Bar-Ilan University's Parashat Hashavua Study Center

Parashat Vayera 5765/ October 30, 2004

Lectures on the weekly Torah reading by the faculty of Bar-Ilan University in Ramat Gan , Israel . A project of the Faculty of Jewish Studies, Paul and Helene Shulman Basic Jewish Studies Center, and the Office of the Campus Rabbi. Published on the Internet under the sponsorship of Bar-Ilan University 's International Center for Jewish Identity. Prepared for Internet Publication by the Computer Center Staff at Bar-Ilan University . Inquiries and comments to: Dr. Isaac Gottlieb, Department of Bible,


Receiving Guests in Homily and Halakhah*

Prof. Joseph Rivlin
Department of Talmud


The saying made famous by Rashi in this week’s reading, “Receiving guests is of greater [importance] than greeting the Divine Presence,” is used in a talmudic discussion (Shabbat 127a) as the foundation for a halakhic ruling.  In the Mishnah (Shabbat 18.1) it says:  “One may even clear away four or five baskets of straw or of grain for the sake of guests,” referring to carrying which involves great trouble and therefore is forbidden in principle on the Sabbath.   However, if this carrying is necessary in order to perform a commandment, as in clearing away baskets of grain so that one has room to seat guests at dinner, it is permitted.

The gemara cited above contains several passages attesting that welcoming guests is a commandment, including the one mentioned above. [1]    Maimonides cites this passage to instruct us in the commandment of escorting one’s guests, which is considered even more important than welcoming them (Hilkhot Evel, 14.2).   Various authors of responsa have used the passage mentioned in order to resolve other questions, as well, including Rabbi Hayyim Palaaggi (1788-1869, Chief Rabbi of Izmir), in discussing priorities for using money given for charity, ruled in accordance with this passage; [2] Rabbi Ovadiah Hadayah, who permitted feeding guests within the synagogue; [3] and Rabbi Eliezer Waldenberg, who established that to perform the commandment of welcoming guests one may make up the guests’ beds with freshly laundered linens even during the week of the Ninth of Ab. [4]

How is this principle deduced from this week’s reading?  The discussion in Tractate Shabbat cites the verse from this week’s reading in which Abraham says:  “If it please you, do not go on past your servant,” [5] but does not explain how this verse teaches us that receiving guests is more important than greeting the Divine Presence.   Tractate Shevuot (35b) presents a disagreement among tannaim on the interpretation of this verse.  The question is, to whom did Abraham address his words, “My lords [Heb. adonai], if it please you”?  Tanna kama, the anonymous first tannaitic authority said that Abraham was addressing the angels, and therefore adonai was not being used to indicate the sacred Name; whereas two other tannaim – Rabbi Hananiah, the nephew of Rabbi Joshua, and Rabbi Eleazar son of Azariah, citing Rabbi Eleazar ha-Moda’I – held that Abraham was addressing the Holy One, blessed be He, and hence ADNY referred to the sacred Name.  From the continuation of the discussion in the gemara it follows that the saying, “receiving guests is more important…” only follows from the position taken by the pair of tannaim, that ADNY was being used to refer to G-d.  Rashi’s commentary on this week’s reading presents both possibilities:   “He addressed the chief of them, … and in this context adonai is used in the ‘profane’ sense.  Another explanation, is that it is used in a ‘holy’ sense [addressing G-d], asking the Holy One, blessed be He, to wait for him while he ran and invited the guests to enter.”

Maimonides’ interpretation follows the gemara’s contention that the Name was used in the holy sense:   “All the uses of the Name with Abraham are in the holy sense.   Even the one where it was said, ‘My Lord, if it please you,’ referred to G-d.” [6]   However, one should note Maimonides’ further remarks:

The reward for seeing off is greatest of all.   This is a rule established by our patriarch Abraham, in the gracious behavior that he showed, giving food and drink to travelers and seeing them on their way.   Receiving guests is greater than receiving the Divine Presence, as it is said, “Looking up, he saw three men.”   And seeing them off is greater than receiving them; our Sages said that whoever does not see off is as if he were shedding blood.  (Hilkhot Avel, loc. sit.)

Maimonides did not deduce this from the verse, “If it please you, etc.,” but from the verse, “Looking up, he saw three men ...” (Gen. 18:2).  In other words, he deduced it from the story itself, that Abraham left the Holy One, blessed be He, waiting while he ran to tend to his guests.

