Trudging through the desert in excruciating temperatures can bring anyone to the brink of insanity. No wonder a desert wanderer who sees water, trees and habitation ahead is never sure whether it is a real oasis or a mirage.
In Abraham’s time the wayfarers were fortunate. The oasis around his tent was no mere figment of the fevered imagination but absolutely real.
Tradition says his tent had four entrances, to ensure that no traveller had to exert himself to find the way in.
It sounds as if Abraham ran an inn, and that is indeed what we hear in rabbinic sources (Sotah 10a, Midrash on Psalm 110:1).
On the verse, “Abraham planted an eshel” (Gen. 21:33), the Midrash on Psalm 37:1 says that Abraham provided three services, summed up in the initial letters of eshel – achilah (food), sh’tiyyah (drink) and linah (lodging).
To Judaism, hospitality is a sacred virtue. Not even a great man like Abraham was too high and mighty to concern himself with people’s needs.
Rabbi Levi Yitzchak of Berditchev likewise personally attended to his guests’ comfort. He was asked why he did not leave such commonplace matters to his servants; he replied that this would deprive him of a mitzvah.
Today’s pressured pace makes it more difficult to give people hospitality. But inviting people for Shabbat and festivals in particular is a significant way of fulfilling the mitzvah.
Frequently visitors from elsewhere come to synagogue services and would appreciate an invitation. It is not that they are literally hungry and without food, but even if you have your own food organised it is no great pleasure to spend Friday night alone in a hotel room.
Hospitality is not merely for the benefit of guests but for the sake of the hosts. You get to know interesting people and your knowledge of so many subjects is stretched when you have visitors at your table. You also get to learn new tunes for old songs!