The Hospitality-Culture of Avraham, Yitzkhaq & Yaaqov

The etiquette of each culture’s hospitality is an integral part of social interaction. Differences in hospitality and etiquette reflect the intricacies, complexities and differences in culture. The culture of ancient Israel is no exception; and some of the intricacies of ancient Israeli hospitality indicate the complexity of the definition of our ancient culture; the definition of us–for anyone who loves Torah, a worthy incorporation into your hospitality practice.

Hospitality and etiquette sometimes surface unexpectedly in the Bible. I’m in the midst of writing a 365-6 night, Family Bedtime Bible Story (& discussion) book, loosely paralleling the Jewish calendar of Torah readings. I say “loosely” because some of the parashot and Haphtarot wouldn’t be very interesting to the young child for whom this book is geared. Complementing these vacancies of child-level interest are a host of “popular Bible stories” that aren’t in any Haphtarah or other scheduled reading during the year.

Presently, I’m rendering the story of “The Battle of Jericho” into child-speak. Early in the story, Rakhav, a prostitute, for some reason hides and protects the two Israeli spies. I asked myself why she would do that. Why would she risk incurring the wrath of her city-king by hiding and protecting two enemy strangers whom, in all likelihood, she had never seen before and probably didn’t know who they were?

Even if one ascribes an unlikely military acumen to this prostitute, it’s absurd to think that she would be more afraid of some rumored foreign army vanquishing her city than the immediate danger of her city-king. Then I remembered having read an account of the supreme obligation, according to Arab hospitality, of a host (or hostess, in this case) to provide food, shelter and accommodations to strangers and to protect the stranger “under their tent” at all costs.

Changes in the modern world make some adjustments prudent, especially regarding strangers. Still, one may appreciate how the cultural mindset of the ancient Mid-East informs (or should inform!) the modern Jew, especially the Israeli Jew, and other practicers of Torah, by acquainting oneself with a representative sampling of the many descriptions of ancient (i.e., pre-Islamic) Arab etiquette and hospitality, then properly broadening the word “Arab” to “Middle Eastern Semitic” and simply substituting Hebrew for Arabic.

“In the Middle East guests are most important persons. Every country has its traditions of hospitality and most countries pride themselves on their friendliness toward strangers. But the traditions of the [Middle Eastern Semitic] world go somewhat deeper than elsewhere and for good reasons. They stem from a long hard struggle to survive in hostile environments where human contact was treasured, where the infrequent traveler was the sole source of news and information and where safety hinged directly upon the size and strength of one’s family, tribe and clan. Out of that struggle evolved an elaborate code that governed the [Semite]’s most important social relationships—those with his family and those with his guests.… [a] system of affording three days’ hospitality to all and sundry… Whether it was in the desert or in a remote mountain village, tradition has always been that every man, rich or poor, will feed and lodge a passing stranger.… much has changed, but visitors still can expect, at least in settled communities, [the hospitality, in the often baking and arid climate, of an offer of a cold glass of tea, fruit drink or water] immediately upon arrival and then, later, coffee, unless it happens to be close to mealtime. (Since coffee is believed to curb the appetite, offering it too close to mealtime might be misunderstood to mean that the guest is not welcome to stay for the meal.) If a guest is just stopping for a visit, many hostesses will not offer the coffee too soon as it might be taken as a gesture to speed his departure. For the same reason a traveler is never asked, early in the day, what his business is or when he is planning to leave. The impression that the host must give in his every word and action is that the guest is not only welcome, but welcome [for a hospitality-tarriance: three days (maximum)]. … In the desert, hospitality has been commonly understood to extend for three full days. Being under a man’s roof also means, to the … Bedouins, being in their protection. Among the famous incidents in Arab folklore is that of a man who took refuge, unwittingly, in the tent of a shaikh whose son he had just killed. Even under these circumstances the sacred law of protection was observed. Not until three days had passed, at which time the guest was obliged by custom to depart, was the tribe free to go in pursuit and avenge the shaikh’s dead son.