Maharsha deduced this principle in the same the way as Maimonides and even proved from the discussion in the gemara that this is the preferable way of learning it.  It follows from the discussion in Tractate Bava Metzia (86a) that Abraham requested of the Holy One, blessed be He, “pray do not go on past Your servant,” but this had no connection to his guests.   Indeed, the tosafists (loc. sit.) point out a contradiction between the discussion in Tractate Shabbat and the discussion in Tractate Bava Metzia.   In order to resolve this contradiction, Maharsha said that Abraham had indeed asked G-d to stay in the verse mentioned, with no connection to his guests (according to the discussion in Bava Metzia), while the lesson that receiving guests is greater than receiving the Divine Presence is learned from the subject matter itself (Maharsha loc. sit., s.v. ve-hayinu).

We raise three related points:

1.       From the discussion in Tractate Shevuot it follows that the saying, “Receiving guests is greater than greeting the Divine Presence,” is deduced from the specific biblical verse, not from the events of the story as they unfolded.

2.       Now if it is not learned from the specific verse, why was it necessary in the talmudic discussion to make the point that the word ADNY was being used to refer to G-d?

3.       Finally, can we really learn the maxim from the story itself?  For if one does not base the argument on Abraham telling the Lord to “wait a minute” while he greeted his guests, perhaps Abraham ran to receive his guests after G-d had finished visiting him, and then there would be no proof that receiving guests is greater than greeting the Divine Presence? [7]

As for the first point, one could answer that the texts which we have presented are not the only versions of Tractate Shabbat.   According to other variants, the principle is not deduced from the single verse mentioned, rather from a group of verses that describe Abraham’s devotion to his guests. [8]

To resolve the second point, Rabbi Rothe precedes this subject with a preliminary discussion of another, related issue.   The gemara says:   “Uriah the Hittite ... rebelled against the ruling authorities, for he said to him, ‘and my lord Joab...’ (II Sam. 11:11).”  Rashi explains: “ and my lord Joab – this was rebellion, calling him lord in the presence of the king.”   In other words, in front of the king one should not address someone else as “lord,” for this term of address is reserved for the king himself, and someone who violates this rule is a rebel. [9]   Accepting this interpretation of Rashi’s, we can suggest an additional way of explaining the disagreement between the tannaim in Tractate Shevuot, and relate it to further study of this week’s reading.

Rabbi Eliyahu Mizrahi presents a disagreement regarding whether the visit paid by the Holy One, blessed be He and the conversation about Sodom, further on in this week’s reading, both occurred in a single revelation, or whether they were two separate ones (see the beginning of Vayera).   Those who hold that it was a single revelation, and that the Holy One, blessed be He, continued to remain with Abraham, are obliged to hold that the word ADNY was used in its sacred sense, for one could not possibly address anyone else as adonai, “my lord,” in the presence of the Lord.  But those who hold that there were two revelations, and that the first one had drawn to a close, could view ADNY as being used in the profane sense.

This, according to Rabbi Rothe, provides a good resolution for the remarks of Maharsha on Bava Metzia. Abraham indeed addressed G-d, asking Him not to leave, but not because of his guests.   Since G-d remained while Abraham turned to care for his guests, from the story itself we learn that welcoming guests is greater.  Maimonides’ interpretation that ADNY was surely used in its sacred sense also fits in well.  Accordingly it is clear that learning the moral from the story itself necessitates an approach that maintains ADNY was used in the sacred sense.   Thus, we resolve the third point as well. [10]

The Vilna Gaon Rabbi Eliyahu (18th century) also apparently had a variant form of the discussion in Tractate Shevuot, according to which the lesson that receiving guests is greater is not deduced from the verse mentioned, but from the entire story.  Regarding the question mentioned above, whether the encounter with the Holy One, blessed be He, might have already drawn to a close, the Gaon responds quite simply on the basis of close analysis of the language used in the verse.  His argument runs as follows:

In the laws regarding the sanctity of the Temple and synagogues, there are various supplementary rules, which go into effect even after the basic commandment has been performed.   For example, Maimonides states (Hilkhot Beit Ha-Behirah 7.4):  “Whoever has finished worshipping and is departing should not leave with his back side to the Sanctuary, but should walk backwards little by little.”   This is learned from the gemara (Tractate Yoma 53a). [11]

