Tuesday, February 23, 2010


This weekend is the holiday of Purim, which is sort of the Jewish version of Carnivale, the day when we dress in costumes, make fun of our rabbis and teachers and generally have a good time. It falls on Saturday night this year, which makes it even better, since there's no concern about having to get up for school or work the next day.

There are four main ritual obligations (mitzvot) to be performed on this holiday. First, to hear the Book of Esther recited in public. Second, to give gifts of food, called mishloah manot (literally, sending food). Third, a festive meal, and fourth, gifts of charity to the poor. These are based on the following section from the Megillah (as the Book of Esther is called in Hebrew):
And Mordechai wrote these words and sent scrolls to all the Jews in all of King
Achashverosh’s provinces, both near and far. To establish for themselves the 14th day of Adar and the 15th day as well, for every year, as days that the Jews were delivered from their enemies. On these days, the month was turned for them from anguish to joy, from mourning to a day of gladness; and these days should be days of feasting and joy, and sending portions each to his friend, and gifts to the poor. (Esther 9:20-22)
Mishloah manot are to include at least two different kinds of food; that is, foods that require two different brakhot (blessings) be recited over them. So, for instance, dried fruit and pastry. The more the merrier, of course, so if you can figure out a way to include three or four different kinds of food in there, that's okay too. Candy or nuts would be a third brakha. These packages are to be sent to at least two different people.

Of course, this is another of those areas where one can get really caught up in keeping up with the Schwartzbaums. It is quite possible to spend a lot of money on elaborate mishloah manot meant to impress your friends and neighbors, although tradition would hold that it's better to fulfill this mitzvah to the minimum required and to give the rest of the money to the poor. In fact, Maimonides makes this point quite explicitly:
It is better to increase gifts to the poor than to make for oneself a big meal or to send more portions to friends, for there is no greater or nobler joy than to gladden the hearts of the poor, the orphans, the widows and the strangers.
The minyan (prayer community) we once belonged to in Philadelphia, Dorshei Derekh, had a great way to make sure that people observed the mitzvot of sending mishloah manot and of gifts to the poor - that is, that they didn't do the former too much and the latter too little. The minyan would collect monetary donations from everyone - between $18-50 - and use the proceeds and additional donated goods (including baked goods etc., but also little non-food treats such as pencils, stickers, etc.) to put together quite a nice little package of mishloah manot, with the leftover money given to tzedakah. Packing the baskets (donated clementine boxes) was also a communal activity; this would be a good youth group activity. Everyone would get the same food basket on the holiday, and would have fulfilled both the obligation of mishloah manot and the sometimes overlooked obligation to donate to charity.

The question of what a person of lesser means should do in order to fulfill the mitzvah of mishloah manot was the subject of an interesting Rambam sent to me by my friend and colleague Rabbi Rick Brody this week.
One is required to send two portions of meat, or two kinds of stew, or two other kinds of food, to one's friend, as it is said, "to send portions of food, each to his friend" (Esther 9:19). Two portions, to one person. And someone who sends to more friends is to be praised. And if he doesn't have any [to give], he should exchange with his friend: this one should send that one a meal, and that one should send this one a meal, in order to fulfill the mitzvah, "to send portions of food, each to his friend." (Mishneh Torah, Hilchot Megillah, 2:17)
That is, if one is too poor to send gifts of food, one should instead trade meals with a friend. It so happens that Danny Siegel, the "mitzvah man" who was our scholar in residence this past weekend, brought this very same text, saying that this constituted a leap of faith on the part of the poor person, because you could never be sure the friend would reciprocate, until he did.

Rick raised the interesting question of whether this the trading of meals to fulfill the mitzvah of mishloah manot would apply to a potluck. To which I would say, yes; trading food is what potlucks are all about. Rick then goes on to ask whether two fellows of modest means simply showing up at a communal potluck and putting food on each other's plates would fulfill the mitzvah. To which I would say, no. It is a core Maimonidean principle that even people who receive public assistance are required to give tzedakah in some amount, however small, because to deprive them of that obligation is akin to depriving them of their very personhood. So too with a potluck. A person may not be able to bring a lot, but they have bring something. Once they do that, they have fulfilled the "trading with one's friend" codicil that the Rambam is setting out, and they can feel they have fulfilled the mitzvah.

Previous Purim-related posts: Reconstructing Mishloah Manot, and Another Thought...

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