Being a Good Guest, or The Halachic Etiquette When Visiting Someone’s House
Parshas Va’Yera describes how Avraham Avinu treated his guests, and how his angelic guests behaved. From these interactions, Chazal derive many halachos pertaining to the behavior of a guest in someone’s house.
Some of these rules are fairly self-explanatory. For example, a guest should not bring with him another guest (Bava Basra 98b).
A guest should feel that whatever the host serves and prepares is in his honor. The Gemara explains, “What does a good guest say? How hard the host worked for me! How much meat he brought! How much wine he served! How many dainty dishes he prepared! And all this he prepared for me!”
On the other hand, what does a bad guest say? “Did the host work for me? I ate only one roll and one piece of meat and drank only one cup of wine. All the work he did was done for his wife and children!”
A STRANGE CONVERSATION
In the context of learning proper etiquette, the Gemara (Pesachim 86b) records the following anomalous story. Rav Huna the son of Rav Nosson visited the house of Rav Nachman bar Yitzchak, where apparently Rav Huna was not known. His hosts asked Rav Huna, “What is your name,” to which he replied “Rav Huna.” They then offered him to sit on the couch, although everyone else was sitting either on the floor or on benches, and the couch was reserved for special guests. Rav Huna sat on the couch and did not decline the honor. Subsequently, they brought him a kiddush-sized cup full of wine, which he immediately accepted and drank in front of them, but he paused once in the middle of drinking.
Rav Nachman’s household, which included talmidei chachamim, felt that Rav Huna’s responses to their invitations were inappropriate and peppered him with questions about his behavior. (Since he had identified himself as a talmid chacham, all of his acts could teach someone a halachic lesson. However, they disagreed and felt that he had not acted correctly; it was therefore appropriate to ask him to explain his behavior.) The conversation that ensued is the source of many halachos.
“Why did you introduce yourself as ‘Rav Huna?’” they first asked. Is this an appropriate way to identify oneself?
Rav Huna responded: “That is my name.”
“Why did you sit on the couch when we offered?” They felt that it would have been proper for him to politely refuse the honor and to sit on the floor with everyone else (Tosafos).
Rav Huna retorted by quoting the now famous halachic adage, “Whatever the host asks you to do, you should do (see Mesechta Derech Eretz Rabbah 6:1).”
The hosts continued, “When we offered you the cup, why did you accept it the first time we offered it?”
To which Rav Huna replied, “One may refuse a small person, but one should not refuse the request of a great person.” As we will see shortly, the source for this halacha is in this week’s parsha.
The hosts then inquired, “Why did you drink the small cup of wine we gave you in two gulps, rather than drink it all at once?”
Rav Huna countered, “The earlier authorities taught us that only a guzzler drinks a whole cup of wine at once and arrogant people drink a cup with three sips. The proper way to drink a cup of wine is in two swallows (Mesechta Derech Eretz Rabbah 8).”
Finally, his hosts asked, “Why did you not turn your face when drinking?” A talmid chacham should not eat or drink in the presence of many people (Gemara and Rashi, Bechoros 44b). To this Rav Huna replied that only a bride should be so modest; for anyone else this is not considered modesty (Rashi, Pesachim 86b).
WHAT DID THEY MEAN?
In the course of this puzzling conversation, Rav Huna taught his hosts (and us) several halachos germane to proper etiquette that need to be understood properly. We will now dissect the conversation between these scholars to understand its underlying lessons.
1. He identified himself as “Rav Huna.” Isn’t this a conceited way of introducing oneself? Why would Rav Huna, a great Torah scholar and tzadik, have done this?
The source of this halacha (Nedarim 62a) reads as follows:
Rava pointed out that two verses seem to contradict one another. In one verse, Ovadiah says to Eliyahu, your servant has feared Hashem from his youth (Melachim I 18:12), implying that it is appropriate to make a true statement about one’s spiritual accomplishments. On the other hand, Mishlei (27:2) declares, someone else should praise you, but not your mouth. Rava explains that the pasuk in Mishlei applies only when there are people present who can notify others that this person is a talmid chacham. However, if no one here knows that he is a talmid chacham, he may notify people of his special status in order to receive his deserved rights and so that people are not punished for treating him disrespectfully (Rosh, Nedarim 62a).
Since the members of Rav Nachman’s household were unaware that Rav Huna was a talmid chacham, it was appropriate for him to bring this to their attention (Meiri; Maharsha).
