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Parashat Shoftim (Deuteronomy 16:18-21:9)

“When you approach a town to attack it, you shall offer it terms of peace.” (Deut. 20:10)

JCC leaders consistently identify hachnasat orchim, or hospitality (literally: bringing in guests) as a signature value of the JCC Movement. The Biblical precedent is Abraham’s response to the three strangers: he greets them, feeds them, and escorts them on their way (Gen. 18:1-8, 16). Parashat Shoftim provides a second prooftext and a deeper insight.

Shoftim ends with instructions for dealing with an unidentified corpse found in the open, midway between two communities. The elders of the closest community are responsible for the absolution ritual, during which they must testify they did not kill the stranger (Deut. 21:7). The rabbis wonder about this: could anybody imagine an elder doing such a thing? They decide instead it must be the elders testify they did not know of the stranger’s presence, otherwise they would have escorted him on his way (Babylonian Talmud Sotah 45b). The inference is clear: an escort might have prevented a murder. Maimonides (1137-1204; the preeminent Spanish medieval Jewish philosopher) builds on this interpretation, asserting escorting guests is the most important of the three elements of hachnasat orchim, and a host who doesn’t escort a guest is paramount to a murderer (Mishnah Torah, Laws of Mourning 14:2). Being a good host is serious business.

It is easy to practice hachnasat orchim with friends we know and are comfortable with. But both these Biblical stories describe hospitality extended to strangers, which asks a lot more of us. And that is exactly the point: hachnasat orchim is one way for strangers to become friends and friendship is one building block of community. Besides, escorting guests also contributes to 10,000 daily steps.

Gut Shabbos/Shabbat Shalom


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