“The law of protection works both ways. Should a man stop by a certain tribe as its guest, a bond of “bread and salt” [both documented in the Bible as a bᵊrit] is created between them and he becomes honor-bound to offer protection to his host at a later date.” (Leila Shaheen; 2016.09.23)

Arab lore includes many stories illustrating the extremes of this obligation to provide food, shelter, accommodations and protection to a stranger. In the account of the vanquishing of Yᵊri•kho, the quickest route for a couple of spies to take shelter in a foreign city would be to hire a prostitute, not for the obvious, but for instant acceptance, food, accommodations and shelter. Thus, cultural hospitality, not prostitution nor bargaining for her survival (especially when it was unlikely she had any concern for a foreign invasion), would fully explain why Rakhav was obligated by her culture to protect the two strangers under her roof with her life—no exceptions.

Modern Jews of European background reflect European culture—from Yiddish (German-assimilated Hebrew) to cholent to gefilte fish—having almost totally lost any connection to their ancient Middle Eastern origins and culture of millennia past.

Much of the ancient culture and hospitality of Avraham, Yitzkhaq & Yaaqov today is preserved only by the Teimanim Jews and the background culture of Arabs who share much of this culture and hospitality. Thus, the culture and hospitality of the Teimanim Jews, along with some non-Islamic aspects of Arab culture, are reconstructive in connecting to our own ancient culture.

Some aspects require adaptation to modernity. In our mobile society, strangers are no more simply traveling business merchants of good reputation. Accommodating an unknown stranger these days can be fatal, not only for oneself but other family members as well. These days, one has to be circumspect on whom to accept as a stranger. That said, when hospitality is appropriate, ancient Middle Eastern standards seem to be elegant; the epitome of being civilized; indicative of an elegant and complex civilization; a source of pride to be preserved and treasured as a precious, and defining, heritage.

“One thing is constant and that is the host’s efforts to make the guest comfortable and to make him feel that he has honored the house with his presence. … The guest is always offered the best seat in the house, usually the one farthest from the door… Another place of honor that is reserved for him is at the right of the host, while walking or sitting at table. The guest is accompanied on his departure not only to the door, but often to the gate of the garden or further, where the host repeats his thanks for the visit and farewells until his guest is out of sight. In the city, a good host will not close the door to his home the minute his guest leaves. In fact, he might well accompany him to the elevator or even down to his car. But in any case, he waits at the door until his guest is out of sight.” (Leila Shaheen)

Coffee – Home Baristas

More recently (15th century C.E.), Yemenite Arab Sunni Muslim Sufis (mystics) began importing, through their port in Mocha, African (Ethiopian)–Arabica–coffee beans. Coffee to Middle-Eastern Semites is like tea is to the British. “Coffee, for example, or the manner in which it is served, is still a tradition rather than just a drink, a symbol with its own elaborate hospitality which suggests the whole complex structure of manners in the Middle East and with subtle nuances that vary from one region to another. To the Bedouin, for example, the ritual of coffee has been and to an extent still is part and parcel of his most prized tradition. Preparing it is a ceremony which means that the guest is honored and welcome…” (Leila Shaheen)

Roasting Green Coffee Beans

Not even pre-roasted beans (much less packaged grounds; don’t even think instant!)

Significant effort goes into fresh-roasted coffee. For centuries now, Middle-Eastern Semitic hospitality translates to fresh-roasting green coffee beans for the occasion. While tent-dwellers hand-roast green coffee beans in a skillet over an open campfire, city-dwellers have become more elegant, and techno-daptable. While skillets do poor jobs, roasting very unevenly, and home (electric) coffee roasters are prohibitively expensive and often unavailable for the required current, it turns out that hot-air corn-poppers are inexpensive, widely available, amazingly durable and, once the learning curve is achieved for roasting times (e.g., after “first crack,” must be adapted for different beans, different room temperatures and humidity levels to achieve the desired color standard) can do arguably as well as expensive commercial roasters.

Various baristas float varying opinions on how much time fresh-roasted coffee beans must be allowed to rest in order to allow the beans to degas. (Grinding and) Drinking the coffee too soon after roasting does not allow for the flavors to peak., for example, estimates “peak flavor consistently around 24 to 72 hours post roast” (before grinding and brewing). In other words, for peak flavor, green beans should be roasted a day or two in advance, but not ground until immediately before brewing (because ground coffee goes stale rapidly).

