Last year after the Rosh Hashanah through Simchat Torah holiday season, I found myself at a meal with a single woman who, when asked about her holidays, said they were unpleasant because she did not join any families for meals, as she had done in previous years, because she had grown weary of the political commentary that often permeated the discussions at holiday tables.
On Rosh Hashanah, the Torah readings tell of the tests Abraham had to endure. Beyond the lessons that can be learned from Abraham’s trust in God, another lesson that can be learned from the stories of Abraham is how to treat one’s guests. These can be seen in Bedouin traditions.
Dr. Clinton Bailey dedicated his career to studying the Bedouins, the nomadic desert pastoralists of the Middle East, and immersed himself in their culture. The modern term Bedouin derives from the Arabic term for desert dwellers, but it refers to an ancient culture whose practices stretch back for millennia. Dr. Bailey’s research revealed that even in the face of scarcity, the Bedouins prioritize the well-being of their guests. As he discovered through his research and interactions, in Bedouin culture a man can be defined as one who “strikes with a sword and feeds a guest meat.”
To understand the value of Bedouin hospitality, one should appreciate the unforgiving nature of desert life. The desert is an uncompromising environment, where travelers are at risk of dehydration and starvation. In such an environment, hospitality transforms from a pleasantry into a lifeline. Bedouin hosting culture reflects an age-old tradition rooted in the arid landscapes of the Middle East.
Bedouins adhere to a well-defined code of conduct when it comes to receiving guests, reflecting the harsh environment in which they live. Guests can stay for 3 and 1/3 days, to ensure that travelers can recuperate and resupply. All guests are welcome, and even an enemy must be received as a guest; personal grievances are set aside in favor of prioritizing the well-being of a fellow human being. The host is also tasked with safeguarding the guest from harm. And tradition dictates that the host refrain from asking the guest about tribal affiliation or other questions for three days, to give the guest both comfort and security.
Dr. Bailey demonstrated that the story of the patriarch Abraham is rooted in the traditions of the Bedouin pastoral nomadic culture. In Genesis 18, Abraham sat in Mamre, near Hebron, at the edge of the semi-arid Negev desert. In the heat of the day, Abraham sat at the entrance to his tent, ready to receive guests. When three men appeared, he asked to allow him to receive them as guests, to wash their feet and offer them rest. He hurried to have his wife Sarah bake them bread and prepared the finest meat, and watched his guests eat.
This Bedouin style hospitality extends into Genesis 19. When the two messengers visited Lot, he insisted on hosting them overnight. In an episode that is shocking to Western sensibilities, when Lot was threatened by the people of Sodom, he prioritized his guests’ safety and offered the townsfolk his daughters in their stead.
Bedouin tradition also dictates that the host refrain from asking the guest about their tribal affiliation or other questions for three days. In both the Abraham and Lot stories, neither asks the guests the purpose of their visit. Rather, the guests inform the host why they are there.
In today’s polarized political environment, society has become increasingly tribal. Each group watches news, visits internet sites and reads newspapers that accords with their worldview. Socializing is often done with people whose views match their own. In this tribal reality, we would do well to learn from the Bedouin culture of which the patriarch Abraham is a part, and to refrain from upsetting a guest’s sensibilities.
As the holiday season approaches, let us cherish the spirit of hospitality by opening our homes to others, irrespective of their political inclinations. In doing so, we honor both the traditions of the Bedouins and the enduring legacy of Abraham.