Avraham’s Great Meal
Sponsored by Matisyahu and Hodaya Abarbanel in honor of Rabbi Citron’s recent birthday
Parsha Halacha is underwritten by a grant from Dr. Stephen and Bella Brenner in loving memory of Stephen’s father, Shmuel Tzvi ben Pinchas, and Bella’s parents, Avraham ben Yitzchak and Leah bas HaRav Sholom Zev HaCohen
To sponsor or subscribe, please email firstname.lastname@example.org
For a print version of this article click here
The Torah portion of Vayeira begins with the story of how Avraham hosted three men (who turned out to be angels) for a meal and how after the meal he was blessed by one of them to have a son the next year (Gen. 18).
It is well known that Avraham was the embodiment of the Divine trait of kindness. (See Sefer HaPardes 22:4 in the name of Sefer HaBahir, quoted in HaYom Yom, Cheshvan 22.) One of the ways he showed this kindness was by hosting guests. Although he did this all the time (see Zohar 1:102b and Bereishit Rabbah 54:6), he exhibited this kindness in an exemplary manner in the meal described in the beginning of this Parsha.
The Talmud (Bava Metzia 86b and 87a) discusses this meal at length and explains both the tremendous effort Avraham put into it as well as the reward his descendants reaped from it.
Below are excerpts from that discussion from which we can learn how to treat our guests and other people in general.
Didn’t Take No for an Answer
According to our sages, the day that this story took place was the third day after Avraham’s Brit Milah which is the most painful day. Because G-d did not want Avraham to have to trouble himself with guests, He made it exceedingly hot by removing the protective cover of the sun. Avraham sent his trusted servant Eliezer outside to look for guests, but Eliezer came back empty-handed. Avraham said to himself, “One cannot trust a slave,” and he went to look for guests himself.
- Didn’t G-d Know that Avraham Wanted Guests?
The commentaries wonder why G-d removed the protective cover of the sun when He certainly knew that Avraham would want guests anyways. In fact, this only made it more difficult for Avraham who went out in the heat to find guests.
The commentaries offer the following answers:
- The Maharal of Prague explains (in Chiddushei Aggadot) that G-d was planning to send the angels to Abraham in any case, but He made it very hot so as not to trouble him with additional guests.
- Rabbi Uri Feivel of Dubenka (a student of the Baal Shem Tov who passed away in 1806) writes (in Ohr HaChochma al HaTorah quoted by Yishai Chasida in Chassidut al HaShas) that G-d increased the heat of the sun in order to begin destroying Sodom and Amorah, but that Avraham tempered that judgment by his kindness in hosting guests and thus delayed that punishment (by one day).
- The Lubavitcher Rebbe explains (Likutei Sichot vol. 5 pg. 359 and on) that originally, when G-d heated up the day, Avraham was not upset at not having guests. But after G-d appeared to him, Avraham achieved a higher spiritual level, and he then desired to seek out and find guests whom he could shower with kindness.
- Not Trusting Eliezer
It is difficult to understand why Avraham would not trust Eliezer who was a Tzadik who taught Avraham’s Torah to the masses (see Yoma 28b and Rashi on Gen 15:2.)
The Ben Ish Chai (in Ben Yehoyadah) explains that Avraham was concerned that Eliezer was lying about the guests in order to prevent Avraham from exerting himself during his recovery.
The fifth Gerrer Rebbe (Bais Yisroel, Vayeira 5711) explains that Eliezer was speaking the truth and that there were no travelers on the road at that time. But due to Avraham’s strong desire to be kind to others, G-d arranged for guests (i.e., the angels) to arrive so that he could fulfill this mitzvah. When Avraham said that “one cannot trust a slave” he meant that Eliezer’s trust in G-d was lacking as he didn’t believe (strongly enough) that one’s desire to do a mitzvah can create that mitzvah opportunity.
- Lesson Number One: Seek Out Kindness
When it comes to doing kindness for someone else, one should not wait until the need presents itself. Rather one should actively search for opportunities to help others. As King Solomon said (Mishlei 21:21), “He who pursues charity and kindness will find life, charity, and honor.” As the Chafetz Chaim said (Ahavat Chessed 12), “One should make sure to not miss [showing] the trait of kindness even for one day in his life just as one must be very careful to study Torah every day.”
A Kind Person vs. a Merciful Person
Rabbi Chayim of Chernovitz makes a similar point (Be’er Mayim Chayim, Parshat Chayei Sarah D.H. Vataratz HaNa’arah). He writes, “A Ba’al Chessed (kind person) will seek out a poor person to help. His heart will burn while he seeks to look and find… [even] one person… that needs his help. He will then give him graciously. In the morning he (a kind person) gets up and goes to find poor and destitute people so that he might be able to help them because he desires to do good….
“Some people are called Ba’alei Rachamim (merciful people). Such a person does not seek out a poor person to assist. Rather, if he comes across a poor person and he sees his pain because the poor person shows his pain visibly, he will then have mercy on him and give him graciously. But if he never sees a poor person in his entire life, he will not consider on his own that there may be someone who needs assistance.”
One who assists others before he is asked to do so is on the Rambam’s fifth highest level of charitable giving, as the Rambam writes (Matnot Aniyim 10:11), “A lower level than that is giving the poor person in his hand before he asks.”
