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Host and Hosted

Noreen Jacks asks:

“Can you please tell me if the Hebrew word for hospitality means the same as does the Greek philozenía or ‘love of strangers’? Is there a word for hospitality with the root of the Hebrew word nokhri, ‘stranger,’ in it?”

No, there isn’t. The Hebrew word for hospitality is If we look closely at it, however, we can see a conceptual parallel with the Greek nonetheless., to any Hebrew speaker, means literally “the taking in of guests,” from l’hakhnis, “to take in,” and ore’ah., guest. This doesn’t make it seem much like philozenía. Yet if we ask ourselves where the word ore’ah. comes from, the picture changes. Etymologically, it’s closely related to orah., which means “way” or “path” and yields such other derived forms as over-orahv., “wayfarer” and orh.ah, “caravan” (that is, an entire party of wayfarers). Indeed, before it came to mean “guest,’ ore’ah. must have meant “wayfarer,” too. This is confirmed by a passage in the Second Book of Samuel, the famous parable of the “poor man’s lamb” in which the prophet Gad reproves King David for his adultery with Bathsheba. Comparing David to a rich man, Gad says in the quite accurate King James translation:

“And there came a traveler [helekh] unto the rich man, and he spared to take of his own flock and of his own herd, to dress [that is, prepare as food] for the wayfaring man [ore’ah.] that was come unto him; but took the poor man’s lamb, and dressed it for the man that was come to him.”

The ancient biblical word ore’ah., in other words, came to mean “guest” for the same reason as did the ancient Greek word zenos, which originally meant “stranger” (hence our English xenophobia, “fear of the stranger”): the social and religious obligation to show hospitality to travelers who had nowhere to lodge or eat. This obligation was considered a binding one in many ancient Middle Eastern and Mediterranean cultures and can still sometimes be found among observant Jews, who continue to practice the tradition of offering hospitality to strangers coming to pray in a local synagogue. As the talmudic tractate of the Sabbath puts it in referring to the story in the book of Genesis about Abraham’s hospitality to the three angels who visit him in human disguise, “The taking in of wayfarers [hakhnasat] is a greater commandment than is welcoming the Divinity itself [hakbalat p’nei ha-shekhinah].”

Thus far, there is a parallel between Greek zenos and Hebrew ore’ah. From here on, however, the two words had different fates, for whereas that of ore’ah was linguistically ordinary, that of zenos in ancient Greek had some odd twists and turns. Since hosting a stranger created a return obligation on the stranger’s part to host his host should the latter ever visit the stranger’s land, zenos, besides assuming the meaning of “guest,” came to have the opposite meaning of “host.” Moreover, inasmuch as two zenoi in such a host/guest relationship were permanently linked by a formal bond of friendship, which was considered to be inherited by their children, zenos also took on the meaning of “friend by treaty” or “ally.” The same word could thus mean “stranger,” “guest,” “host” or “friend,” all according to its context.

In modern Greek, zenos has retained only part of this many-sidedness, having the primary sense of “stranger” or “foreigner” while also denoting a hotel guest. In English compounds starting with “xeno-,” on the other hand, it means only “foreign” or “different,” as can be seen not only in xenophobe but also in such words as xenolith (a rock fragment embedded in rock of a different nature) and xenogamy (cross-pollination in plants.)

The indirect effects of zenos on English, however, via Latin, have been greater. This is because the Latin word hospes was highly influenced by zenos and took on its whole range of meanings so that it, too, went from its original sense of “stranger” to mean “guest,” “host” or “friend” and, in late Latin, “innkeeper,” as well. And because English, in turn, borrowed heavily from Latin, we find in it such hospes-related words as host, hostel, hospice, hospital and hospitality

Latin hospes turns up in Hebrew, as well, originally in the form of ushpiz, which in early rabbinic Hebrew can denote either a host or an inn. In medieval Hebrew, we also find it meaning “guest,” especially in the sense of the legendary seven ushpizin — the patriarchs Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Joseph, Moses, Aaron and David — who in popular belief visit Jewish families on the holiday of Sukkot. And finally, in modern Israeli Hebrew the verb le’ashpez means “to hospitalize” and ishpuz is “a hospitalization.”

All this, as we have said, ultimately goes back to Greek zenos. It is a good example of how a word can have a second life in languages other than its own — provided they show it hospitality.

Questions for Philologos can be sent to




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