This week’s article will focus on the obligation of escorting travelers, including family members. Is escorting travelers a full obligation, or just a friendly gesture? What is the purpose of escorting travelers? Are household members included in the obligation? How far is one obligated to accompany a traveler, and is it practiced nowadays?
The mitzva of escorting travelers appears in the context of the Story of Yosef which we read about in the coming parashiyos. Did Yaakov escort Yosef when he set out in search of his brothers? And if he did, why did disaster befall him? What must a traveler not say to his escort? And what should one do when travelling on a dangerous journey without any escort? Of this and more in the coming article.
Yosef Never Returned
In this week’s parasha we read about Yosef, sent by his father from Chevron to Shechem to see his brothers’ welfare. They had taken their flocks to graze near Shechem, about 50 miles away. Yosef never returned from this journey and was tragically sold by his brothers, enslaved in Egypt, imprisoned, and then rose to rule ancient Egypt.
The Zohar (Vayigash 210b) describes that in the years that Yaakov thought his son was dead he would continuously lament him, saying: “I will descend on account of my son as a mourner to the grave” (Bereshis 37:35). He felt guilty for his son’s failed mission, fearing he would suffer in Gehenom as a result. The Zohar explains that his self-blame was due to his failure to escort his son and provide him with food and drink for the way. Here we learn of the importance of escorting travelers, and that had Yaakov escorted Yosef, the whole tragedy would not have occurred.
In the coming article we will try to shed light on this confusing facet in the story – did Yaakov escort Yosef? And if not, why?
Yaakov Escorting Yosef
In Parashas Vayigash (Bereshis 45: 26-27) the brothers tried to inform their father that his beloved son, Yosef, was still very much alive, after many years his father had thought him dead. Yaakov, however, could not believe it: “And they told him, saying, ‘Yosef is still alive,’ and [they told him] that he ruled over the entire land of Egypt, and his heart changed, for he did not believe them.” Only later, after seeing the carriages that Yosef sent, was he capable of believing them: “And he saw the wagons that Yosef had sent to carry him, and the spirit of their father Yaakov was revived.”
Rashi explains why the carriages convinced him of the reality: “Yosef gave them a sign in what topic he had been engaged when separating from Yaakov. It was the section dealing with the Beheaded Heifer (עֶגְלָה עִרוּפָה) (Devarim 21), and this is what the pasuk says, “And he saw the wagons that Yosef had sent,” and not, “that Pharaoh had sent.” When Yaakov saw that Yosef sent a heifer-drawn carriage, as opposed to a horse-drawn chariot, Yaakov believe that it was indeed, Yosef, and that he was alive.
The Beheaded Heifer is an offering of atonement which is offered when a dead traveler is found near a city. In such a case, the elders of the nearest city go out to the nearest water stream, behead a heifer, and proclaim: “Our hands did not shed this blood, nor did our eyes see [this crime]” (Devarim 21:7). The Mishna (Sota 9:6) explains that this proclamation indicates that they did not see the wayfarer leave without escorting him. Had they indeed failed to escort the traveler they would have been considered the cause of the murder, because an escorted traveler would have been protected.
This seems to present a discordancy – while on the one hand, Yaakov was teaching his son the halachos of escorting travelers, he himself seemingly didn’t uphold them. How can this apparent contradiction be resolved?
The Midrash (Sechel Tov, Bereshis 36:14) and Rishonim (Rid – Pnei Dovid: Vayigash 3; Radak; Chizkuni; Seforno; Ba’al Haturim; and others) agree that Yaakov did, indeed, escort Yosef when he set out after his brothers, teaching him the mitzva of the Beheaded Heifer on the way.
Many Rishonim provide a detailed description of the conversation that took place between Yaakov and Yosef while Yaakov escorted Yosef from his residence on the mountaintop city of Chevron to the valley at the foot of the mountain (See Bereshis 37:14, Abarbanel and Sforno). Yosef told his father to go back home — there was no need for him to extend himself. However, Yaakov continued walking and taught him the halachos of the Beheaded Heifer, explaining that an escorted traveler receives special spiritual protection. The blame for a trip that ends with tragedy rests upon a host who failed to escort his guest.
The Chida (Pnei Dovid, Vayigash 3) asks: in light of the Rishonim’s assertion that Yaakov did, indeed, accompany Yosef when he set out to see his brothers, why did the protection not save him from tragedy? And how does this coincide with the Zohar that describes Yaakov’s guilt feeling for failing to escort Yosef?
The Chida (ibid) quotes the Drush Dovid (Beshalach) with an answer: Yaakov was under the assumption that Yosef was traveling to Shechem. In the end, Yosef traveled on to Dotan upon learning that his brothers had continued there. The spiritual protection Yaakov afforded Yosef was effective only until the original destination – Shechem. Once Yosef changed his destination, he forfeited that protection. This answer also appears in the works of Rabbi Yochanan Luria (A German rabbi who lived 500 years ago)in Meshivas Nefesh, Bereshis 37:14.
