Matanot La-evyonim and Mishloach Manot

  • Rav David Brofsky


We read toward the end of the Megilla (9:20-22) that Mordekhai sent letters to the Jews of the provinces of Achashveirosh, announcing the establishment of the Purim festival. He wrote:

… that they should keep yearly the fourteenth day of the month Adar, and the fifteenth day of the same, 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.

Mordekhai enacted three components to the Purim celebration: “feasting and gladness,” “sending portions one to another” (mishlo’ach manot), and “gifts to the poor” (matanot la-evyonim). In this shiur, we shall discuss the details and parameters of the last two of these.

Matanot La-Evyonim

As mentioned above, the Megilla (9:22) relates that Mordekhai instructed the Jewish people to "make them days of … sending portions one to another, and gifts to the poor." Rabbi Yair Chayim Bacharach (1639-1702; author of Chavot Yair) writes in his work Mekor Chayim (O.C. 695) that one should fulfill the mitzva of mishlo’ach manot before giving matanot la-evyonim, since the verse lists mishlo’ach manot before matanot la-evyonim.

Others disagree (e.g., R. Betzalel Stern [1911-1989], in his Be-tzel Ha-chokhma 6:81). In fact, the Yesod Ve-shoresh Ha-avoda (12:6) and R. Yaakov Emden (in his siddur) write that one should actually give matanot la-evyonim before shacharit on Purim morning! Furthermore, the Tur and Shulchan Arukh (694-5) record the laws of matanot la-evyonim before the laws of mishlo’ach manot, perhaps suggesting that matanot la-evyonim should be given first. Moreover, the Rambam writes (Hilkhot Megilla 2:17):

It is better for a person to increase his gifts to the poor than to increase the size of his Purim meal or mishlo’ach manot. For there is no greater and more admirable joy than to gladden the hearts of the destitute, orphans, widows and strangers. One who gladdens the hearts of the unfortunate is likened unto the Divine Presence.

The Gemara (Megilla 7a) teaches that one must give two "gifts" to two separate people, or, as Rashi explains, a total of two gifts, one to each person.

What is the minimum that one must give for each gift? The Ritva (Megilla 7a) writes that one should give at least two perutot (coins), one for each gift. Similarly, Rashi (Responsa 293, Shibolei Ha-leket 202) asserts that there is no minimum amount for matanot la-evyonim, as it is a form of charity, which one should give as much as one likes. On the other hand, some (see Maharsha, Chidushei Agadot Megilla 7a) require that one give a more significant gift. The Sha'arei Teshuva (695:1) cites the ruling of the Zera Ya'akov that one should give a minimum of "three eggs," meaning, the amount of a small meal.

The Rambam (Hilkhot Megilla 2:16) writes that one may give either money or food to fulfill this mitzva. The Or Same’ach (ad loc.) writes that one should not give clothing. The Turei Even (Megilla 7a) suggests that although one may indeed give food, it is preferable to give money, as one reason for not reading the Megilla on Shabbat (Megilla 4a) relates to the problem of giving money as matanot la-evyonim on Shabbat. This clearly presumes that money is the preferred means of fulfilling this mitzva.

Who is considered an "evyon" (poor person) for this mitzva? Seemingly (see Piskei Teshuvot 694:2), based upon the standard definition of a "poor person" who may take public charity funds (Shulchan Arukh Y.D. 253:2), one who is unable to support himself and his family, or a person who faces exorbitant expenses for medical care or other needs, may receive matanot la-evyonim. The Rambam (Hilkhot Megilla 2:16) and Shulchan Arukh (694:3) rule that we are not exacting with people asking for charity on Purim as we are throughout the year, and all who "extend their hand" are given matanot la-evyonim on Purim. The Ramban (cited by Nimukei Yosef, Bava Metzia 48b), as well as the Tur (694) and Shulchan Arukh (694:3), write that one may give matanot la-evyonim to Jews and non-Jews alike, in order to avoid "eiva" (enmity or animosity). The Machzor Vitri (245), however, records Rashi’s harsh criticism of those who distribute matanot la-evyonim to their non-Jewish workers on Purim.

The Shulchan Arukh (694:4) rules that one who does not encounter a poor person on Purim may set aside the money and give it them after Purim.

It is customary to set aside money before Purim and give it to the appointed gabbaim, who serve as one's agent to distribute the matanot la-evyonim on Purim day. R. Yosef Engel, in his Gilyonei Ha-shas (Shabbat 10b), claims that the identity of the giver must be known to the recipient, because the verse describes matanot la-evyonim as "gifts," which one gives expecting the recipient to know that he received it specifically from him. Other Acharonim, however, reject this assertion, and even prefer to preserve the anonymity of the donor.

