Thursday, March 24, 2016

Mishloach Manot: Why Give Food on Purim?

'Tis the season of giving. No, I'm not referring to Christmas. I am referring to the Jewish holiday of Purim. Under Jewish law, there are four mitzvahs related to the holiday of Purim. The first two are hearing the reading of the Megillah and having a festive meal, also known as a seudah, towards the end of the holiday. The other two mitzvahs have to do with giving. One is to give [money] to at least two poor people, and that money needs to be enough for a meal (מתנות לאביונים). Today, I would like to focus on the fourth mitzvah: mishloach manot (משלוח מנות). Literally meaning "sending of portions," the practice of mishloach manot entails sending gift baskets of food and drink to family, friends, or other people in one's life. Unlike with the mitzvah of giving [money] to the poor, this mitzvah specifically involves giving food and drink. But why? Why does it have to be food and drink, and why does the food and drink need to be ready to eat?

The origins of Mishloach Manot are intriguing, as are the laws behind it. The prooftext used for the practice is the Book of Esther (9:19), where it says that the 14th of the month of Adar is a day of gladness and feasting, of joy, and "and of sending portions to one another" (ומשלח מנות איש לרעהו). As for the reasoning behind the mitzvah, one reason is provided by 15 c. rabbi Yisrael Isserlin, in which he said that the food was to ensure that each individual had enough food to fulfill the mitzvah of the Purim seudah. This explanation has some difficulties not only because the recipients of the gift baskets can be either rich or poor, but also because it is a statistical likelihood that at least one person will not receive a gift basket. On the other hand, that could also explain why giving money to the poor is also a Purim mitzvah: even if a poor person does not receive mishloach manot, they would still receive money to celebrate Purim. And even if they do receive food on Purim, they can use the extra money to ease their financial woes. This explanation also bolsters the reason as to why mishloach manot has to come in the form of food, as opposed to some other good, e.g., clothing.

There is also a second and complementary reason that is traditionally provided for the practice. According to 16th-century rabbi Shlomo Alkabetz (Manot Ha Levi), the practice is about engendering goodwill and a sense of Jewish unity. In the Book of Esther (3:8), Haman described the Jewish people as "one nation dispersed and divided." While giving tzedakah is preferably done under anonymity, the mitzvah of mishloach manot is not complete unless one knows the identity of the giver since the purpose is to create goodwill towards others, regardless of socio-economic status. This is certainly not to say that we disregard non-Jews (because Jewish law tells us to also have respect for non-Jews, help non-Jews and have interpersonal relations with non-Jews). There is a time for universal values and interaction with the greater world (e.g., it is permissible to give to non-Jewish poor people in order to fulfill the Purim mitzvah of מתנות לאביונים), and there is a time for interactions with one's fellow Jew. Giving mishloach manot is a time to focus on the latter because while one of the goals of Judaism is engendering a more universal, moralistic ethos, one still has to start somewhere, and given the shared experience that Jews share, Jewish unity is a good place to start.

I've touched upon this idea before, and it is an idea that can be expressed in the adage of "three Jews, five opinions", which is that Jewish unity is a hard thing to come by. There are secular Jews who look at religious Jews as crazy, and there are religious Jews who look at non-Orthodox Jews as heretical. Regardless of where a Jew falls on the religious spectrum, there is a tendency to look at another Jew's practice as either too lax or too stringent. While the phenomenon of judging others based on disagreements or disputes is not unique to religious life (e.g., reactions to the 2016 United States presidential election), we are meant to use mishloach manot as a means to transcend such conflict and come together as a people. Abraham Lincoln was one to say that "a house divided against itself cannot stand," and the same goes for the Jewish people. Being Infinite Oneness, G-d is the perfect example of unity. While the Jewish people cannot exhibit unity to that extent, there is still something to be said for unity since greater cohesion leads to greater efficiency, whether that is in terms of doing particularistic mitzvahs (e.g., kosher food, Shabbat) or more universal mitzvahs, such as helping the poor or loving one's neighbor.

Mishloach manot is not just an expression of Jewish unity, but in more general terms, of giving and doing acts of loving-kindness for others. Purim is meant to be a holiday of joy. Giving is meant to be a manifestation of that joy, of that ability to bring people together. Through the act of giving mishloach manot, we are reminded that unity is more important than divisiveness, peace more important than conflict, and joy more important than misery.

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