Jewish Roots and Teachings
Mishloach Manot for Harmony and Charity
by June Levine The Messianic Times
Purim: A Holiday to (Really) Celebrate
There are few Jewish holidays that are as much fun as Purim, also known as the Feast of Lots. A holiday whose celebration stipulates that one ought to be festive enough so that it is no longer possible to distinguish between the hero, Mordecai, and the villain, Haman (boo!), is a holiday even the least observant among us can warm up to.
Traditional observance often includes the re-enactment of the Purim story from the Book of Esther using humor, music, sight gags, noisemakers, and audience participation to put everyone in that festive frame of mind. Delicious Purim cookies called Hamantashen (“Haman’s pockets” in Yiddish), or ozney Haman (“Haman’s ears,” in Hebrew) are three- cornered pastries filed with prune, apricot, raspberry, cherry, or poppy seed paste, like little triangular tarts.
Every youngster seems to have a favorite flavor, and with the variety of options growing each year (including a recent recipe for Nutella hamantashen!) it is certainly a holiday where no child is left behind. In Israel, costuming that would rival Halloween on any U.S. college campus is elaborate; not only for the young, but for adults as well, who can be seen boarding buses and heading to work fully outfitted and sporting theatrical make-up.
Add to the festivities the Jewish holiday formula: “they tried to kill us; they failed; let’s eat!” and you have a sure-fire recipe for joyous memories for the child in each of us.
This includes Hebrew University of Jerusalem on Tu B’Shevat in 1918, the Technion (Israel Institute of Technology) in Haifa on Tu B’Shevat in 1925, and the Knesset on Tu B’Shevat in 1949.
Yet, no Jewish holiday is complete without remembering those less fortunate and the edict that it is better to give than receive. Even amidst the raucousness of Purim we are commanded to enlarge the tent of our celebration through Mishloach Manot. As we are informed by the text of Esther 9:
Therefore do the Jews of the villages, that dwell in the unwalled towns, make the fourteenth day of the month Adar a day of gladness and feasting, and a good day, and of sending portions one to another.
… keep the fourteenth day of the month Adar, and the fifteenth day of the same, yearly, the days wherein the Jews had rest from their enemies, and the month which was turned unto them from sorrow to gladness, and from mourning into a good day; that they should make them days of feasting and gladness, and of sending portions one to another, and gifts to the poor. Esther 9:21,22
Sharing is Always Appropriate
Mishloach Manot (ubn jukan, literally, “sending the portions”) is the directive to partake in exchanging gifts with one another as part of the celebration of Purim. Plural for the Hebrew word pur (rup), the name of the holiday references the casting of lots to determine the day set for the destruction of the Jews by Persia’s deputy minister, Haman. While King Ahasuerus focused on the more pleasant aspects of royalty, he was glad to designate the difficult assignments of ruling the kingdom to his under- lord, the ambitious and cold-blooded Haman.
According to tradition, the mitzvah of Mishloach Manot—also known as shalach manot (ubn jka), or (shalach manos in Yiddish), derives partly from misinformation maliciously rumored by Haman, who supposedly claimed that there was dissension among the Jews in Persia. Apparently the Biblical narrative that the Jews were contemptuous of the King’s laws, as well as a scattered and divided nation, (Esther 3:8) was broadly iinterpreted by Haman.
In later years, the rabbis decided that in order to set the record straight and improve the reputation of the Jewish people, a custom encouraging generosity and charity would be proactively instituted. Modern interpretation embellished this further, by impressing those engaged in the mitzvah to consider Purim an opportunity to settle arguments, grudges or grievances, thus eliminating any implications of unrest among the Jewish people.
In addition, since the Feast of Esther is a time for joyous (and excessive!) consumption of food and drink, the sending of these gifts ensured that no one was faced with an empty pantry at this crucial time. (This interpretation is found in the commentary of 15th century scholar, Rabbi Israel Isserlein). As tradition became law, it was further determined that one was required to send at least two meals to at least one recipient (more than one was encouraged). Tradition also dictated that a wealthier person was expected to donate a more abundant amount than a less affluent person. Yet another stipulation was that the food sent must be ready to eat, not requiring cooking or other preparation, which might compromise the generous gesture through added inconvenience.
Today, elaborate gift baskets have come to be associated with Shalach Manot and, sensing an opportunity; several companies have popped up, offering colorful, edible baskets that can be ordered online and distributed all over the globe. One popular option has been to send a basket of goodies to an Israeli soldier, an act that enables people from all corners of the planet to connect with those defending Jewish interests in the Land.
Tzedakah: The Gift That Keeps on Giving
Any examination of the mitzvah of Shalach Manot brings to light the larger discussion of Judaism’s very elaborate culture of tzedakah (vesm), a word that can be alternatively translated “charity,” “justice” or “righteousness”.
During the Middle Ages, Torah scholar and philosopher, Moshe Ben Maimon (Maimonides), published a tract that included what became known as the ladder of priority as part of his epic volume, the Mishneh Torah (10:714).
There Maimonides carefully defines the eight levels of giving charity to the poor, ranging in order from greatest to least:
Giving an interest-free loan to a person in need; forming a partnership with a person in need; giving a grant to a person in need; finding a job for a person in need; so long as that loan, grant, partnership, or job results in the person no longer living by relying upon others
Giving tzedakah anonymously to an unknown recipient via a person (or public fund), which is trustworthy, wise, and can perform acts of tzedakah with your money in a most impeccable fashion
Giving tzedakah anonymously to a known recipient
Giving tzedakah publicly to an unknown recipient
Giving tzedakah before being asked Giving adequately after being asked
Giving willingly, but inadequately
Giving out of pity
In explaining the nuances of tzedakah, Maimonides was able to help people connect with their own motivation for charity and to inspire his people to the highest of intentions. Thus, the benefit, as the New Covenant confirms (Acts 20:35), blesses not only the recipient, but also the giver who, in refining the spiritual impulse to share, can grow to be a more righteous person.
Purim is the perfect time to encourage our higher sensibilities when it comes to those less fortunate. As the Book of Esther makes abundantly clear, one’s fortunes can turn 180 degrees on the whim of a tyrant or the mercy of a king.
As we see God’s hand at work in our lives for good deeds, Shalach Manot is the perfect gesture to remind us to share what we have, so that everyone may enjoy the benefit of the holiday celebrations. MT
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