Inviting Guests on Rosh Hashanah

It’s not only about the teiglach

By: Rabbi Moishe Schnerb

It is the most frenetic of months! Firstly, just to come to terms with the reality that I’m going to have over 50 people at my Yom Tov table on the first night of Rosh Hashanah! What pressure! I better get my meat order in on time, or else… Should I really invite Auntie Gimpel? Last year she made such a scene with Uncle Fester! And how am I going to do the seating? Don’t forget those Teiglach. They must be just so hard on the outside, and soft and chewy on the inside, while the kneidlach, Bobba’s recipe dating back to the Stone Age, must “melt in your mouth”. The perfect meal, orchestrated by the perfect hostess. This is Rosh Hashanah in a nutshell (of course, without the nuts on Rosh Hashanah).

So much effort goes into preparing and fretting over the minutiae of the cuisine, the ambience and the trappings of this once-a-year ritual family get-together. Is that all there is to Rosh Hashanah? We know this is the time of reflection, of a painstaking self-audit, and a comprehensive self-talk focused on readying oneself to stand before the Supreme Court on the day when everything that’s going to transpire in the coming year, including our own continued tenure, is on the line. Where does a fancy feast with family, friends, and wannabes fit in? I would have thought that the mantra of this day should be “Repentance, Prayer, and acts of social responsibility for others”, and this would shape the modus vivendi by which we can achieve true reconciliation and affirmation from Hashem. Where does this extravagant show of culinary skill and talent play a leading role?

We may be very surprised to discover that this, in fact, is not the case, and hosting Rosh Hashanah meals has a pivotal role to play in the service of Our Creator on Rosh Hashanah. In the holy work called Elef Hamogen (583-4) it says that whoever invites guests on this day is considered to have imbued all of his prayers with the mystical secrets elucidated by our Kabbalistic mentors. This is positively mind blowing. What connection could there possibly be between welcoming guests and the deeper meaning of our prayers?

It is clear from our halachah, the Shulchan Aruch itself, that there is certainly an element of Simcha, of happiness in the celebration of this holiday. In fact, the verse itself refers to Rosh Hashanah as a Chag. Although it is the day of judgment, one is not even allowed to fast, and the elements of rejoicing that are present on other holidays definitely also apply here. The Chasam Sofer adduces additional proof from the fact that even in the Mishnah it is called a Yom Tov.

We can perhaps more easily fathom the importance and significance of this day, not only as the day where our lives are on the line, but because it is the first day of the new year and, as in all ventures, we realise that beginnings are so important. In the world of spirituality, beginnings bestow an outpouring of blessing, benevolence, and Hashem’s goodness to all that comes subsequent to the launch. This is analogous to our Shabbat which, as the premier day of our week, casts its light and splendour to all the subsequent days of the week.

This Sfas Emes labels the days of Rosh Hashanah as the “Day of Prayer”. He explains that Hashem has commanded us on this day to blow the shofar which is the means of transporting our prayers to the highest heavens. He explains that the Amidah contains three major sections. Firstly, in the three opening blessings we must praise and acknowledge Hashem as the purveyor of everything. In the final three blessings we express our gratitude as a slave who has just been given a wonderful free handout. In between these two components we sandwich the middle section of our prayers: sincere supplication for all of our needs. So too, he explains, are the order of our Shofar blasts which begin and end with a straight and proud Tekia and in between comes the Teruah, the broken hearted servants who beseech their Master for all of their needs.

The Midrash brings a verse in Tehillim (102-16): “He has turned to the prayer of the destitute and has not spurned their prayers,” and comments that this Posuk is referring to a generation where there is no Kohen Gadol, no prophets, and no Beit Hamikdash that can atone for them. It is only prayer that is left for them to offer up on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. King David beseeches Hashem to please not reject that Tefillah! This clearly demonstrates that the very essence of this holiday is prayer.

It is incorrect to assume that prayer can only be offered up when one is in a desperate state of despondency and needfulness. On the contrary, we are told in the Talmud[1] that one must not stand up to pray in a state of sorrow, nor in a state of slothfulness, not amongst laughter, nor amidst ridiculing chatter, and not in a state of light-headedness or immediately following banal chatter, but rather amidst the joy of performing a Mitzvah.

The Chasam Sofer in fact points out that prayer can only be successful if it is offered up from a deep place of happiness and not with sadness or broken desperation. He explains that in the Haftorah on the first day of Rosh Hashanah we are introduced to two women, co-wives of the saintly Elkana. Pnina has children and Chana does not. The Navi tells us that Pnina constantly angered her rival, teasing and provoking her to fury. He explains that Pnina’s motivation was pernicious. She hoped that Chana would then pray from the vantage point of crossness and vindictive indignation, and in that state of mind her Tefillos would never be accepted. It was only after her husband, Elkana, had appeased Chana and restored her equanimity that she able to come before Hashem and offer the prayer that would lead to her becoming a mother.

