The Mitzvah to Rejoice with Friends and the Needy
The mitzvoth of Purim are defined in the Megillah as: “They should make them days of feasting and joy, and of sending choice portions to one another, and gifts to the poor” (Esther 9:22). Seemingly, from thispasuk (verse), one could assume that these are separate mitzvoth – first, the mitzvah of simcha (joy), second, mishloach manot (sending choice portions), and third, matanot l’evyonim (gifts to the poor). But in truth, the mitzvah to be happy itself necessitates the sending of choice portions, and also the giving of gifts to the poor.
This is true because real happiness is an expression of a broadening of life, and its spreading out into a love for all Creation. On the other hand, a person who eats and drinks only for himself is an egotistic and limited person, preoccupied solely with satisfying his appetite, and will never achieve real joy. Consequently, we are commanded to send choice portions to one another.
One should not be content with increasing brotherly love only between friends, but we must also worry about the poor who are unable to rejoice; consequently, we are commanded to give gifts to the poor, so that they will be able to participate in the joy of Purim, as well.
A person who ignores the sorrow of the poor, although he might think he’s having a good time celebrating with his friends, really is only being frivolous and disregarding true life. He escapes thoughts of misery in the world, and in this way alone, is able cheer himself for a while. But of course, the harsh reality does not disappear as he sips his wine and gets drunk; and so, deep down, he realizes he does not warrant happiness, and remains sad. However, someone who takes care to make the poor and helpless joyful, his life has value, and can justifiably and truly rejoice. And this is why we are commanded to give gifts to the poor on Purim.
The mitzvah of mishloach manot is for every person to send two choice portions to a friend. The purpose of the mitzvah is to increase brotherly love between friends.
The choice portions must be edible, so as to increase the joy of Purim. It is well-known that when a person eats good and tasty food prepared by a friend, the fondness between them is strengthened. Another reason for mishloach manot is that there are people who are not really poor, and can afford to buy basic groceries to make a regular meal, but cannot afford to purchase specialties to prepare a fine meal, and by sending them choice portions, it is a respectful way to provide them with good food for the Purim feast.
A person who sends his friend clothing or a book, although such gifts are certainly gratifying and express one’s love, has not fulfilled the obligation of mishloach manot, because the portions must be edible. However, after fulfilling the mitzvah by sending two choice portions of food, if one wishes, he may add other gifts to increase brotherly love and friendship.
Two Choice Portions
Our Sages determined that a person must send at least two portions, thereby expressing his affection, because with a single portion, one can certainly help his friend not go hungry, but by sending two portions, we wish for him to enjoy the variety of foods, as well. The more one sends mishloach manot to increase love and affection, peace and friendship, between himself and his friends, the better.
The two portions must be different; for example, bread and meat, meat and rice, fish and eggs, or cake and apples. Also, one can send two portions of meat with different flavors; for example, one serving of cooked meat, and the other, grilled. One can also send two servings of cooked meat, but from different cuts, and thus, of different taste and shape. One may also send two kinds of cake, provided they taste and look different.
What Type of Portions?
A person who sends a live chicken to his friend has not fulfilled the mitzvah, because a live chicken is not fit to be eaten as is, but must be slaughtered, cut, cleaned, and cooked. And even if one sent a portion of uncooked meat, some poskim (Jewish law arbiters) say he has not fulfilled his obligation, but rather, must send portions ready to be eaten. One can send canned food, because it can easily be opened and consumed.
According to most poskim, a bottle of an important beverage, such as wine or beer, or a tasty juice, is considered a choice portion, and one can fulfill the mitzvah with two beverages. Other poskim are stringent, and do not consider beverages as a choice portion. And although the halacha follows the majority ofposkim, a person who wishes to fulfill his obligation according to all opinions, should send at least onemishloach containing two edible portions.
Amount of the Portion
Each portion should be of a size fitting to serve a guest respectfully (Aruch HaShulchan 695:15). One prune, for example, cannot be served to a guest respectfully, therefore, someone who wants to send a portion of prunes, must include a number of prunes for it to be considered a choice portion.
Some poskim are of the opinion that a portion must be the volume of three baytzim (three eggs, approximately 150 cc). Other authorities also add that the portions must be of considerable importance, based on the importance of the sender and the recipient; if they are wealthy, the portions must also be significant and pleasing, in accordance with their esteem. But if the portions are worthless in their eyes, one does not fulfill his obligation. ‘L’chatchila’ (initially), one should make sure that indeed, each portion measures at least three baytzim, and they are important and respectable in the eyes of the sender and the recipient.
Gifts to the Poor
It is a mitzvah for every Jew to give two gifts, to two poor people, on Purim, in other words, one gift to each poor person. The more matanot l’evyonim one gives, the better.
