In the Jewish Grace after meals, Birkat ha-Mazon, there are lines specifically intended for the guest to say: and this table shall be as the table of Abraham; all those who hunger shall eat from it, and all those who thirst shall drink from it, and it shall never lack bounty, always and forever. I find in these lines a very beautiful image of hospitality.
Our first dinner guest was sprung up on us quite unexpectedly. The memory stands out vivid in my mind; we were a newlywed couple, married perhaps for a month or so, and it was one of the first Shabbats we spent in our home. We were just returning from the evening service when a stranger came up to us and asked if he may have a dinner with us. We exchanged startled looks, but somehow (if not very eloquently) we must have given our consent, because half an hour later this man was seated by our table. It turned out that he is our neighbour, a middle-aged bachelor with no family living nearby. For as long as we continued to be neighbours, he was often our guest. He used to bake the most wonderful pita bread, and it was initially through trying to emulate him that our passion for bread-baking grew and flourished.
When we moved to our new neighbourhood, several months ago, most people assumed we were committing an act of some serious social downscaling; we did, after all, move to an area with only a handful of families within walking distance from us. However, in our old neighbourhood we seldom dined with any of the families on our street, while here (where we have no street) we have guests over, and go to other people's homes, almost every Shabbat.
I am a scrupulous kind of person when it comes to receiving guests; I have good intentions of being hospitable and welcoming, and having my doors open to others, but when the rubber hits the road I often get these fretful nervous attacks, thinking that nothing is up to scratch - that the food I prepared isn't fancy or plentiful enough, my home is not clean or orderly enough, my children not disciplined enough to allow space for adult company to talk.
But all this passes in my mind before the dinner or lunch takes place; once we are in the thick of action, I feel very glad for having done it, as there is nothing like the exchange, fellowship, enrichment of discussion, and generally just the knitting of hearts and communities together, that takes place 'round a dinner table. Leisure time is plentiful, the children play together, and there is that ease and laughter that accompany a good meal in good company.
I am beginning to relax. Around here, an impromptu invitation usually assumes that the guests are bringing some food with them, which turns every shared meal to a spontaneous pot-luck party. I'm telling myself not to fret about the additional side dish I did not have time to make, and think instead that washing dishes after everyone is already bountiful enough. :o)
It never ceases to impress me just how much our society lost by, when people stopped regularly congregating around the dinner table. Food, family, fellowship - the magical trio. Immediate family first of all, of course, but then the circle is expanded; others are included, made to feel welcome. Jokes are shared, discussions spring up, ideas are born. Once people dispersed for time-efficient gobbling up of substandard food from plastic TV-trays, a crucial element of togetherness was abandoned. As a clinical nutritionist I feel qualified to say that at least half of all our modern obesity and other nutrition-related maladies would be solved by the return of the family table.
As wife and homemaker, I mingle in the neighbourhood more often than my husband does. It is up to me, therefore, to provide those links that can so enrich our lives and the lives of others. I truly believe there is no better way to make someone feel welcome and accepted, than invite that person to share a meal.
So my advice, to myself and to others, would be - take the plunge. Invite someone over; it doesn't have to be anything fancy. Perhaps you didn't prepare dessert; perhaps your home has a lived-in look (a couple of kids will give that perpetual air to a house); but your hospitality will be warmly appreciated as you toss on an apron and continue smiling and chatting with your guests while you soap up the dishes in the sink.