Mishloach Manot: A Delicious Mitzvah!

https://www.flickr.com/photos/shinyhappyworld/5634941531/
(image by Wendi Gratz)

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?

The Basics of Purim

Purim costumes are usually very informal.
Purim costumes are usually very informal.

If you are new to synagogue, Purim is either a treat or a shock, maybe both. It’s a holiday based in the Biblical book of Esther, a story about the Jewish community in Persia. Here’s what you need to know:

1. WHEN? Purim falls on 14 Adar. In a leap year, it falls on 14 Adar II. There may be something called Shushan Purim on your Jewish calendar, but you only need to worry about it if you live in a walled city such as Jerusalem. For conversion to the secular calendar, check a Jewish calendar.  

2. THE STORY For the whole megillah [scroll] read the Book of Esther in the Bible. The short version: The Jewish community in Persia is nearly annihilated when King Ahasuerus’s chief minister, Haman, takes a dislike to them. The king’s queen, Esther, is secretly a Jew and she intervenes to save the day.  The full story, in the Bible, is at least R-rated for both sex and violence, but in most American synagogues what you will hear is the G-rated version edited for children’s ears.

3.  MITZVAH 1 – HEAR THE STORY. We are commanded to hear the megillah read every year. We fulfill that mitzvah either by listening as someone chants the scroll or by seeing it acted out in a Purim Shpiel, with lots of audience participation. It is traditional to drown out the name of the villain, Haman, with noisemakers like groggers or with boos. The booing and noise is what may shock newcomers to synagogue: for many Jews, this is an opportunity to really let out our feelings about the people who have tried to kill Jews.

4. MITZVAH 2 – FESTIVE BANQUET. We are commanded to enjoy a festive meal on Purim. One theme for the holiday is feasting – if you read the story, you’ll notice there are lots of parties in it. Hamentaschen are three-cornered filled cookies associated with the holiday. Holiday cookies and foods are a great way to use up flour and other chametz in the pantry. Remember, Passover is one month after Purim, so the baking for Purim can be the beginning of Passover prep.

5. MITZVAH 3 – GIFTS TO POOR PEOPLE. We are commanded to see to it than even the poorest people can enjoy a festive meal. A donation to the Food Bank in your area or to a Jewish organization such as MAZON works nicely.

6. MITZVAH 4 – MISHLOACH MANOT  (Meesh-LOW-ach man-OHT) are small gifts of baked goods, wine, or other goodies, sent to friends to enhance their feasting.  Ideally we send friends a little package including two or three treats.

7. COSTUMES. Many Jews, both children and adults, wear costumes to synagogue for the Purim festivities.  Often people dress as characters from the Purim story, but pirates, astronauts, and superheroes are good, too.  Some just wear a mask for Purim, because one of the themes of the holiday is secret identities.

8. DRINKING. There is a tradition that one should drink “until one cannot tell Haman from Mordechai” – the bad guy from the good guy. This, too, is a theme from the story but it has too often been taken to excess.  Don’t drink and then drive home from synagogue, or push alcohol on anyone, please. Don’t give alcohol to children. Purim is supposed to be a fun holiday, and overdoing the slivovitz can take all the fun right out of it.

Immediately after Purim, we begin our Passover preparations. Passover is only a month away!

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