An evyon is a poor person who does not have enough money for his family’s necessities, all relative to place and time. There were times when those who had bread to eat and two pairs of clothing were not considered poor. Today, someone who has four pairs of clothing and bread and cheese to eat is still considered poor.
One can give a gift to a poor child as well, provided he is intelligent enough not to lose the money.
Someone who gives the proper amount of two gifts to a poor married couple has fulfilled his obligation of giving two gifts. Also, a person who gives the amount of two gifts to a widow and her young, dependent child, has fulfilled his obligation of giving two gifts. However, someone who gives two gifts to one evyon, even if he gave one gift after the other – has not fulfilled the mitzvah, because he must give to two poor people.
How Much to Give?
The gift can be money or anything edible, but one should not give clothing or books, because some poskimare of the opinion that the gifts must be something that can be enjoyed at the Purim feast; therefore, one should give either food, or money to buy food.
And although the gift should be fitting to contribute to the Purim feast, the evyon is permitted to do whatever he wants with it, and is not required to use it specifically for the Purim feast (Shulchan Aruch 694:1)
The value of each gift must be the amount of money it takes to buy a minimal amount of food that satisfies one’s appetite, similar to small, simple meal – for example, a falafel, or a sandwich. If a shekel is given for each gift, one has fulfilled the mitzvah, because this is enough money to buy bread equal to the volume of three eggs (approximately three slices), and this is an adequate amount to minimally satisfy one’s appetite.
Ma’aser Kesafim and Gifts to the Poor
It is forbidden to give matanot l’evyonim from one’s ma’aser kesafim (one-tenth of one’s earnings set aside for charity), because a person may not fulfill his obligations with these monies. However, Rambam(Maimonides) wrote that it is appropriate for one to spend more on matanot l’evyonim than he spends on hisPurim feast and mishloach manot, and for this calculation, one can include all of his ma’aser kesafim for that month – in other words, if he gives more than what he spends on the Purim feast and mishloach manot, he has fulfilled the words of Rambam.
Women and Mishloach Manot and Matanot L’evyonim
Although women are generally exempt from mitzvot asey she’hazman graman (positive, time-boundmitzvoth), since they were involved in the same miracle, as well, – they must also observe the mitzvoth of Purim. And concerning mishloach manot, due to the issue of modesty, one should be meticulous that women send gifts to women, and men send gifts to men. But as far as matanot l’evyonim is concerned, there is no need to be meticulous in this matter, because giving charity does not involve as much kiruv ha’daat(intimacy) (R’ma 695:4, where the concern of kiddushin in mishloach manot is mentioned).
A Married Couple
A married woman is also obliged to fulfill these mitzvoth. This being the case, a married couple is obligated to send two mishluchay manot, one from the husband, and one from the wife, and in every delivery there must be two portions. And although the main point of mishloach manot is strengthening friendship between the sender and the recipient, it seems there is no need to explicitly specify that one particular portion was sent from the man, and the other from the woman, rather, the intention of the senders that one portion is from the husband, and the other is from the wife, is sufficient. And although it may seem that by doing so kiruv ha’daat is diminished, this is not the case, for since they are a married couple, it is obvious that the delivery is sent by both of them, and therefore, both are considered to have achieved kiruv ha’daat.
When a married couple gives manot l’evyonim, they must give the amount of four gifts – two from the husband, and two from the wife. There is no need for the wife to give the gifts in person; rather, her husband can give the gifts on her behalf. They can also give the four gifts to two poor people – one gift from the husband, and the other from the wife, to one poor person, and one gift from the husband, and one from the wife, to another poor person. The custom today is to give the gifts to a gabay tzedaka (charity collector); he is given the amount of money for four gifts, and distributes it, on their behalf, to two poor people.
Children who have reached the age of mitzvoth (twelve years old for girls, and thirteen for boys), although they are financially reliant on their parents, are obligated to fulfill the mitzvoth of mishloach manot andmatanot l’evyonim. The mishloach manot, which are intended to increase brotherly love, must be sent explicitly in their name, while matanot l’evyonim can be given on their behalf, by their parents.
It is good to train children who have reached the age of education (six or seven) to mitzvoth, as well.
Women Reading the Megillah and the Community Rabbi
Q: Rabbi, last week you wrote that a woman can absolve other women of their obligation to hear the reading of the Megillah. In contrast, our community Rabbi opposes this. How should we act?
A: In all public matters, it is proper to abide by the Rabbi of the community, seeing as this is his main task – to examine the mood and the educational needs of the community, and sometimes, also to set barriers and to prohibit the permissible, in order to prevent breaches. Occasionally, a certain matter may be good in and of itself, or at the very least, not problematic; however, in a particular social context, it may cause difficulties that most of the members of the community don’t even realize. For that purpose, a community Rabbi is chosen – to take overall responsibility for the spiritual state of the community, thereby empowering and elevating the community’s Torah life.