We can therefore conclude that the prescription for Rosh Hashanah to be a Chag and a time of happiness emanates from the very fact that this day is a day of prayer and prayer can only be effective in reaching the highest realms of the heavenly compound if it is fired with the “booster rockets” of a sublime state of joy.

Now, perhaps, we can begin to substantiate the connection between the hallowed practice of inviting hordes of family and friends with the significance of Rosh Hashanah, as the day of Tefillah, and how this particular custom can lead to one’s prayers being accepted on High. The underlying principle is that when one welcomes guests into his home, with the proper attitude and in the proper state of mind, it creates a tremendous sense of joy and accomplishment for the host. It is written in the name of Rav Pinchos Koritz that the injunction in the Torah to be joyous on Yom Tov is the verse v’hayisa ach sameach – you shall experience only joy. Every letter in the Hebrew alphabet corresponds to a particular number and the sum of all the numerical values of the letters in this phrase are equal to 800. As we have posited, the special mitzvah that is so appropriate on the holiday of Rosh Hashanah, as it is indeed on every Chag, is this mitzvah of welcoming guests or Hachnosat Orchim. The numerical value of those two words is also 800 because the true “cost benefit” of having guests in your home and allowing them to benefit from your radiance and your sincere desire to give creates for the host the physical and emotional pleasure that can bring the host to the highest pinnacles of joy, which as we have said is the real state of mind required to stand before Hashem and beg for one’s life, sustenance, and success.

Let it be known, however, that not always is inviting guests such a simple or straightforward event. It is easy to fill your home with friends, colleagues, people with whom you have many shared interests and with whom you enjoy spending time. This type of social interaction may provide many advantages for ourselves. It can promote networking opportunities and access to the kind of information and success-mongering that these types of people tend to engender. This, however, may not be the catalyst for the kind of growth that we are speaking about. The true welcoming of guests is the fulfilment of the Mishnah in Pirkei Avos which states “and let indigent people be part of your household”. These types of guests provide multiple opportunities, both in terms of providing for their physical needs as well as for the emotional and psychological dearth that they may be experiencing. It is not simple to have these types of people at your Shabbos table, as they are not necessarily on your social stratosphere and they clearly bring their peckel with them to every meal. Successfully integrating these visitors into your Shabbos guest list is exactly the joy we speak about that can be the key to a successful Rosh Hashanah and to many other areas. Sometimes, such a guest may tend to dominate the conversation and tell you the same stories over and over again – still invite them. If by the time a meal is over the area around his seat looks like an aerial view of a tundra – value them, and if they arrive with a redolence that makes it difficult to have them sit next to anybody – cherish them, because this can be a ticket for you to the most unbelievable achievements.

Recently the following question did the rounds. If you could invite to your Shabbos table any three individuals who lived from the beginning of time until the present, whom would you choose? The answers generally range over the entire gamut of history, ranging from Avrohom Avinu to more contemporary great Rabbinic personalities, to Einstein, Anne Frank, and even someone wanted Gary Player. When the question was posed to Rav Dovid Feinstein ztz”l, he said that the three people he would really love to have at his table would be the three neediest people in the world, so that he could practically fulfil this great mitzvah to its fullest extent. It is the performance of this mitzvah with the correct motivation and attention to detail that makes it the magnificent edifice it is meant to be.

In the same vein, it is brought in the Midrash and other sources that hosting guests creates a tremendous energy for a couple to have children. We see this in the Torah where Avraham and Sara hosted the three “guests” and immediately merited to be informed that they would have “baby Yitzchak”. In the book of Kings, the Shunamite woman constructed accommodation and hosted the prophet Elisha and immediately afterwards merited to have a child. The concept is the same, because it is well documented that a happy atmosphere in a home can be a factor in meriting children and guests could very well be the trigger for that felicity.

Two more great reasons why we should definitely have guests in our home on Rosh Hashanah:

Firstly, we are told that a person’s income for the entire coming year is determined and fixed on Rosh Hashanah. In heaven, when they see that already on Rosh Hashanah we stretch our budgets to host guests, they automatically increase our allocation for the coming year, because they must include funding to facilitate our fulfilment of this mitzvah.

Secondly, since it is the day of judgment, and all our mitzvos and aveiros will be weighed on a scale, this additional mitzvah can definitely tip the balance in our favour. Additionally, by welcoming guests into our homes, we can be saved from all types of terrible decrees and even from death. It is brought in the Zohar that when Hashem loves a person He sends him a gift. That gift is a poor guest! If we are up to the task, we draw upon ourselves a “thread of kindness” which is permanently etched into our being, and whenever there is some type of harsh decree in the world, this person is protected, and will not be affected by the edict. It is for this reason that before Hashem destroyed the city of Sodom, He sent Avraham three guests to dine in his home, and in the merit of Avraham‘s generosity, he merited to save his nephew Lot from that disaster.

So, as we prepare for this very busy period, let us ensure that just as we want our salmon and turkey perfectly seasoned and basted, so too our hachnosas orchim needs to be as perfect and well-intentioned as it can possibly be.

  1. Berochos 31a

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