The poor on Purim

There are all kinds of ways to gift the poor in addition to the halakhic definition on Purim.

Rabbanit Shira Smiles

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Shiur Summary by Channie Koplowitz Stein

Two of the mitzvot unique to Purim are mishloach manot and matanot laevyonim, sending delicacies to others and giving gifts to the poor. Why are these mitzvot singled out as requirement on Purim but not on other holidays, and what is the significance of these mitzvot in their relationship to Purim? Further, it seems obvious thatmatanot laevyonim refers to tzekadah, generally (but not really accurately) translated as charity. Why rephrase it and call it “gifts” instead of tzedakah?

First, it should be noted, , that at least the first two of matanot laevyonim may not be taken from money reserved for tithing, and that the funds (or foods) should be sufficient to cover a meal.

Rabbi Moshe Carlebach in Chavatzelet Hasharon provides a practical answer to our first question. He writes that originally Mordechai wanted Purim to be declared a full yom tov as the Megillah records. If Anshei Knesset Hagedolah, The Men of the Great Assembly, had agreed to that, These mitzvot would have been subsumed under the general requirements of a holidays’ observances, as we can readily see with the requests for tzedakah before Pesach and other holidays.

However, if we look at the later Megillah entry, we note that yom tov is missing, as Anshei Knesset Hagedolah, did not grant Purim the status of a full holiday. Therefore, the mitzva of gifts to the poor  is mentioned separately.

It is interesting to note that manot/portions of food, while being written twice as part of the Purim mitzvot, is written in full, with the added letter vov the first time, but is missing that letter in the later citation when it is paired with matanot laevyonim/gifts to the poor.

While sending gifts to more people increases friendship, love and unity among our people, the emphasis, effort and money spent should be on giving gifts to the poor. Further, by giving gifts to other friends, we are not singling out the poor and thereby we are eliminating their embarrassment at accepting charity.

The unique mitzvot of Purim are all encompassing and encapsulate within them all the mitzvot of the Torah, writes Rabbi Moshe Schwab in Mearchei Lev, citing Rav Zadok. Rabbi Schwab uses one of the key verses of the Megillah as the basis of his discussion, a verse that is also recited every week at the conclusion of Shabbat: Layehudim hayetah oohra vesimchah vesasson veyekor/The Jews had light and gladness and joy and honor.

Chazal, our Sages, parallel each of these emotions to a different aspect of Judaism. Ohrah equals Torah, while simcha is a code word for yom tovsasson parallels brit milah and yekor symbolizes tefillin. Each of these is then also parallel to one of the Purim mitzvot.

It is easy to see how reading the Purim scroll parallels reading the Torah. Further, the Megillah itself attests to the parallel of our accepting the Torah at the time of the deliverance on Purim to our acceptance of the Torah after our deliverance from Egypt. But while we accepted the Torah at Sinai without full free will, somewhat coerced, at Purim we embraced Hashem and His Torah with love.

The gladness of yom tov is experienced through eating, as sending gifts of food to each other, and through connecting two disparate elements, such as body and soul, husband and wife, and ultimately one Jew to another. Joy represents our connection to Hakodosh Boruch Hu through circumcision.

Our gifts to the poor enhance moving away from ourselves and concentrating on the needs of others because this is how Hashem treats us, and we are emulating His ways.

Finally, the honor of a Jew shines from his forehead and arm as he dons the Tefillin that connect him and all he does with a reflection of Hashem. Thus the whole day is interconnected, and the thread that ties it all together is matanot laevyonim, gifts to the poor.

How is reading the Megillah connected to receiving the Torah? Rabbi Weintraub in Einei Yisroel reminds us that the entire Torah is predicated on the premise that one already has good middot/character, as derech eretz preceded Torah, or society itself could not have existed. The Megillah itself ends extolling those characteristics in Mordechai: Seeking the good of his people and peace for all of them.

When Bnei Yisroel witnessed the extreme hatred that can grow from one small snub, that Haman was willing to kill an entire nation, all of whom had bowed down to him, because one man alone refused to bow, they decided it was time to repair any cracks in the relationships they may have had with one another. This, writes Rabbi Moshe Egbi in Chochmat Hamatzpun, is a major theme of the Megillah and why mishloach manot and matanot laevyonim are such central elements in the observance of Purim, for they sensitize us to the needs of others and reinforce our concern and love for one another.

In fact, writes Rabbi Mattisyahu Salomon in Matnas Chaim, when Hashem opened the heavens at Sinai, Bnei Yisroel saw matnat chaim, the gift of life, of Torah, paired with ahavat chesed, love of kindness. Purim takes these ideas and makes them part of our daily lives.

Rabbi Salomon brings proof of this by citing how the Megillah identifies Mordechai. He is first an ish Yehudi, then the son on Yair, son of Shimi, son of Kish, ish Yemini, from the tribe of Benjamin. Why is he first called ish Yehudi, as if he was from the tribe of Judah when he was in fact from the Tribe of Benjamin? Mordechai learned from King David of the tribe of Yehudah to attribute everything to God and not take credit or honor for himself, and to foster love and unity among the people.