Grinding Roasted Coffee Beans

While tent-dwellers still rely on mortar & pestle, modern city-dwelling baristas have also moved on to more elegant, and efficient, grinding methods. Professional baristas will insist that conical ceramic grinders are de rigueur, but the fact is that such grinders are unnecessarily expensive, clunky, put a static electric charge into the grounds (making them stick to the sides of the machine’s plastic tray and fly around when transferring to another container) and the only one I could find here in Israel, a Breville, seemed to have a mysterious timer engineered into it that transformed it into an expensive doorstop within a couple of months after the warranty expired. It turns out that, with the right technique, an inexpensive blade grinder works just as well at a fraction of the price and lasts, well, I don’t know yet. My original Krups (which I bought long before I tried the conical ceramic Breville) is still running fine. (About 20 seconds should be in the ballpark; but you have to continuously shake it in all directions while it runs, in order to get an even grind.) For peak quality, roasted coffee beans should be ground no more than 15 minutes before brewing. When I grind mine, I pour the grounds directly from the grinder into the coffee-maker, already filled with water and filter, and hit the “on” switch.

Brewing Fresh-Roasted Coffee

Again, baristas elitistly argue for various Espresso machines; and Espresso machines do make excellent coffee. But I think it’s over-rated and less than elegant and delicate; artificially forcing some unwanted tastes from the beans. Much of the Espresso machines’ excellence is due, not to the machine, but to the attention given to the quality and freshness of the grounds put into that machine. Remember that Espresso machines were invented not to improve taste but to produce more coffee faster to keep a line of customers moving in a small shop. Put those same quality beans in a quality drip (called “Filter” in Israel) brewer and the quality can be more delicate and elegant than an Espresso machine—and at a fraction of the cost.

But not all “Filter” (drip) coffee-makers are equal. Some, like the Breville, are awkward and difficult to add the water. Except for an on-off switch, all of the other bells and whistles are price-gouging useless add-ons to go wrong and shorten the life of the coffee-maker. If you want a timer to start your coffee automatically in the morning, it’s far more efficient and cheaper to buy a timer you can also use on any of your other home appliances. After a number of different “Filter” brewers, based on price, ease of use, durability and taste quality of the coffee brewed, I presently use a Black & Decker and highly recommend it.

So now you can make quality coffee!

A Caveat: If you visit the Middle-East, it’s popular to add cardamom to coffee. Unless you like cardamom in your coffee, you’ll want to decline the offer of “hel” (cardamom).

In the past, coffee was served in tiny glass cups without handles. The infusion of American coffee drinkers into Israel and the Middle East has introduced a gusto that can only be satisfied with standard ceramic coffee mugs (not gauche Starbucks-style paper and plastic cups to go).


Serving coffee after a bâ•sâr meal requires drinking it black, without khâ•lâv, and from either bâ•sâr or “parve” (neither meat nor dairy) cups. (Powdered “artificial-cream” is not at all compatible with quality coffee and gives a wrong impression.)

Before offering coffee, it’s essential to inquire whether guests are bâ•sâr (have eaten meat within the last few hours, the number of which can vary from 1-6 hours depending on their tradition and, therefore, cannot eat or drink anything khâ•lâv).

If no guests are bâ•sâr, then khâ•lâv coffee may be served (with frothed milk, latte, etc.). Frothed milk is easily made at home with an inexpensive glass with manual plunger or a small electric hand-wand whisker.

“But whatever your preference and no matter where you are, in office or home, among the rich or humble, in a remote village or the bustle of a town office, you can always count on a cup of coffee, the one unfailing sign that the guest is still esteemed and honored in the [Semitic] world. (Leila Shaheen)

This is not just Arab culture and hospitality. This culture and hospitality traces back to Biblical stories like Rakhav, and Avraham showing hospitality to the three city-kings from the east (city-kings of Goyim, Shinᵊar and Elasar, under the command of Chief king of Eiylam: Kᵊdarᵊlaomer (cf. pâ•râsh•âh wâ-Yei•râ; bᵊReishit 18, in context of chapters 14-19) throughout the ancient Middle East, universal among Semites (and, likely, surrounding Middle Eastern cultures as well). This, not assimilated medieval European culture, is the authentic heritage-culture of Israeli Jews and other practitioners of Torah.

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