Image:  Two people duel with table knives over a table and desserts. (Photo: lolostock/Shutterstock)

Dreading arguments at your holiday table? Jewish tradition teaches us that it is the responsibility of both the hosts and the guests to make such a gathering as pleasant as possible.

From an article on hospitality in the Virtual Jewish Library:

In Judaism, showing hospitality (hakhnasat orchim) to guests is considered a mitzvah. When one knows of strangers who are hungry or need a place to relax, it becomes a legal obligation. Some rabbis consider hakhnasat orchim (literally the “bringing in of strangers”) to be a part of gemilut hasadim (giving of loving kindness).

Guests also have responsibilities to the host. They are obligated to express gratitude for what the host has done for them:

Ben Zoma said: A good guest, what does he say? The host went to so much trouble on my behalf! He gave me so much food! How much wine did he bring before me! How many loaves [geluskaot] did he bring before me! All the effort that he expended, he expended only for me.

However, a bad guest, what does he say? What effort did the host expend? I ate only one piece of bread, I ate only one piece of meat and I drank only one cup of wine. All the effort that the host expended he only expended on behalf of his wife and children.

With regard to a good guest, what does Ben Zoma say? “Remember that you magnify his work, whereof men have sung” (Job 36:24); he praises and acknowledges those who helped him.  – Berakhot 58a

Here are some options for navigating contentious discussions at the holiday table:

  1. Focus on what you love about the people at the table. Challenge yourself to see the spark of the divine in every person at the table.
  2. If your family enjoys argument, by all means enjoy!
  3. If someone at the table finds argument terrifying, be gentle with them. Just accept that this is who they are, and offer them a hug, more pie, or the TV remote. Don’t be mad at them for not arguing; it just isn’t their game.
  4. If you are the person feeling terrified by arguments, remember: A person who seems angry may just be avoiding admitting (to themselves?) that they are afraid.
  5. If someone at the table expresses a feeling of existential threat (“It could mean nuclear war!” “We could wind up in the poorhouse!” etc) focus on their feelings rather than their logic. Saying, “You are being silly!” is actually quite cruel. They are scared.
  6. If someone at the table feels hope for the first time in a long time, respect their relief if only for the peace of the day, even if you think the thing that makes them feel hopeful is a sign of the coming apocalypse.
  7. Leave words like “bigot” or “idiot” out of the conversation. They never add value. The rabbis of Pirkei Avot tell us to “give everyone the benefit of the doubt.”
  8. If someone says something you find bigoted, don’t feed the troll! Try, “Whew! I am sure you didn’t mean that the way it sounded! Let’s talk about something else.” Immediately offer a change of subject. Complimenting the food is always a safe change of subject: “This turkey is amazing, Aunt Ploni! What do you do to make it taste like this?”
  9. If someone is being a bully, don’t engage with them. Instead, turn to the person on the receiving end of the bullying and change the subject to something more pleasant. “The last time I saw you, you were excited about math club. How’s that going?” [The principle in both (8) and (9) is to give attention to people who are doing something beneficial, and to remove attention from people who are being jerks.]
  10. If all else fails, say “It’s Thanksgiving and I want to enjoy your company, not fight.” On Shabbat, I have been known to say, “Not on Shabbes. Next topic!” when a subject seemed likely to bring out the worst around the table.
  11. Remember: It’s only one day!
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