How to Really Be Machmir

Yukach na me’at mayim (Bereishis 18:4)

Avraham excelled in the mitzvah of hosting guests. Three days after Avraham had circumcised himself at the age of 99, Hashem didn’t want him to burden himself with caring for guests. He brought a heat wave to deter all travelers on that day. Still, the weak Avraham’s greatest concern was that the unusually hot weather would deny him the merit of welcoming guests. Avraham decided to sit at the entrance of his tent in the hopes that he might spy a stray traveler.

When Hashem saw Avraham’s suffering over the lack of guests, He sent three angels in the guise of people. Rejoicing at this improbable turn of events, the elderly and weak Avraham ran to personally invite them to his home to serve them.

Avraham proceeded to serve them a lavish and abundant feast. However, although he was generous with all of the courses in the actual meal, he instructed that only a small amount of water be brought with which they could wash their feet. As caring for guests was Avraham’s raison d’être, why was he so stingy when it came to the water?

The following story will help us answer this question. On one of his travels, Harav Yisrael Salanter spent Shabbos in a small village. The locals were excited about the opportunity to host the renowned Rabbi in their community and to learn from his pious ways. When the time came to wash his hands prior to the meal, his hosts were surprised to notice that he used a very small amount of water.

Worried that they had done something wrong or offended the Rav in some way, they respectfully asked for an explanation of his behavior. Rav Yisrael explained that the water in this village was drawn from a distant well. Carrying the water over this long distance was a very difficult task. Although he was normally accustomed to washing his hands with more water in the legally preferable manner, in this case it would be inappropriate to do so at the expense of the water-carrier.

In light of this story, the Darkei Mussar explains that almost all of the preparations for the meal were performed by Avraham. The actions which he did on behalf of the guests were done with great alacrity and revealed a giving spirit. The water, on the other hand, was the one item which Avraham asked somebody else to bring. As much as he wanted to offer the guests generous portions, he understood, as did Rav Yisrael, that it would be inappropriate to do so at someone else’s expense.

The commandments are traditionally divided into two categories: those between man and Hashem, and those between man and his fellow man. As piety is often associated with the mitzvos in the first group, it is sadly all too easy and natural for somebody wishing to demonstrate his religious devotion to emphasize this type at the expense of the commandments governing our interpersonal relationships. In reality, our forefather Avraham teaches us that true piety requires recognizing that both classes emanate equally from Hashem and must be balanced accordingly.

Q: Rashi writes (18:1) that Hashem came to visit the weak Avraham on the third day after his circumcision. If one can fulfill either the mitzvah of visiting the sick or the mitzvah of comforting a mourner, which should he do?

Q: Because Lot’s wife violated the warning (19:17) not to look back at the destruction of Sedom, she turned into a pillar of salt (19:26). Was this a punishment for violating the angel’s command, or in looking back, did she lose her merit to be saved and was destroyed as part of the general decree to wipe out Sedom?

A: The Rambam writes explicitly that in such a case, the mitzvah of comforting a mourner takes precedence because it is considered an act of kindness with both the living and the dead. The Bach writes that this is only the case if one has time to fulfill both of them and wants to know which he should do first, but if he can only perform one of them, he should visit the sick in order to help him and pray for his recovery. In fact, the Radvaz writes that this consideration is so important that if not for the ruling of the Rambam, he would have suggested the opposite. The Netziv adds that if there is nobody else to visit the sick person, even the Rambam would agree that he should be visited before comforting the mourner.

A: One of the sons of the Brisker Rav raised this question without clearly resolving it. One author argued that Lot and his family were saved on the condition that they not look back at the destruction which befell Sedom, and when Lot’s wife violated this command, she was punished as part of the general decree against the town. The Brisker Rav was unconvinced, but this seems to be the opinion of the Terumas Hadeshen, who notes that the verse (Devarim 29:22) refers to the sulphur and salt into which Sedom was transformed, with the salt being a reference to Lot’s wife. However, the Rogatchover Gaon writes that Lot’s wife was punished for violating the angel’s instructions, as the Gemara (Sanhedrin 89a) teaches that transgressing the commandment of a prophet is punishable by death at the hands of Heaven.


Originally from Kansas City, Rabbi Ozer Alport graduated from Harvard, learned in Mir Yerushalayim for five years, and now lives in Brooklyn, where he learns in Yeshivas Beis Yosef, is the author of the recently-published sefer Parsha Potpourri, and gives weekly shiurim. To send comments to the author or to receive his Divrei Torah weekly, please email