A FAMILY CULTURE OF KINDNESS
Yose ben Yochanan of Jerusalem used to say: Let your house be wide open, and let the poor be members of your household. Engage not in too much conversation with women. They said this with regard to one’s own wife, how much more so with regard to another man’s wife. From here the Sages said: as long as a man engages in too much conversation with women, he causes evil to himself, he neglects the study of the Torah, and in the end, he will inherit gehinnom.
Aside from being the right thing to do, performing acts of kindness increases psychological wellness. It can boost happiness and well-being, lower blood sugar, and even boost immunity. Witnessing others perform acts of kindness also increases our likelihood of acting generously. Good deeds are contagious. This is especially true in the home. The more that parents model and encourage their children to give to charity and perform acts of kindness, the more the children learn to internalize this important value and accrue the mental health benefits of kindness. Creating a culture in the home where there are plenty of opportunities for giving is essential for spiritual and psychological flourishing.
In this Mishna, Yose ben Yochanan picks up where his colleague Yose ben Yoezer (mentioned in the previous Mishna) left off. In addition to welcoming and supporting scholars, we must also welcome all guests, scholar and non-scholar, rich and poor. While the previous Mishna emphasized seeking out role-models, this Mishna demands that we act as a role model. Yet, being welcoming and hospitable to outsiders is challenging. Doing so can intrude on family time, cost money and mental energy, and add responsibilities for all those involved in the hosting. However, Yose ben Yoezer reminds us of the duty and the opportunity of building a family culture revolving around hosting guests.
The first clause of the Mishna recommends that we let our “house be wide open” and the second clause is “to let the poor be members of your household.” The commentaries generally agree that the first recommends hosting all types of guests, and the second emphasizes the importance of hosting poor guests, with a heightened sensitivity to their potentially vulnerable state. In fact, Rabbi Shmuel de Uceda (Midrash Shmuel) suggests that our houses should be wide open for all guests (first clause) precisely to ensure that the poor guests do not feel awkward or singled out (second clause). He continues this theme by noting that it doesn’t just say to invite poor people over, but that they should be made to feel as if they are members of the household. This requires greeting them with joy and good cheer. Similarly, Meiri encourages ensuring that the poor people feel comfortable.
The recurring emphasis on household, with a closing message related to one’s wife, leads some commentaries to highlight the importance of family life, especially modeling the importance of hospitality for our family, and affording the members of the family the opportunity to get involved in the process. In a creative reading, Baruch ben Melech suggests that “let the poor be members of thy household” can also mean, “let the members of your household be ‘poor.’” Meaning, even if we have means and money, we shouldn’t spoil our children. They shouldn’t be given everything they want, and they should learn to live with some level of deprivation. This aligns well with the idea of involving children in the service of hospitality, which protects against the negative psychological impact that wealth can have on children (sometimes referred to as “affluenza”).
In another creative reading, Rabbi Chaim Palachi (Peulat Tzadik LeChaim) understands “house” as a metaphor for mind, teaching that one’s mind should be open wide, meaning flexible and forbearing. We should be patient with the members of our families, creating an atmosphere of calm and tranquility, particularly when hosting guests. Preparation as well as social dynamics can get stressful when guests are present. Children can act in ways that are embarrassing, and guests can potentially generate uncomfortable conversations. The importance of keeping calm and kind, even in these moments, is essential. Alternatively, Rabbi Dr. Binyamin Ziv (HaNasi VeTifarto) suggests that inviting guests and keeping an open mind can help us learn new things about different people and cultures, as well as about ourselves.
Finally, in the third clause. Yose ben Yochanan cautions against “excessive conversation” with one’s wife, all the more so with other women. One stream of explanation in the commentaries focuses on the word “sicha,” which they translate not as conversation, but as “small talk.” Pointless chatter, as enjoyable as it may be, is not just a potential waste of time, but can even be seen as demeaning. In the words of Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch: “A man who truly respects his wife will have more to offer her than idle chatter for her amusement. He will want to discuss with her the serious concerns of life and will derive enjoyment from the resulting exchange of views and counsel.”
Alternatively, this statement accentuates the importance of finding the right balance of values while creating a family culture. While conversation and communication between spouses is essential, any value that becomes “excessive” is problematic. Some commentaries point to the possibility of sin through gossip (Bartenura); yet others point to the fact that excessive speech will definitionally pull one from other important values and obligations, such as the learning of Torah (Rabbeinu Yonah).
Tying the three parts of the Mishna together, Rabbi Shmuel de Uceda suggests that the desire and value of spending time talking to one’s spouse can lead the couple to forgo their responsibility to invite guests, whose presence may intrude on the joy of family time. While family conversations are valuable, they need to be balanced with other ideals and obligations, such as hosting those in need.