The Mysterious Guest
Wandering around the world, I heard of a man who had an unbelievable reputation for hospitality. (1) I couldn't believe that his kindness had no bounds, no limits. Investigating, I found out that he searched not only the immediate vicinity of his own shetetl for guests, but the entire surrounding area. People said that when he found a traveler or a person in need of any kind of help whatsoever, he went out of his way to treat him as a member of his own family. He never sat down to a weekday meal, let alone a Shabbos or holy day meal, without guests gracing his table. I was so awed by what I heard that I decided to see if it were true.
I disguised myself as a beggar, making certain that my clothes were tattered and torn, that I appeared dirty and unkempt. I placed myself in his shtetl of Gustinin, in the shul and sat on a corner of the bench, opposite the eastern wall, to rest and warm myself near the stove.
I dozed while I was waiting. It did not take long for me to be awakened by a man tapping me on the shoulder.
"Please wake up," he said. "You can't spend Shabbos here alone. You must come home with me where there is a delicious meal and a warm bed awaiting you."
He helped me to my feet, put his arm under mine to steady me and guided me the short distance to his home.
I entered a room that had truly been prepared to greet the Shabbos Queen. Two tables covered with festive white cloths stood perpendicular to each other in the center of a large dining room. Many pairs of candles sparkled in silver candlesticks; delicately embroidered cloths covered the golden twisted challot that were at the place of the head of each family. I saw his children and grandchildren waiting around the Shabbos table for him. When he entered the room, he greeted everyone with a warm "Good Shabbos," pointed to a chair on his right side, and motioned for me to sit down. His wife sat on his left. No one sitting at the table expressed surprise at my presence or at my appearance.
After singing "Shalom Aleichem," all rose to their feet. My host lifted the wine bottle, poured some wine into his goblet, raised it, and chanted the kiddush. He poured some wine into another goblet for his wife. When he finished, each of his sons and his son-in-law chanted the Kiddush and passed their goblets to their wives and children. Then my host turned to me and inquired gently, "Would you like to chant the Kiddush?"
"I'm not familiar with the words," I responded sheepishly.
"Then I will fetch you a siddur." He walked over to the bookcase, removed a siddur from a shelf, and returned to the table. Flipping through the pages, he located the Kiddush and placed it in front of me.
"I can't read the words," I muttered.
"Then I shall help you," he said. He pronounced one world and I repeated it. His family waited patiently while I stammered away at the words.
he didn't even ask me if I knew the blessing for ritual hand washing; he assumed that I needed help. I permitted him to wash my hands for me, then I threw the towel t the floor. I suspected that what I heard was true. Not one family member acted dismayed at my uncouthness. I realized that they were used to their father bringing home all kind of strangers.
Each family had two challot of their own. My host placed a very large slice in front of me. In an unmannerly fashion, I gobbled it down and motioned to him for another slice. I alternated a piece of challah and a gulp of wine until I had finished the entire challah and had emptied the Kiddush goblet in front of me. Unperturbed, my host went into the kitchen to fetch another challah, which I ate hungrily. I was served two portions of fish and I proceeded to scatter the bones all around my plate on the white tablecloth. I ate three portions of soup and four portions of pot roast, tzimmes, and kugel. I burped loudly twice.
"Are you still hungry?" my host asked me lovingly.
"Yes, I could still eat more," I muttered. He rose, went into the kitchen, removed the cholent pot from the stove and brought it into the dining room and set it in front of me. I finished the whole thing with great gusto. He never said one angry word either about my disgusting table manners or the amount of food I had consumed.
After the meal, my host asked me to hum along the Shabbos zemiros, but instead my head began to nod and I pretended to snore. In the middle of the grace after meals, I suddenly pulled myself up from my chair and stumbled over to an ivory and gold colored brocaded sofa, throwing my full weight and my muddy shoes across it with a resounding thud.
I noticed that my host didn't blink an eyelid, although the womenfolk looked at each other nervously. Thinking I might be cold, he covered me with three blankets as soon as he finished chanting the grace after meals.
While I pretended to sleep, the children and grandchildren returned to their own nearby homes, the tables were cleared, and the house became shrouded in deep darkness for the candles had burned down. I folded the blankets neatly, replaced them in the cupboard and disappeared from sight, satisfied that what I had heard about this man who practiced exemplary hospitality was true.
I hid behind a thick-barked, lush-foliaged, broad-branched oak tree near the fence of his property to see his reaction when he discovered that I had disappeared. He arose at daybreak. When he discovered that I was not on the sofa, he shouted,
"Where are you? Where are you?"
A few minutes later, he left and ran in the direction of the shul, apparently thinking that I had returned to my corner on the bench near the stove, but soon I saw him returning slowly, sadly, to his home without me. Then I heard him call to his wife that he was going to search for me at the marketplace, I waited. Again, I saw him run, again he returned without me. I knew he was clearly puzzled, but I could not reveal my true identity to him.
Finally, I left my watching post behind the tree, knowing that I had never met such a gracious host (2) before. I wondered if, in my future travels, I would meet anyone who would surpass his kindness.
1) Eliyahu HaNevi.
2) The host was Rebbe Yechiel Mayer Lifshitz, the Yehude Hatov, the Good Jew of Gustinin (1817-1888) noted for his meticulous observance of the middah of hospitality. He was also called the Tehillim Yid, the Psalm Jew. During his lifetime, the Jewish people suffered terrible hardships at the hands of the tzarist government. People came to him from the surrounding area, not only to sit at his Shabbos or holy day tish, but for advice on dealing with their problems, both with the government and the neighboring peasants. he would inevitably advise, "Recite Tehillim." He wrote down their problems, the numbers of the chapters of tehillim he had instructed them to recite, and he would recite them as well. People said, "Even though King David composed Tehillim, Rebbe Yechiel Mayer recited them with more fervor..." He went out of his way to guide his people in the ways of peaceful living, always mediating between antagonishts. He wrote his ethical will eight years before he died. In it, he instructed his children to, "Always distance yourselves from arrogance...and even if you should become very wealthy, know that money is a blessing from the Almighty...All mankind was created from the same mold, the people who suffer and the people who enjoy comfort...Know that my reprimands were only meant to direct you toward specific goals." (Rabbi Avraham Yitzchak Bromberg. Hayehudi Hatov meGustinin, Jerusalem: Bays Hillel Publishing. Lichtenstein and Holder, 1982)