Today’s daf (Shabbat 118a) examines the duty to eat three meals on Shabbat, and among the sources it brings in support of this halacha is Mishna Peah 8:7 which teaches that if a poor person is passing through a town during the week then the townspeople must give them enough food to last them two meals; while if they are passing through the town over Shabbat, the townspeople are required to give the poor person enough food for three meals.
Of course, it should be pointed out that this halacha is a remarkable expression of the Torah ethic of charity and lovingkindness such that even when someone is just passing through a town, the townspeople are required to concern themselves for the welfare of that person, and if they are poor, they are then required to give them food that would – at a minimum – last them a day.
Interestingly, further evidence of this halacha is found elsewhere in the Torah law of the ‘Eglah Arufah’ (see Devarim Ch. 21) where a body is found beyond the city limits of a town at which time representatives of the nearest town must verify – and subsequently declare – whether they concerned themselves with the welfare of this person and whether they provided them with food for their journey (see Sotah 37b).
However, on the basis of this rule it is clear that the townspeople are required to provide a poor person with at least some food for their journey. Given this, how can three meals suffice for someone who is passing through town over Shabbat as these three meals will be consumed over Shabbat and will not leave the poor person any leftover food for their subsequent journey? This concern is raised in our daf and thus the Gemara clarifies that ‘we also provide them with a meal to accompany them [on their journey]’.
Clearly, there are many lessons we can learn from all this about a community’s welfare duties both to passers-by and also to residents of that community who may also be struggling. However, there is one specific point that I want to emphasise, and here I do so not only with respect to the poor, but also with respect to anyone who may be vulnerable, or alone, or in need of some lovingkindness.
Oftentimes, religious families in a community are very welcoming to both fellow community residents as well as passers-by on Shabbat, and they will gladly host many guests for Shabbat meals. However, as is clearly stated in our daf, hospitality and concern for others should not only be limited to Shabbat. Meals should be provided in the weekday and not just Shabbat, and if someone is in town just for Shabbat, the townspeople must also concern themselves about that person’s weekday needs and provide for them.
What this means is that while a Shabbat meal invitation is often very much appreciated, so too is a Tuesday or a Thursday meal invitation; and while hosting someone over Shabbat is a lovely thing to do, the host must also concern themselves that their guest has food to eat on a Sunday as well.
Ultimately, as the Torah teaches us, our task is to provide people with what they need (see Devarim 15:8) which, it should be emphasised, is not always the same as what is easiest for us to give. Moreover, we must never forget that people have weekday needs as well as Shabbat needs. Finally, let us remember that the rules of kindness apply not just to passers-by, but also to those in our community as well.