“Hi Rabbi, while we’re Orthodox, our cousins belong to the Reform Temple in your neighborhood. They’ll be celebrating their son’s bar mitzvah in a few months. Would a family in your shul be willing to host my wife and me so we can stop in and wish our cousins mazal tov?”
“Hi Rabbi, I was offered a job in your area and my family would like to spend a Shabbat with your shul before we consider relocating. Can you help arrange this?”
“Rabbi, our family of six looks forward to vacationing at Hershey Park next week. We’d love to stay and spend Shabbat in your community. Can you accommodate us?”
As the rabbi of Harrisburg, Pennsylvania’s Orthodox shul, throughout the year I receive many requests such as the ones above. While a wonderful woman in our community runs a small kosher bed and breakfast, there is no hotel or motel located within our eruv (or within a forty-minute walk of our shul). As such, accommodating visitors who would like to spend a Shabbat in our community means asking one of the shul’s families to host them.
I only seek Shabbat accommodations for those who have a good reason to spend Shabbat in our community. (Extending a Hershey Park vacation just does not qualify.) Accommodating even the most wonderful family for Shabbat means asking a great deal from hosts who do not know them; requests for Shabbat accommodations are not infrequent (especially when Hershey Park is open for business) and our community has a limited number of families able to serve as hosts.
However, even when people have excellent reasons for requesting Shabbat hospitality, I find myself plagued by the following: When I ask one of our families if they can host people for Shabbat, I am asking them to welcome complete strangers into their home. In this day and age, is it safe for Jewish communities to remain naïve and continue with our open-door policy? What if someone contacted me with a request for Shabbat accommodations with the most legitimate of reasons and this individual turned out to be a dangerous person? What if this individual would then harm (God forbid) one of the members of the family who kindly welcomed him or her into their home? While nothing of this sort has happened on my watch (thank God), could I be so confident that it never would?
Then I had a revelation. It was a week or two before Yom Kippur, and as I prepared for that solemn day, I received the following e-mail:
My name is _____, and I live in _____. My firm has me scheduled to make a presentation on one of our top-selling products to a company in your area. However, they are only able to see me on Erev Yom Kippur. There’s no way I can make it home after the presentation prior to Yom Kippur. Would you be able to accommodate me so that I could spend Yom Kippur with you and your shul?
A discussion in the Talmud immediately came to mind: The mishnah in Yoma (1:5) teaches that prior to Yom Kippur, the elder Kohanim compelled the Kohen Gadol (High Priest) who would perform that year’s Yom Kippur service to take an oath of allegiance. With this oath, the Kohen Gadol swore that he would perform that day’s sacred service in full accordance with the Oral Law’s understanding of it. This version of the Temple service significantly differed with that espoused by the Sadducees—a powerful heretical sect of the era who based themselves on a purely literal reading of the Torah.
The mishnah concludes by telling us that following this oath, both parties would turn from one another and weep. What was it about this oath that made the participants cry? The Talmud explains (Yoma 19b) that the Kohen Gadol cried for having been suspected of being a Sadducee. The elder Kohanim wept for having suspected that a potentially innocent person was, in fact, a Sadducee.
As uncomfortable as this oath-taking ceremony was for all parties involved, it was instituted because reality necessitated it. In that era, Sadducee teachings posed a significant threat to the traditional Yom Kippur service. As such, the times demanded the Kohen Gadol’s oath of allegiance to rabbinic tradition. Both parties wept over the fact that the Jewish community had arrived at such a juncture.
Although it took too many painful incidents, it seems that the Jewish world has come to realize that, unfortunately, our community also has its share of abusers and dangerous individuals. Can we afford to ignore this reality? Doesn’t it make sense for us to do our due diligence before inviting strangers into our homes?
I sent the following reply:
Thanks so much for your e-mail. I’ll be happy to help, but first, can you send me the contact information of your rabbi who can serve as a reference?
When I received the information, I e-mailed the rabbi:
I hope you’re well. You know how the mishnah in Yoma states that prior to Yom Kippur, the Kohanim would ask the Kohen Gadol to take an oath to make sure he was not a Sadducee? The mishnah says that both parties would cry—the Kohen Gadol because he had been suspected, and the Kohanim for having suspected a potentially innocent person.
I feel the same way in sending you this e-mail. I’d love to help ______ with his Yom Kippur hospitality request. Before doing so, however, can you please vouch for him? I need to feel secure in asking a family to welcome him into their home.
I soon received a reply:
I totally understand you—and would do exactly the same. I know ______ and his family very well. They are shomrei Torah u’mitzvot and highly respected members of our community. I would certainly put them up in my own home if need be.
Confident in the rabbi’s assessment, my wife and I welcomed this traveling businessman to stay with us for Yom Kippur. He proved to be a charming and wonderful guest.
Since that Yom Kippur, I handle all (legitimate) Shabbat hospitality requests in the same manner. While this method is far from fool-proof (and not practical in emergency cases, i.e., someone is stranded in the area before Shabbat and I do not have the time to contact his or her hometown rabbi), it is quite effective. Keeping our homes—and those of our community members—safe and secure is a responsibility none of us should ever take lightly.
Rabbi Akiva Males is the rabbi of Kesher Israel Congregation, an OU shul in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania.