Purim’s coming! Don’t forget: one of the four main mitzvot of Purim is a gift to feed the poor.
In its strictest interpretation, that’s a gift to make sure that poor Jews can celebrate the holiday. You can fulfill that mitzvah, feeding Jews, by a couple of routes:
MAZON is a Jewish organization that feeds people in both North America and in Israel. They do not turn anyone away, but they are primarily focused on Jewish food insecurity.
Alternatively, you can give money to your rabbi’s discretionary fund. Every congregation has members who are living with food insecurity, usually silently. The rabbi sometimes becomes aware of these situations and the discretionary fund can help buy groceries. A rabbi’s discretionary fund is not a private slush fund for expenses. Those funds have to be spent on things that preserve the deductible status of the original gift (in the USA.)
However, we are taught by our tradition to feed ALL hungry people, not just Jews. Some other options:
Donate cash or goods to your local food pantry or food bank.
Persuade others to give to your local food bank.
This is different from the usual “tzedakah before a holiday” thing, although that’s certainly good on its own. This is a particular part of Purim observance. Partly this makes sure all can celebrate the holiday, but also look at the calendar: this holiday comes at what can be a brutal time of year for people with food insecurity. It’s cold and wet in many locations, and has been for months. Nutrition affects people’s resistance to colds and flu. Many kinds of produce are more expensive because of the season, too.
The Hebrew name for these Purim gifts is Matanot L’Evyonim (mah-ta-NOTE l’ev-yon-EEM): Gifts to the Poor. Purim is actually the traditional Jewish gift-giving holiday: we give gifts to the poor, and food gifts to friends.
The root of tzedakah (charity) is tzedek, justice. It is unfair that so many are hungry. In my own home state of California, 15% of households – that’s over 2 million people! – are currently suffering with food insecurity. There are parents going hungry to feed their children and children going hungry because there isn’t enough to go around. This is a shanda (scandal.)
Before we put on our festive masks, let’s each choose a place to send what we can!
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?
There are three days of the year when synagogues are weird. Services are not typical. The crowd attending the synagogue is not typical. Even the clergy may not be their usual selves.
In other words, those are bad days to “shul-shop,” to visit a prospective synagogue. Here they are:
Purim is fun, if you are a member of the community. But it is an evening when people wear masks, get rowdy, and may be a little tipsy. There may be a play, a “Purim Shpiel,” with lots of inside jokes that won’t make any sense to you. In the daytime, there will be a children’s carnival, with hordes of sugar-crazed little ones. Don’t visit for the first time on Purim – it could be the nicest shul in the world but you will want to flee screaming.
2. Rosh HaShanah
Rosh HaShanah (Jewish New Year) services are beautiful. However, they are also very long.The rabbi’s sermon will be longer, too. Like a church at Easter, every member is there and more dressed up than usual. The service, and the music, are different from regular services. Tickets are usually required. Don’t visit for the first time on Rosh HaShanah – it may be pretty, but it just isn’t typical.
and now, for the VERY WORST DAY TO VISIT A SYNAGOGUE:
1. Yom Kippur
Yom Kippur is the worst possible day to visit a new synagogue. Nothing is normal. The evening service, Kol Nidre, is much like Rosh HaShanah: everyone dressed up, solemn music, lengthy sermon, a huge crowd. And in the morning service, it is all that but even more so: no one has had any coffee. If you are already part of the community, then misery has company. We do the work of the day (praying), we kvetch about our caffeine headaches, services go on and on and on. The music is still beautiful. But it is no place or time to take the temperature of a synagogue, because the singers are hired, the clergy is tired, and no one has had any coffee.
When is a good time to shop for a shul? Any day but those three days!
Purim is over! Put away the masks and take an aspirin if necessary: it’s time to prepare for Passover!
Passover in 2015 begins at sundown on Friday, April 3. That’s the “first night” or “first seder.”
Note: In this blog, I assume that my main audience are beginners: people who did not for whatever reason get a Jewish education as children and who are looking to engage with Jewish life as adults. If you are looking for directions for keeping a frum house for Pesach this blog is not for you. However, if you are not sure what “frum” and “Pesach” are, you are in the right place (and you can click the links to find out what those words mean.)
1. WHERE WILL YOU BE FOR SEDER? Traditionally, Jews attend at least one Passover seder every year during which we tell the story of the Exodus and make it fresh again. So, if you do not yet have plans for attending a seder, it’s time to seek one out. If this will be your first seder, do not try to host it. Check with your rabbi or synagogue office: who has a place at the table for you? If you have a mentor or Jewish friends, you can ask them, too. There may be a communal seder you can join for a fee, but be aware: tickets sell out, so call early! If you will be a guest at the seder table, here is an article about that. If this is not your first Passover, and you are going to host your first seder, here is an article for you.
2. GET RID OF YOUR CHAMETZ! Cleaning for Passover is the main way we prepare for the holiday, and it is a part of the experience of the season. We have to get rid of all our chametz. Chametz is any product with wheat, oats, spelt, barley, or rye that might at some point have gotten wet and swelled. We deal with the “might have gotten wet” part by just getting rid of all products containing those five grains. For instructions on cleaning for Passover, read Cleaning for Passover: Begin in Egypt.
3. SHOP FOR MATZAH: One of the names for Passover is Chag HaMatzot, the holiday of Matzah. We eat matzah during Passover. If you don’t particularly like matzah, you can fulfill the obligation by eating it at the seder, but if you want to have some at home, it’s a good idea to grab a box before they sell out. You can learn more in this article: Passover Shopping Tips.
Some readers may be thinking, gee, party planning, housekeeping, and shopping: is this any way to prepare for a holy festival? Passover is the quintessential Jewish holiday, because the spiritual part is hidden within seemingly mundane tasks. Over the four weeks between now and Passover, I’m going to use this blog to uncover some of the spiritual growth possibilities hidden in those to-do lists.
In the meantime, trust the process! Prepare for Passover! And let’s see where we are when the moon is full again.