that this rabbi had advised his wife not to put herself out too much, or to pour enormous energy, into hosting the houseguests they periodically had. He explained that if she tried too hard to be an exemplary hostess, she would end up feeling that having guests was a burden, and would be less amenable to putting people up - i.e., fulfilling the mitzvah of hachnasat orchim. Better, he advised, to be more modest in her hospitality, but to be always willing to provide it, than to put such effort into it that she would burn herself out and sometimes - consciously or otherwise - avoid hosting altogether.

I felt then, and still feel now, that this was truly wise and excellent advice. I travel not infrequently, and I have often been faced with the task of finding myself a place to stay. On several occasions I have struggled mightily to land myself a host, despite having many contacts in my destination city. How much happier I would have been to hear, rather than a gentle refusal on account of logistical considerations, the following: "You're welcome to stay here, but I don't think we'll have any beds available. I can give you a pillow and a sleeping bag, and you can sleep on the floor;" or "You can definitely sleep here, but we're eating out, so you'll need to arrange for meals for yourself." How much easier and less stressful my life would have been at those moments!

Additionally, I do not think I am unusual in preferring to stay with people who are moderate in the efforts they put into hosting me. I feel more comfortable in a home where I am treated more like a member of the family than like a guest at a hotel, because I find the experience far more relaxed and authentic. Hosts who roll out the red carpet for their guests and "go the whole nine yards" often put (generally unintended) pressure on the objects of their hospitality to put equal effort into being exemplary guests - through frequent and elaborate expressions of gratitude, fastidiousness in not imposing upon their hosts an iota more than they already are, etc. I think it is fair to say that the more effort a guest senses his host is putting into hosting him, the more the guest feels his presence to be an imposition, and the less comfortable he will consequently feel in asking for anything more. The experience of being a guest in such circumstances is simply more awkward and stressful than it would otherwise be.

Unquestionably, this is all a matter of taste. There are certainly people who enjoy being hosted in fine style, and consider anything less to be skimping, or even a slight. On the whole, however, I think the aforementioned rabbi's advice was good counsel to every potential host and hostess.

Thanks to SW for encouraging me to write this piece specifically, and to write, generally.

Thursday, November 16, 2006

FKM and I

The blogger known as "Freelance Kiruv Maniac" and I seem recently to have concluded a lengthy discussion about the scientific knowledge of Chazal; the reliability of scientific assertions contained in the Talmud in both halachic and aggadic contexts; and, in that regard, the appropriateness of banning the invocation of Rabbeinu Avraham ben Harambam's opinion (i.e., that Chazal made occasional scientific errors), as seems to have been the intention of Rabbi Y.S. Elyashiv and others in their banning of some of the books of Rabbi Natan Slifkin. The discussion took place in the comments on three posts on Freelance Kiruv Maniac's blog, as well as in the main body of the latter 2 posts. The posts are, in order:

Someone with an interest in the topic and a lot of time on his hands may find the discussion interesting.