How? Mordechai was a descendant of Shimi who had cursed David, yet David, although he was the anointed king, let the slight pass, and declared that all comes from Hashem. When Mordechai was in a position to achieve great honor by exposing the plot of Bigson and Seresh, he passed the information on to Queen Esther, hoping to give her an advantage should she need it. But Esther had learned a similar lesson, and reported the information in the name of Mordechai. So through King David’s example Mordechai and Esther were able to effect salvation for their people. Like David, they recognized the hand of God in all that transpired. Like David, they valued unity and love within the nation. These are the character trait that are exhibited in the Purim narrative and are exemplified through the mitzvah of matanot laevyonim.

But gifts we can give are not always monetary, and there are many kinds of poverty. Someone who is feeling poorly, whether physically, emotionally or psychologically would benefit greatly from a kind word or a statement that validates his worth. Acknowledge a stranger in shul by greeting him with shalom aleichem. These are also important gifts to the poor, writes Rabbi Friefeld, and create peace and wholeness. Create unity and love so that, as at Sinai, we can be as one with one heart. Haman tried to prove that we were a divided people, but Esther countered this with the command to gather all the Jews together. Therefore, to continue fostering this unity, our Sages mandated sendingmishloach manot, sending food packages to friends. To include even the poor who are often friendless, our Sages further mandated matanot laevyonim, gifts to the poor so they they too would be included and validated.

In fact, Rabbi Pincus explains that the mitzvah is called gifts to the poor rather than tzedakah precisely so that we will view these as gifts that come from feelings of love. These gifts can be given through writing a note of appreciation to someone, complimenting them or expressing gratitude for something we learned from them. We foster love by giving to one another, writes Rabbi Friedlander.

The Netivot Shalom continues this theme. Amalek tried to divide us. In order to counter Amalek’s influence, we need to foster love and unity. These two mitzvot ofmishloach manot and matanot laevyonim foster this love and unity that are a prerequisite to defeating Amalek and bringing salvation.

The Sulam in Bemaaglot Hashanah presents an interesting paradigm to follow in our relationship to others. First, he says, just as we would not entertain negative thoughts about Hakodosh Boruch Hu, so we should not entertain negative thoughts about a fellow Jew, but rather banish such thoughts from our minds. We should view each Jew as a precious jewel to be treasured.

Giving gifts is a representation of love,validation, and equality, and therefore giving gifts to the poor is distinct from tzedakah. This is similar to the children around their father’s table where all are equally loved even as adults who may not be equally successful or successful in similar areas in the world at large, writes Rabbi Wachtfogel.

Sefer Apiryon offers a related idea. Chazal wanted to ensure that everyone would be able to partake of the simcha of Purim with a festive meal. Rather than embarrass the poor who would receive handouts, they instituted mishloach manot to everyone, so no one would distinguish those who were getting gifts due to poverty from those of more ample means.

By sharing your wealth, you are creating joy not just for the recipient but also for yourself. This is how Rabbi Gamliel Rabinowitz interprets the verse in Psalm 30, “Pitachta saki vataazreini simcha.” While usually translated as, “You have removed my sackcloth and girded me with gladness,” Rabbi Rabinowitz presents an alternate translation for saki, as the sack which contains my money or possessions. (Note:  Jacob’s sons carried their provisions back to Canaan from Egypt in sacks.) When I open my sack and give gifts to others with no ulterior motive, I too am girded with joy.

Just as we perform the mitzvah of brit milah with no ulterior motive, so should giving gifts to the poor be with no ulterior motive and no conditions. That is the sasson, the joy of Purim. And don’t think that you will be impoverished by giving tzedakah. You are creating kindness through all the world, and Hashem will repay you 1,000 fold, writes the Kedushat Halevi.

Medrash Eichah states that when the Beit Hamikdosh was destroyed and Bnei Yisroel were sent into exile, they cried to Hashem asking for mercy for we are orphans without a mother and father. The Medrash continues and says that Hashem responded by promising to bring salvation through another orphan who had no mother or father. The orphan was Esther and the father figure was Mordechai who took it upon himself to raise Esther when she was orphaned at birth.

This altruistic fatherly act of chessed on earth, writes the Matnas Chaim, is what became the catalyst for Hashem above to redeem us as a father would redeem his child. Similarly, when we give matanot laevyonim, we show that we care about others, and we can ask Hashem to send brachot to us from heaven. 

On Purim, we are required to give to anyone who asks for help, and we can therefore also ask for help from Hakodosh Boruch Hu, even to the point of rescinding an evil decree. Just as the destruction of the Jews on Purim was already sealed but was overturned when Esther responded to Ahasuerosh’s question during the feast she had prepared for him, so too can we ask Hashem to hear our plea during our Purim seudah and it will be answered, writes the Netivot Shalom.

We can ask and pray for gifts from Hashem when we give mishloach manot with open hearts as well writes Rav Meislish.

Thus the mitzvot of Purim are designed to foster love and unity among all our people, for we are all jewels and children of the King of kings Who loves us all and grants us gifts constantly, even when undeserved.

May He hear our prayers and grant us salvation from our enemies as He has done so many generations earlier.