The Maharal (Bereshis 37:14, Gur Aryeh) offers a different explanation. He explains that in merit of Yaakov’s escorting of Yosef he was saved from his brother’s nefarious intention and remained alive. Similarly, the Chida quotes an unprinted sefer called Mishchas Kodesh (authored by the author of the famous Ma’avar Yabok) who outlines how exactly Yaakov escorted Yosef, noting that in merit of escorting him, Yosef was not killed by his brothers.
The Chida continues and explains that the carriages Yosef sent did not serve simply as a sign of his identity – it was a message to his father proving that he could not have been killed — Yaakov had escorted him when he set out on the trip, and Yaakov himself had taught him that nothing bad could befall an escorted traveler.
The Chida’s Approach
The Chida, based on the following halacha of the Beheaded Heifer, disagrees with the first approach- that Yaakov’s protection extended only till Shechem. The psukim discussing the Beheaded Heifer imply that had the traveler been escorted he would surely have been protected, despite the possibility that he could have changed his final destination along the way. Here the Chida proves that the escort must intend to escort the traveler to wherever he may go. The Chida adds that Yaakov surely did just that, and therefore there is no reason to believe that Yaakov intended for his protection to end with Shechem.
He continues that when an escort intends to escort a traveler on his journey to a specific destination he will surely reach it alive, but if he adds that he intends his escort to be effective for any destination, even if the traveler changed his original destination midway he will reach it alive, but the protection will not be strong enough to prevent damage. Therefore Yosef, while not losing his life, lost his liberty.
The Kaf Hachaim (Yore Deah II 116:159) quotes the Darchei Tzedek (Shmiras Hanefesh 51) who notes a tradition that forbids travelers from explicitly telling their escort to turn around and go back home. This, he writes, cancels the protection afforded by the escort. The Rishonim (Chizkuni; Da’at Zkeinim; Rabbenu Chaim Platiel; and others) maintain that Yosef actually told his father to turn back, thereby forfeiting the protection. Seemingly, the Zohar here understands that Yaakov was sure that these words that Yosef uttered were the cause for losing protection, and resulting harm. This is a third explanation why harm befell Yosef.
The Drush Shuel (quoted in the Chida) and the Meshivat Nefesh opine that the protection afforded by Yaakov’s escort extended only until Shechem, and his journey to Dotan was without that protection.
The Maharal as well as the Ma’avar Yabok maintain that the protection was, indeed, effective, and protected Yosef from death.
The Chida maintains that Yaakov’s escort was under the premise that he would only be traveling to Shechem. Since he changed his destination mid-way, the escort only afforded protection from death, not from damage.
The Kaf Hachaim quotes the Darchei Tzedek that the effect of escorting is forfeited when the traveler tells the escort to go back. The Rishonim maintain that Yosef said that to Yaakov, and the Riva adds that Yaakov silenced Yosef.
The Zohar seemingly understands that Yaakov’s escort was defective and therefore unable to protect Yosef from harm. From then on, Yaakov lamented on the defective escort he had offered Yosef.
Now that we’ve gotten a clear picture of the importance of escorting travelers we can study the halachic details of the mitzva.
The Rambam lays down the law (Hilchos Avel 14:2): “This is a statute which Avraham Avinu instituted and the path of kindness which he would follow. He would feed wayfarers, provide them with drink, and accompany them. Showing hospitality for guests surpasses receiving the Divine Presence as Bereshis 18:3 states: ‘And he saw and behold there were three people.” Accompanying them is greater than showing them hospitality.’
The Meshivas Nefesh (Bereshis 37:14) and Kli Yakar (Bereshis 45:27) note that Yaakov is said to have sent Yosef from the valley of Chevron, while Chevron is actually on a mountain. He resolves the contradiction stating that Yaakov sent Yosef off, “from the deep insight of his forefather, Avraham Avinu” who taught of the importance of escorting travelers. This is deduced from the pasuk, “And Avraham went with them to escort them” (Bereshis 18:16).
The Gemara (Sota 46b) demarcates the distance one is obligated to escort different people: A rebbe is obligated to escort his student 70 amos (cubits) from the city limit (115-131 feet). A friend must be escorted 2000 amos (0.6-0.72 miles). A disciple is obligated to escort his teacher one parseah (2.38-2.88 miles) and if he is his rav muvhak – 3 parsaos (7.14-8.64 miles). Protection for a traveler, however, can be attained from a much shorter escort – 4 ammos (6.5-7.8 feet).
These measurements are mentioned in the Rambam (Avel 14:3) and other Rishonim (Smag; Smak and others) but are not stated in the Tur and Shulchan Aruch. Several reasons are given for this omission.
The Rama (Darchei Moshe Choshen Mishpat 426-427:1) and Sma (427:11) write that today teachers and friends willingly forgo the long escort and one is not obligated to escort another for such a long distance. However, one is obligated to escort another at least till the city gates or four amos.
