Ask most American Jews about Purim and they will mention children’s parties, silly Purim Shpiels, costumes, and masks. They may tell you the story of Queen Esther. They might tell you about drinking alcohol in quantities not seen on any other holiday. They are less likely to mention one of the sweetest customs of the day: mishloach manot. (meesh-LOW-ach mah-NOTE) This is the mitzvah of wrapping up small gifts of food or drink to give to family and friends. If the Hebrew name is a tongue twister, call them Purim Goody Bags.
While it is a commonly observed mitzvah in some places, I had never seen it in my home congregation in Oakland. My first experience with mishloach manot was when one of my teachers at Hebrew Union College, Dr. Rachel Adler, showed up at class with a shopping bag loaded with a small brown paper bag for each student in her classes. Mine had a tiny bottle of kosher grape juice and 2 cookies. I was thrilled, then immediately felt guilty that I hadn’t brought her a goody bag, too.
Most sources give two reasons for this mitzvah: (1) to make sure that everyone has good things to eat to celebrate the holiday and (2) to promote good feelings and harmony in the Jewish community. It’s based on a verse in the Scroll of Esther:
Therefore the Jews of the villages that dwelt in the unwalled towns made the 14th day of the month of Adar a day of gladness and feasting, a holiday, and of sending portions to one another. – Esther 9:19
The gifts must be food, not money. They must be delivered during the day of Purim. They are given in addition to a special gift to feed the hungry, not instead of it, and one should not buy the gifts with money from one’s tzedakah (charity) budget. And despite my initial guilt feelings over Dr. Adler’s generosity, mishloach manot do not require a reciprocal gift.
The minimum to fulfill the mitzvah is a package of two prepared food items to one person. “Package” is a flexible term: I have seen fancy gift baskets of food for sale for Purim in Israel, but I have never received a sweeter mishloach manot package than the little brown bags Dr. Adler passed out to us with cookies and juice. One hectic year I used foil to make shiny little packages with wrapped candies inside. Mara Strom has written a charming article with 101 ideas for mishloach manot on a budget. The idea is generosity and delight, not ostentation or excess.
There are four main mitzvot of Purim: The Reading of the Megillah, Eating a Festive Meal, Giving Gifts to the Poor, and Mishloach Manot. Which of these mitzvot have you done in the past? Which might you like to try this year?