Hospitality: Freely Have You Received, Freely Give


Several years ago, while visiting family friends in Israel, my husband and I took a day trip up to Jerusalem. We wandered through the covered streets, ducking in and out of the shops that lined the walkways and towards evening we found ourselves in the Arab Quarter pausing in front of one particular stall. The shopkeeper, a short man quickly stepped out and ushered us inside.

In broken English, he welcomed us warmly to his city, to his Jerusalem, assured us of his particular love for foreign visitors and his persistent sadness over the divisions between Israeli and Palestinian, Jew and Arab, Christian and Muslim.

“Ah, if only we could all just live in peace,” he sighed. After a moment, he asked “Would you like a cup of tea?”

Surprised, we declined at first not wanting to impose on his generosity; but he insisted and quickly waved his young assistant toward a back room. He quickly returned carrying a tray with a small bowl of sugar and cups of steaming mint tea. With the first sip, its sweetness and aroma flooded my senses and in combination with the heady scents drifting from the spice stall next door, created the definitive Proust moment. So this was the famed Middle Eastern hospitality I had heard so much about, that ancient tradition that welcomes strangers as brothers and resolves differences over steaming pots of coffee and tea. Here, cradled in my hands, were millennia of generosity distilled into one piping cup of sweet tea, complete with a sprig of mint.

I began to walk around the small shop,scanning the bits and pieces on display. The shelves held much everything the same as the other shops we had passed: nativity sets carved from olive wood, brass and silver menorahs, and Armenian pottery brightly colored in a distinct blue and red mosaic.

Suddenly I saw a small olive wood statue of the Holy Family. Carved from a single stock of wood, it depicted Joseph protectively embracing Mary as she cradled the vulnerable Christ child. The three figures merged into one at the base, emphasizing the tenderness and intimacy of the young family.  It was the only one in the shop; it was the only one like it I had seen all day.

I had to have it.

Hiding my enthusiasm, I casually asked my host how much he intended to sell it for. He replied, “Fifty shekels.” I went back to sipping my tea. After walking around the stall for a few more minutes, I turned to the shopkeeper to begin another longstanding Oriental tradition - bargainingand soon with the help of our Israeli friends, we settled on a price of 30 shekels. While his assistant wrapped my purchase, I paid him and he handed back my change. Like any good American, I glanced at it before returning it to my pocket, and like any good American, I was startled when I realized he had returned only eight shekels instead of the expected ten.

Not wanting to offend such a liberal host I shyly I held out my hand, displaying the eight lonely shekels. “But sir, you said the statue would cost only thirty shekels, and I gave you forty."

“Yes," he quickly replied, "Thirty shekels for the statue. And two for the tea.”