The Shevus Yaakov (Iyun Yaakov, Sota 46b) and Chofetz Chaim (Ahavas Chessed part III, chapter 2, footnote) write that the mitzva of escorting a traveler is to show him the way so he shouldn’t get lost. Today, since there are road-signs, it is not compulsory. The Be’er Sheva (Sota 46b) however, disagrees as for the reason for the long escort’s non-compulsory status – in his times traveling was very dangerous, even more than it was in the Mishnaic times, and every venture outside the city gates was dangerous. Therefore, he writes, one is not obligated to endanger himself to escort a rebbe or friend the full noted distance. According to this reason, today, whereas the great danger is non-existent, this reason does not apply.
The Chazon Ish (Emek Bracha, 4) writes that today, when many people travel together every person escorts his fellow traveler. In his view, this mitzva only applies today when travelling alone.
Escorting Four Amos
The Ahavas Chessed (part II, chapter 2, footnote) writes that what the Rama refers to in saying that travelers forgoing the honor of escorting applies only to the long distances mentioned in the Gemara, as well as the Shevus Yaakov’s assertion that today people are not in danger of losing their way. However, the minimal amount of four amos remains compulsory, even today with modern roads and infrastructure. This escort infuses the trip with a spiritual protection from all dangers.
The Emek Bracha adds (Gemach Begufo, 4) that the four amos are counted from the doorway of the host’s home. Escorting one to the door on the inside does not count towards the four amos of escorting a traveler. He continues and illustrates the importance of this mitzva: if a host washed his hands for bread and his guest suddenly has to leave (to catch a train), the host should go to escort him the requisite four amos between washing and eating. If he was careful to keep his hands clean, rewashing before eating is unnecessary. Even if he did forget to keep his hands clean, his bracha was not for naught (a bracha levatala) just like one who washed and then suddenly realized he needed to relieve himself.
Here I will add a personal note: I heard from a renown rabbi that whenever something happened to a child in his kehillah, it usually occurred after the child left without being escorted a few steps outside the house. The one time a child was escorted and yet he was harmed was when he stormed out of the house in anger.
He explained that the power of the mitzva of escorting a traveler creates an angel that protects the child. Escorting a child empowers him and gives him a sense of belonging which is apparent in his expression and body language. As a result, he is less attractive to bullies and other negative elements.
The Gemara (Sota 46b) lists the benefits of escorting travelers. This is a partial list:
The reward for accompaniment is without measure. The proof of the importance of accompaniment is from a pasuk in Shoftim: “And the watchers saw a man come out of the city, and they said to him: Show us, please, the entrance into the city, and we will deal kindly with you” (1:24), and it is written: “And he showed them the entrance to the city” (ibid 1:25). And what kindness did they perform with him? When they conquered the city that man and his family were sent free. The Gemara then elaborates on the reward he received: “And the man went to the land of the Hittites, and he built a city, and he called its name Luz; that is its name to this day” (ibid 1:26). This is the city where sky blue wool is dyed; where, although Sennacheriv came and exiled all the nations from one place to another place, he did not disarrange and exile its inhabitants; Nevuchadnetzar, who conquered many lands, did not destroy it; and even the angel of death has no permission to enter. Rather, its Elders, when they have decided that they have reached the end of life, go outside the city wall, and die.
And if this Canaanite, who did not speak with his mouth and explicitly tell them where the city entrance was and did not walk with them by foot, but merely indicated the correct path to them, caused himself to be rescued and also had the merit to provide protection for his descendants until the end of all generations — one who accompanies another by foot, all the more so will his reward be great.
Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi says: due to four steps that Pharaoh accompanied Avraham (Bereshis 12:20), Pharaoh enslaved Avraham’s descendants for four hundred years, as it is stated: “And shall serve them, and they shall afflict them four hundred years” (Bereshis 15:13).
The reward for escorting a traveler is in no proportion to the difficulty of performing it, and, as the Rambam writes (Hilchos Avel 14:2): “The reward for escorting is greater than all.”
The Gemara also writes that failing to escort a traveler is equal to murder.
How it Works
The Zohar (Vayera 104b) explains how the mitzva of escorting travelers works: one who escorts his visitor causes the holy Shechina to accompany him on his way and it protects him.
The Maharal explains (Nesivos Olam, Gemach chapter 5) that the world was given to humans. Bandits and evil spirits cannot harm people in inhabited places, but on isolated roads they can. Escorting a traveler strips those evil aspects of their power, and it is enough for the beginning of the way to be escorted to ensure protection for the entire journey.
What should one do if setting out on a journey in solitude? The Gemara (Sota 46b) provides the answer: “Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi says: One who walks along the way without having someone to accompany him should occupy himself with words of Torah, as it is stated with regard to words of Torah: ‘For they shall be a chaplet of grace to your head, and chains around your neck’ (Mishlei 1:9).”