One should not give matanot la-evyonim from money already set aside as ma'aser kesafim (see Rema, Y.D. 249:1). Similarly, one should not give matanot la-evyonim to pay a debt, or to pay those whom one would ordinarily give a gift (Arukh Ha-shulchan 694:4). However, once one has fulfilled the minimum requirement of matanot la-evyonim, one may then add from one’s ma'aser kesafim to increase the sum or number of recipients (Yechaveh Da'at 1:87).

It is interesting to note that giving charity often accompanies obligatory festivities. The Rambam (Hilkhot Yom Tov 6:18) writes:

When one eats and drinks [on Yom Tov], he is obligated to feed those less fortunate – the stranger, orphan, widow, and poor. One who locks his door and eats and drinks only with his family, neglecting the poor and those of bitter fortune, do not experience the joy of a mitzva but rather the enjoyment of one's belly!

Incorporating the less fortunate into our own celebrations is an integral part of religiously mandated “simcha.” Without this added dimension, one’s happiness is merely physical, “the enjoyment of one’s belly.”  

Mishlo’ach Manot

A number of reasons have been suggested for the mitzva of mishlo’ach manot (“sending portions one to another"). Some relate the mitzva of mishlo’ach manot to the broader mitzva of the festive Purim meal, either in that it ensures that the less fortunate will have food for a festive meal, or as it serves an extension of one's own personal obligation to hold a festive se’udat Purim. The Terumat Ha-deshen (111), for example, writes, “The reason for mishlo’ach manot is to ensure that each and every person has sufficient means to hold a proper Purim meal.” Similarly, the Rambam (Hilkhot Megilla 2:15) writes:

How should one fulfill the obligation of a festive meal? He should eat meat and assemble a proper meal according to his means, and drink wine until becoming inebriated… and similarly, one is obligated to send two portions of meat or two cooked dishes of two types of food to his fellow…

The Rambam clearly implies that the mitzva of mishlo’ach manot stems from the obligation to partake of a festive meal.

Others understand mishlo’ach manot as an independent mitzva instituted for the purpose of increasing friendship, in the interest of rectifying the divisiveness that Haman observed among the Jewish people: “There is one nation scattered and dispersed among the [other] nations" (3:8). (See, for example, the Chatam Sofer [O.C. 1:196] citing R. Shlomo Alkabetz's work, Manot Ha-levi.)

This question may impact upon a number of practical halakhic issues. For example, what is the proper time for sending mishlo’ach manot? The Rema (695) rules that one must fulfill this mitzva during the day, and not on the night of Purim. Instinctively, one might explain this ruling on the basis of the theory that associates mishlo’ach manot with the Purim meal, which would naturally require sending mishlo’ach manot specifically by day, when the Purim meal is eaten. In truth, however, it seems that the proper time for all the mitzvot of Purim is during the day (the nighttime Megilla reading marks the exception), and we therefore cannot necessarily demonstrate the relationship between mishlo’ach manot and the se’udat Purim from this halakha.

R. Aryeh Tzvi Frommer, in his Eretz Tzvi (121), bemoans the practice of many to give mishlo’ach manot after sunset on Purim day, while still partaking of the Purim meal. He notes that the Terumat Ha-deshen, cited above, might condone such a practice, as he associates mishlo’ach manot with the Purim meal, and thus so long as the meal is in process, perhaps one can still fulfill the obligation of mishlo’ach manot. Nevertheless, R. Frommer writes, this position is not universally accepted, and one should not rely upon it.

The Ben Ish Chai (Rabbi Yosef Chayim of Baghdad, 1835–1909) addresses the question of whether one can fulfill this obligation by sending mishlo’ach manot before Purim on the assumption that it will be received on Purim (and it is indeed received on Purim). He suggests that according to the Terumat Ha-deshen, as long as the recipient benefits from the gift on Purim, the sender has fulfilled his obligation. According to the Manot Ha-levi, however, one must send the gift, thereby demonstrating his affection for the recipient, on Purim day itself. This issue is discussed by other Acharonim as well. Some (Be'er Heitev 695:7, Chelkat Yaakov 1:102) maintain that the mishlo’ach manot must be received on Purim, while others (Arukh Ha-shulchan 695:17) insist that it must actually be sent on Purim day.

According to some authorities, one who lives in Jerusalem, where the mitzva of mishlo’ach manot is fulfilled on Shushan Purim (the 15th of Adar), should be careful to send mishlo’ach manot to a fellow Jerusalemite who, like him, observes Shushan Purim. Conversely, one who lives outside Jerusalem should be sure to give mishlo’ach manot specifically to somebody who observes Purim on the same day.

What must one send as mishlo’ach manot? The Gemara (Megilla 7b) teaches:

Rabbi Yosef quotes a beraita: "Sending gifts from a man to his friend" -- two presents to one man; "and gifts to the poor" -- two presents, each to one or two people.

Thus, this mitzva requires sending at least two gifts to at least one person.           