It is noteworthy that when Rav Huna explained why he had identified himself as Rav Huna, the Gemara quotes him as saying baal hashem ani, which Rashi seems to explain as meaning, this was always my name. However, this is not the usual way in either Hebrew or Aramaic of telling someone one’s name or appellation. Alternatively, the words baal hashem ani can be interpreted as meaning, I am well known by that name, which implies that he was a well-known personage, although he was apparently unknown by the members of Rav Nachman’s household (see Meiri). Thus, he was responsible to inform them who he was so that they should not treat him disrespectfully.
WHY NOT SIT ON THE COUCH?
2. The hosts proceeded to inquire about his next act:
“Why did you sit upon the couch when we invited you?” Apparently, they felt that it was inappropriate for him to sit on the couch and he should have politely refused the honor. To this inquiry Rav Huna replied, “Whatever the host asks you to do, you should do.”
Did the hosts indeed want him to sit in the finest seat in the house, or were they simply being polite? Is the host’s offer genuine, or does he really prefer that I refuse the offer? It is not unusual to face this type of predicament.
Rav Huna answers that when the host’s intent is unclear, one should assume that his offer is sincere and do as he suggests.
There is a clear exception to this rule. When one suspects that the host cannot afford his offer and is only making it out of embarrassment, one should not accept his offer. This is referred to as a seudah she’ainah maspekes libaala, lit., a meal insufficient for its owner (Rambam, Hilchos Teshuvah 4:4; also see Gemara Chullin 7b and Rashi).
DO WHAT THE HOST ASKS
Why should one do whatever the host requests?
Here are two interpretations of this statement of Chazal:
A. A visiting (nonpaying) guest should do whatever the host asks him to, since this is a form of payment for services rendered. In return for free accommodations, the guest should reciprocate by performing the tasks and errands the host requests of him (Bach, Orach Chayim 170).
In a sense, this parallels the modern practice of presenting the host with a gift. (One can find halachic sources for this practice in the Sefer Orach Meisharim 18:2.) The gift reciprocates the host’s kindness. However, the host often prefers different favors, such as babysitting, rather than a box of chocolates that his waistline can do without, or an additional bouquet of flowers that will soon wilt. Therefore, one’s reciprocation can consist of doing any appropriate favors for the host.
In a similar vein, if one has the opportunity to reciprocate hospitality, one should do so (Orach Meisharim 18:2). However, neither host nor guest may specify in advance that the hosting will be reciprocal because of concerns of ribbis, prohibited paying and receiving interest on a loan (Rama, Orach Chayim 170:13), since the one who hosts first has in essence extended his hospitality as a loan to the other!
A DIFFERENT APPROACH
B. Courtesy dictates that a guest in someone’s house should respect his host and fulfill his requests as Master of the house (L’vush). Rav Huna ruled that denying the host’s request to honor his guest contradicts the host’s authority as Master of the house. By sitting on the couch and accepting the honor, the guest affirms his host’s authority to honor whomever he wishes in his home.
In many societies, turning down a host’s offer of a cup of tea or coffee is considered insulting. If one is unaware of local custom, one should follow Chazal’s instructions as Rav Huna did.
IF THE HOST HAS DIFFERENT KASHRUS STANDARDS
What happens if the host and the guest interpret the laws of kashrus in different ways? Must the guest follow the host’s request to join him for a meal?
If the guest follows a stricter halachic opinion that the host, the guest should apprise the host. The host may not serve the guest food that does not meet the guest’s standard unless the food is obviously something he may not eat (Shach, Yoreh Deah 119:20). For example, if the guest observes cholov yisroel fully and the host follows the poskim who permit unsupervised milk in modern Western society, the host may not cook anything that does not meet the guest’s standards without telling him. However, he may place food on the table that is obviously not cholov yisroel. Similarly, if the guest notifies the host that he uses only food with a specific hechsher, the host may not serve him food that violates this standard.
Once a halacha-abiding host knows his guest’s standards, the guest may assume that the host is accommodating his standards and eat whatever is served without further questions (Shach, Yoreh Deah 119:20). This is included in Chazal’s adage, whatever the host asks you to do, you should do, since questioning the host’s standards unnecessarily is offensive. Offending someone is always halachically reprehensible, and certainly when he has done one a favor.
On the other hand, if the guest has a personal halachic stringency that he would rather not divulge, he should not violate his chumrah and he is not required to divulge it (Shaarei Teshuvah 170:6; Ben Yehoyada).
Generally, one should be modest when it comes to any chumrah (Birkei Yosef 170:6). Of course, one should always be aware that taking on personal chumros comes at a price, and one would discuss the matter with a gadol prior to observing a chumrah. (See the important discussion on this point in Michtav Mei’Eliyahu Volume 3 pg. 294.)