Insisted on Hosting
The Talmud says that when the angels saw that Avraham was changing his bandages, they stopped approaching him. At that point Avraham ran towards them and invited them to stay. The verse alludes to this when it says (verse 2) “And he lifted his eyes and saw, and behold, three men were standing beside him, and he saw and he ran toward them,” i.e., first they were standing beside him but he then had to run towards them.
- Lesson Number Two: Find a Way to Help
If one sees a person who needs assistance, make sure to help him even if (at first) that person refuses to accept the help. Along this line, the Talmud (Ketubot 67b) says that if a poor person needs charity but refuses to take it, one should tell him that he is giving it to him as a loan and then not ask for payment of the loan. Similarly, the Jerusalem Talmud (Peah 8:8) says that when Rabbi Yonah would see a person from a good family who fell on hard times, he would help him in the following manner (since the individual was not willing or accustomed to receiving outright charity). He would say, “I heard you will be getting an inheritance from a distant relative. I will lend you money until it arrives, and you will pay me back then.” After the person accepted the money, he would tell him (at some later point) that he did not need to pay it back and that he should consider it a gift. This is the meaning of the verse (Theillin 41:2) “Lucky is one who gives wisely to the poor,” i.e., he gives it in a wise way to make sure that the poor person accepts it.
Did It Himself
Although Avraham was a wealthy man with many servants and assistants, Avraham personally attended to his guests (see Ramban on verse 7), as the Talmud says, Avraham did the following himself:
- He ran to get the calf (or calves, see below) as it says (verse 7), “And to the cattle did Avraham run.”
- He stood and served them, as it says (in verse 8), “And he was standing over them under the tree, and they ate.”
- He gave them butter and milk, as it says (ibid), “And he took cream and milk.”
- Lesson Number Three: Personal Assistance
The mitzvah of loving-kindness includes assisting people personally with whatever they need, whether they be rich or poor. As Rabbeinu Yonah writes (Sha’arei Teshuvah 3:13), “There is a mitzvah of loving-kindness (גמילות חסדים) which is very important but many people are not careful about it… A person is obligated to work hard to seek out the best for his nation (fellow Jews) and toil immensely to assist one’s fellow whether he be rich or poor. This is one of the strict mitzvot and one of the main things that is expected of man, as the Prophet Micha said (6:8), “He told you, O man, what is good, and what the L-rd requires of you: only to do justice, to love kindness, and to walk modestly with your G-d.”
According to the Talmud, Avraham slaughtered three calves so that he could serve each of the guests a separate tongue. This is derived from the verse which says וַיִּקַח בֶּן בָּקָר רַךְ וָטוֹב – “And he took a tender and soft calf.” The verse contains an extra vav “ו” as it could have said וַיִּקַח בֶּן בָּקָר רַךְ טוֹב “And he took a tender, soft calf.” This extra vav indicates that these three words (בָּקָר ,רַךְ and טוֹב) are referring to three separate calves. The reason he needed three calves is that he wanted to serve them each a tongue. (According to the Talmud he served the tongues with mustard.)
The commentaries explain that had he served them other cuts of meat, it may have appeared to the men (who turned out to be angels) that his main objective in slaughtering the calf was to honor one of them (the most important one) and that the others were just benefiting from that meal. So he served them each a tongue as there is only one tongue per animal. This made it clear that he had prepared this meat (and the entire meal) for each one of them specifically and that they were being honored individually rather than in a secondary manner (Akeidah, Sha’ar 19, D.H. Omnam).
- Lesson Number Four: Serve Your Best Stuff
The Shela writes (Sha’ar Ha’otiyot, Emek Beracha, 6) that Avraham must have eaten with his guests as it would not be proper for him not to join them. Since Avraham served his guests the three tongues from those calves, he must have eaten from the other cuts of meat with them. The tongue is considered the choicest part of the animal, which leads us to the conclusion that Avraham served his guests the best cuts of the animal and left the inferior cuts for himselfs.
The Shela writes that one must learn from Avraham and serve one’s (poor) guests from the best of what they have, even if they (the owner of the house) will have to make do with less than what he is accustomed to. King Solomon alluded to this when he said, (Mishlei 22:9) טוֹב עַיִן הוּא יְבֹרָךְ כִּי נָתַן מִלַחְמוֹ לַדַל – “A person with a generous eye will be blessed because he gives of his bread to the poor.” The words “of his bread” indicates that a generous person gives (some of) his own bread (that he would actually have eaten himself), to the poor.
A Yeshivah Bachur Should Have a Devar Torah to Share
In addition, the Shela writes, “It is proper for everyone to be a student of Avraham Avinu and treat all those who eat at his table in the above manner… It is best to share one’s bread with someone who has some knowledge of Torah and can make some brachot and say the Birkat Hamazon. His mitzvah of tzedakah will then be pleasing [to G-d]… I praise the holy communities in these countries who support Torah scholars by inviting them to eat at their tables both during the week and on Shabbat. (This practice was called essen teg, and it involved Yeshivah students eating at the homes of the local Jewish community.) Throughout the year, the Torah students never depart from their table. In this manner, one can support a poor Torah scholar and also fulfill the obligation to speak Torah at the table. Presumably a young, poor yeshiva student will be able to speak Torah with him at the table while they are eating since the bochur studies halacha (Torah) every day.
May we merit to be among those who give wisely and generously!
Wishing you a Shabbat Shalom UMevorach!