What gifts qualify for this obligation? The Rambam (Hilkhot Megilla 2:15) and Shulchan Arukh (695:4) write that one should send "two portions of meat or two cooked dishes of two types of food to his friend…"

The Mishna Berura (20) writes that one may even send a drink, and the Arukh Ha-shulchan (14) adds that one may even send two drinks. There is no source for the common misconception that one must send two foods requiring two different berakhot, though the two foods should be distinct and not two pieces of the same food (see Arukh Ha-shulchan, ibid.). Some (Magen Avraham 695:11, Chayei Adam 135:31 and Arukh Ha-shulchan 695:15) write that the food must already be cooked and ready to eat, while others (Peri Chadash 695, Yechaveh Da’at 6:45) maintain that one may even send uncooked foods. The Mishna Berura (20) cites both opinions.

Seemingly, those who relate the mitzva of mishlo’ach manot to the festive Purim meal might require that the food be ready to eat. Indeed, the work Ma’aseh Rav records the Vilna Gaon’s ruling that one should send cooked items ready to be used for the Purim meal.

Rabbi Eliezer Yehuda Waldenberg (1916–2006), in his Tzitz Eliezer (8:14), suggests that this debate may also impact upon the size of the gift. He suggests that according to the Terumat Ha-deshen, the giver should take into account the financial position of the recipient and whether he will potentially use the gift for his Purim meal. According to the Manot Ha-levi, however, the gift should reflect the position of the giver, in order to properly reflect his gesture of affection towards the recipient.

The Terumat Ha-deshen (ibid.) raises the interesting question of whether one may give clothing as mishlo’ach manot. He concludes, based upon his analysis cited above, that since mishlo’ach manot is intended to ensure proper provisions for the festive Purim meal, the contents of the mishlo’ach manot must be edible.

Similarly, Rabbi Menashe Klein, in his Mishneh Halakhot (4:91), questions whether one may send chidushei Torah (written Torah insights) as mishlo’ach manot. He suggests that while this would certainly not suffice according to the Terumat Ha-deshen, it might qualify according to the Manot Ha-levi, who explains that mishlo’ach manot serves to increase friendship among people. Since some people enjoy chidushei Torah more than material goods, it is possible that sending chidushei Torah achieves the desired goal of mishlo’ach manot and thus fulfills the obligation.  

The Acharonim also question whether one fulfills the mitzva of mishlo’ach manot if the recipient declines ("mochel") to accept the gift (see Rema 695, Chatam Sofer O.C. 1:196), and whether one may send a "gift with the condition that it be returned" (Peri Megadim 694:11). These questions may also depend upon whether the ultimate goal of the mitzva relates to the Purim meal, or to increasing harmony amongst Jews.

The Arukh Ha-shulchan (695:16) comments that one does not fulfill the obligation if the recipient does not know that he received the mishlo’ach manot.

Rabbi Yaakov Ettlinger (1798–1871), in his Binyan Tziyon (44), suggests that one should preferably send the mishlo’ach manot through a shaliach – an agent – rather than delivering them personally, as the verse speaks of "sending" gifts, and not "giving." The Mishna Berura (18) cites this opinion. This idea seemingly supports the notion that mishlo’ach manot serves to increase peace and harmony among the Jewish people, and should therefore include as many people as possible. If so, one need not send the gifts with an agent who is generally considered a valid "shaliach" – meaning, an adult Jew – as the purpose of employing an agent here is not to discharge one's obligation, but rather to get more people involved in the mitzva.

Women are equally obligated in mishlo’ach manot and matanot la-evyonim, as "they were also included in the miracle" (Shulchan Arukh 695:4 and Mishna Berura 25). The Magen Avraham (14) notes, however, that the women in his time were not so strict about these obligations. To justify this practice, he suggests that while a widow should send her own mishlo’ach manot and matanot la-evyonim, a married woman fulfills her obligation through the mishlo’ach manot and matanot la-evyonim sent by her husband. The Magen Avraham concludes, however, that women should preferably act stringently in this regard and send their own mishlo’ach manot and matanot la-evyonim.

According to the Magen Avraham’s rationale, a husband should send two portions to at least two people – one for himself and another for his wife. Furthermore, based upon our discussion above, it would seem that at least regarding mishlo’ach manot, the recipients should know that the portions came from the husband and the wife.

The Arukh Ha-shulchan (694:2), by contrast, writes that a husband and wife discharge their obligation by sending to one person, due to the principle of "ishto ke-gufo" (husband and wife are considered as one). One's children who have reached the age of mitzvot, however – both boys and girls – are obligated to send mishlo’ach manot and give matanot la-evyonim independently, and do not fulfill the obligation through their parents. Interestingly, the Peri Chadash (and, apparently, the Vilna Gaon in 695:4) rules that women are not obligated in matanot la-evyonim and mishlo’ach manot, as the verse says "ish le-re'ehu" (“a man to his neighbor”). Other Acharonim seem to reject this opinion.