Our editions of the Gemara Pesachim 86b have two Hebrew words appended to the end of the statement whatever the host asks you to do, you should do. The additional words are, chutz mi’tzei, except leave, and therefore the passage reads, Whatever the host asks you to do you should do, except leave. It is unclear if these words are an authentic part of the text as they are not mentioned in Mesechta Derech Eretz, the source of the original statement. Some very authoritative commentators (Meiri) take exception to it, and Tur and Shulchan Aruch both omit it. The Meiri reports that these words are an incorrect textual emendation added by clowns and should be disregarded.
Nevertheless, other authorities (Bach, Magen Avraham, Ben Yehoyada) accept these words as part of the text and grapple with different possible interpretations.
What does this text mean? I found numerous interpretations of this text, including six different interpretations in one sefer (Ben Yehoyada) alone! Several of these approaches assume that performing whatever the host requests means reciprocating his favors, the first approach I mentioned above. According to these approaches, the words chutz mitzei mean that the guest is not expected to perform any inappropriate activity for the host. This would include the host asking the guest to run an errand for him outside the house, which the guest may refrain from since it is unacceptable to ask someone to run an errand in a city with which he or she is unfamiliar (Bach, Orach Chayim 170).
Nevertheless, if the host requests the guest to do something that he would ordinarily not do because it is beneath his dignity he should perform it anyway (Birkei Yosef 170:5).
THE STRANGE CONVERSATION
We now revert to explaining the original conversation that transpired between Rav Huna and his hosts.
3. The hosts continued, “When we offered you the cup, why did you accept it the first time we offered it?”
To which Rav Huna replied, “One may refuse a small person, but one should not refuse the request of a great person.”
THE INCONSISTENT ANGELS
It is interesting to note that this particular rule of etiquette is based on a passage in this week’s parsha. When Avraham Avinu invited the angels to dinner they immediately accepted, whereas when his nephew Lot invited them they initially turned him down. Only after he begged them repeatedly did they accept his invitation (Breishis 15:1-5, 16:1-3). Why did they accept Avraham’s invitation immediately and initially turn down Lot’s offer? The Gemara (Bava Metzia 86b) answers because of this rule – one may refuse a small person, but one should not refuse a great person.
This halacha has ramifications for other non-guest situations. When someone is asked to lead the services in shul (usually called to daven before the amud), he should initially decline the offer as a sign of humility. However, if a great person, such as the Rav of the shul, asks one to lead the services, one should immediately agree.
4. The hosts now inquired, “Why did you drink the small cup of wine we gave you in two gulps, rather than drink it all at once?”
Rav Huna countered, “The earlier authorities taught us that only a guzzler drinks a whole cup of wine at once, and arrogant people drink a cup with three sips. The proper way to drink a cup of wine is in two swallows” (Mesechta Derech Eretz Rabbah 8).
A reviis-size cup of wine, which is about three ounces, should be drunk in two sips; not all at once, and not in more than two sips. It is preferable to drink about half the cup each time rather than to drink most of it and leave just a small sip for afterwards (Magen Avraham 170:12). If the cup is smaller, the wine is very sweet, or the person drinking is very obese, one may drink the entire cup at one time (Gemara Pesachim 86b, as understood by Magen Avraham 170:13). When drinking beer, one may drink a greater amount in each gulp since beer is less intoxicating than wine; and certainly when drinking non-alcoholic beverages (Magen Avraham 170:13). On the other hand, if the drink is very strong, one may drink it much slower (Aruch HaShulchan 170:9). Thus it is appropriate to sip whiskey or other strongly intoxicating beverage slowly.
TURNING YOUR FACE?
5. Finally, his hosts asked, “Why did you not turn your face when drinking?” To this Rav Huna replied that only a bride should be so modest. What is this conversation about?
A talmid chacham should not eat or drink in the presence of many people (Gemara and Rashi, Bechoros 44b). The hosts felt that Rav Huna should not have eaten in their presence without turning to the side so that they could not see him eat. Rav Huna held that the halacha that a talmid chacham should not eat or drink in the presence of many people does not apply when one is eating a meal together with other people. However, a bride should not eat in a way that other people see her eating, even if they are all participating together in a festive meal (Tosafos, Bechoros 44b s.v. vi’ayn). Therefore, Rav Huna replied that only a bride should be so modest; for anyone else this is not considered modesty (Rashi, Pesachim 86b).
The halacha is that one should not eat in the street or marketplace (Kiddushin 40b), and on the other hand, one should not stare at someone who is eating or at the food that he is eating because it embarrasses him or her (Rambam, Hilchos Brachos 7:6; Shulchan Aruch Orach Chayim 170:4).
As we see, Chazal had tremendous concern that a person act appropriately in all circumstances. We should apply this lesson to our daily lives.