Purim is one of the most festive and joyous occasions on the Jewish calendar. This year, the holiday begins on the evening of Wednesday, March 16 and ends the evening of Thursday, March 17.
One of the essential customs on Purim is to give mishloach manot (Purim gift baskets) to friends and neighbors filled with ready-to-eat drinks and food.
Where does the custom of mishloach manot come from?
Literally, the term mishloach manot translates to “sending of portions” in Hebrew.
The origin of this practice can be found in the Book of Esther. In verse 19 (Esther 9:22) Jews are instructed to observe Purim “as days of feasting and merrymaking, and as an occasion for sending gifts to one another and presents to the poor.”
What is the purpose of giving Purim baskets?
There are a couple approaches to the question of why we give mishloach manot on Purim.
The first explanation has to do with counteracting the accusations of Haman, as explained by Rabbi Shmuel Herzfeld, rabbi of The National Synagogue in Washington, DC.
“Haman accused the Jews of being “a scattered, and divided nation.” Thus, the Jewish people send gifts to each other in order to show that they are not divided, but rather are united,” he explained.
“This explains why some maintain that one may fulfill the mitzvah of mishloach manot by sending not food, but words of Torah,” he noted. “Since the purpose of this mitzvah is to unite the Jewish people, one can fulfill the mitzvah with anything that achieves this goal.”
The second approach has to do with ensuring the integrity of those who are struggling.
“The mitzvah intends to guarantee that rich and poor alike are provided for at the Purim meal,” according to Herzfeld.
There is a different mitzvah of Purim meant to account for those in need during Purim called Matanot l’evyonim (“gifts to the poor”). This commandment requires all Jews to give at least two gifts to two individuals in need, and the obligation can be fulfilled through any type of gift (such as money, food, drinks or clothing). In many communities, it is customary to donate what is called machazit hashekel (“half-shekel”) money, in memory of the half-shekel that everyone in the Jewish community donated in ancient times during the month of Adar for the upkeep of the Temple.
However, the second explanation for mishloach manot is different than matanot l’evyonim and holds a unique value.
“Some suggest that the mitzvah of mishloach manot actually derives from the mitzvah of giving gifts to the poor on Purim. However, due to concern that the poor would feel ashamed that only they did not have sufficient means to provide for the Purim meal, the rabbis decreed that not only the poor, but all people should send and receive gifts on the holiday of Purim,” explained Herzfeld.
How to make mishloach manot
There’s no right or wrong way to make mishloach manot, you can be as traditional or creative, minimal or extravagant as you like.
This year, some people are thinking of donating some of their proceeds towards relief efforts for Ukrainian refugees.
Originally Published Mar 10 2022 10:25AM EST