There is another such halakhah which says that after performing a commandment, one should not run.   As Maimonides ruled (Hilkhot Tefillah u-Nesi’at Kapayim 8.2):  “It is a commandment hurry to the synagogue, as it is said, ‘Let us pursue obedience to the Lord’ (Hos. 6:3), but when leaving the synagogue one should not take large strides, rather go little by little.”  The Shulhan Arukh rules similarly (Orah Hayyim, 90.12).   An explanation for this is provided in the Mishnah Berurah (loc. sit., par. 43):   “It is forbidden to run or take large strides, since that would make it appear that delaying in the synagogue was burdensome to him, slowing him on his way to his own affairs.”  

According to the halakhah, the rule is different when one is on the way from performing one commandment to performing another commandment.  Specifically, if the next commandment is of equal weight to the one just performed, one should take the middle-of-the-road, going at a leisurely pace for some distance and beginning to run only as one approaches the place for performing the next commandment.  If, however, the second commandment is of greater weight, one can run to perform it from the outset.  As the Mishnah Berurah explains further on (loc. sit.):  “If one is leaving in order to return, it is a commandment to run in order to return quickly; likewise, if one is leaving the synagogue to go to the house of study, in order to study Torah [he may run].”   This, too, is learned from the gemara (Berakhot 6b).

In light of these laws which show respect for a mitzvah, the Vilna Gaon interprets our subject, on the basis of a precise reading of the text:  “As soon as he saw them he ran from the entrance of the tent to greet them” (Gen. 18:2).   From this verse we may deduce that Abraham turned the other way, and immediately ran from the entrance of the tent.  This means, says the Vilna Gaon in the light of the halakhic rulings mentioned, that the new commandment was greater than the preceding one; from this one can deduce that receiving guests is a greater commandment than meeting the Divine Presence. [12]

Thus, the Midrash Aggadah and the halakhah go hand in hand.  On one hand, we see that the homiletic interpretation is based on rules of halakhah, and on the other, once a homiletic interpretation takes shape, it has an impact on halakhic rulings.

* This article is adapted from a lecture given in memory of my father and teacher, Rabbi Shmuel S. Rivlin, who passed away on the 26th of Heshvan, 5755.

[1] The discussion in Tractate Shabbat became a rule of halakhah in the Shulhan Arukh, Orah Hayyim 333.1.   The Mishnah Berurah cites additional rules of halakhah having to do with receiving guests; see Orah Hayyim 53, sect. 55; 515, sect. 12.

[2] Resp. Hayyim Be-Yad, par. 64.   Also see loc. sit., par. 67.

[3] Resp. Yaskil Avdi, part 1, Orah Hayyim, par. 7.

[4] Resp. Tzitz Eliezer, part 13, par. 61.   Also see Resp. Ateret Paz of Rabbi Pinhas Zavihi (Israel), part 1, vol. 2, Yoreh De’ah, par. 2, note 3, on feeding guests from fruits which are of doubtful tithing (demai).

[5] Gen. 18:3.  Some of these sources are discussed by Rabbi Meshulam Rothe (Israel), Resp. Kol Mevaser 1.44.

[6] Maimonides, Hilkhot Yesodei ha-Torah 6.9.   Also see the Jerusalem Talmud, Megillah 1.9, 71a, where the position stated is that ADNY is used in the sacred sense.   Cf. Maimonides, Guide for the Perplexed 1.61; 2.43.  Also see Malbim, Eretz Hemdah (Parashat Vayera).

[7] See Rif’s remarks on Ein Ya’akov, Tractate Shabbat 127a.

[8] Cf. Dikdukei Soferim, loc. sit.

[9] Kiddushin 43a.  Note that the tosafists (s.v. mored) take issue with Rashi’s explanation.

[10] For further reading, see Kol Mevaser, loc. sit.

[11] See Beit Yosef (Tur, Orah Hayyim 123.3) regarding the three steps taken when concluding one’s prayers.

[12] D. àìéàê, Peninim mi-Shulhan ha-Gra, Jerusalem 1994, p. 43;   S. S. Rivlin, Or Shemuel, Ramat-Gan 1984, p. 15.