FREE FOOD! THE MITZVA OF MISHLO'ACH MANOT 

I. INTRODUCTION

One of the four mitzvot of the holiday of Purim (along with reading the Megilla, giving gifts to the poor, and eating a festive meal) is that of Mishlo'ach Manot, sending parcels of food to friends. This mitzva has its roots in Esther 9:9 and 9:22, where we are told that this practice was first kept among the Jews who were saved from the decrees of Haman, and then Mordechai later wrote it down for posterity.

The gemara in Megilla 7a serves as our Talmudic source for this law, noting that one fulfills this commandment by giving two food items to one person. This is based on the fact that it the verse "mishlo'ach manot ish l'rei'eihu" the word for food (manot) is plural while that connoting the recipient (rei'eihu) is singular. The gemara then presents several examples of how the Sages fulfilled this commandment, and concludes with the story of Abaye ban Avin and Rav Chanina bar Avin who fulfilled this commandment by switching their meals on Purim.

What is the exact nature of this commandment? This is a subject of debate, and the two views will guide many of the laws involved. According to the Terumat HaDeshen, the focus is ultimately on the meal and thus we give gifts of food to insure that everyone will have enough to eat, without having to rely on the embarrassment of receiving charity. This is consistent with the fact that Rambam groups the commandments of the meal, gifts to the poor, and mishlo'ach manot together as fulfillments of the obligation to be happy on Purim. The second view, that of the Manot Levi (Rav Shlomo Alkabetz), is that mishlo'ach manot counteracts Haman's claim that the Jews are a nation who are scattered throughout the world (Esther 3:8). Thus, we give gifts to each other to bring the nation together and to increase the love between man and his fellow man. Finally, Bach notes that the giving of mishlo'ach manot and of gifts to the poor allude to the joy of man with his friend on the joy of fulfilling Hashem's commands, as well as to the two gifts received by Mordechai at the end of the Purim story the house of Haman and the king's signet ring.

 

II. WHO GIVES?

We will begin our study by investigating who should give mishlo'ach manot and to whom they should be given. It is clear that men have to give, since the verse says "ish." According to the Darchei Moshe (O.C. 695), women are also obligated, and the Mishne Berura explains that this is because they were also part of the miracle of Purim (similar to the reason they are obligated to hear the Megilla). On the other hand, The Pri Chadash is adamant that we follow the verse and only men are obligated in this mitzva. The Aruch HaShulchan counters this objection, noting that the Bible always uses the term "ish" as a default, but that in reality both men and women are often being referred to. He goes even further and claims that children should also have to give, since they should also be involved in the "rei'eihu" aspect, increasing friendship among Jews. The Magen Avraham writes that a man can give on behalf of his wife, but it is better for women to be strict and to give on their own

The stickier issue is who is to receive the mishlo'ach manot. The easy part is found first in the Darchei Moshe (loc. cit.) who writes that a man should not give to a woman out of a fear that it would be considered to be the gifts that a groom usually send to his bride and thus we would have a situation of a doubtful betrothal (safek kiddushin). Others generally recommend that the sexes do not give to each other out of a sense of general propriety. However, the Darchei Moshe notes that a man may give gifts to the poor to a woman since it is done as charity and we do not worry in such cases.

What is a topic for discussion is giving mishlo'ach manot to the poor. Ritva writes that mishlo'ach manot are sent only to rich people (or at least those who are not poor). Rav Akiva Eiger and the Bi'ur Halacha cite the Turei Even, who is unsure if one could fulfill both mishlo'ach manot and matanot la'evyonim by giving food to a poor person (and then giving money to a second poor person, since it has to be given to two poor people). The Sdei Chemed seems to hold a compromise view one has to give money to at least two poor people (and cannot accomplish both mitzvot with the same object since we do not bundle mitzvot together Ktav Sofer). However, if one does so and then gives a proper mishlo'ach manot to a third poor person, that mishlo'ach manot is considered to fulfill that mitzva and not the mitzva of gifts to the poor, even though the recipient is himself poor.

The issue of rich and poor also plays a role in terms of how much has to be given. Normally, any law involving food has a certain measurement usually a k'zayit (size of an olive) or a k'beitzah (size of an egg or two olives) for food, and a revi'it (3.3 ounces) for a drink. However, here the amounts are far more subjective. The footnotes in the Mossad HaRav Kook edition of Ritva claims that Ritva seems to be saying that one has to send something significant for mishlo'ach manot. However, the footnotes then point out that the beginning of Ritva's statement seems to imply that the amount sent depends on what the recipient would deem to be appropriate. Interestingly, the Sdei Chemed reads Ritva as requiring what is sent to be something that the giver would deem to be appropriate for himself. The Sdei Chemed himself aims to create an objective standard and writes that one must give something that is considered to be fitting in the eyes of most people. The Bach (citing Ran) rules that one must give food and drink to a rich person, but can give only one thing to a poor person, as that is considered to be a significant thing in his eyes. The Bi'ur Halacha goes so far as to say that if one sends something small to a rich person he has not fulfilled his obligation (Chayei Adam in the name of the Yerushalmi), and the Aruch HaShulchan says that the amount that should be given is the amount that would be respectful for the recipient.

 

III. WHAT DID WE GET?

Our next issue is what exactly does one send? Rashi on the gemara points out that the word "manot" refers to food. Rambam (Hilchot Megilla 2:15) codifies this by saying that a person should send two gifts of meat or two cooked foods or two types of food to his friend (the Shulchan Aruch O.C. 695 has a similar wording). The Darchei Moshe (loc. cit.) writes in the name of Maharil and the Terumat HaDeshen that both food and drink are eligible to be sent as mishlo'ach manot. What emerges from these sources, as well as form the example cited in the gemara, is that the food must be ready to eat without requiring significant preparation, and thus the Magen Avraham quotes the Maharil who rules that any meat given should be already cooked. The Sdei Chemed writes that according to the Pri Chadash and the Ha'amek She'eilah (Netziv) one may give raw meat, since the word "manah" (singular of manot) is used in the Torah to refer to raw sacrificial meat. The Mishne Berura claims that raw meat is fine so long as it is ready to cook (which would apply to all of out meat today).

The Aruch HaShulchan adds that while one has to give two foods, they should be two different foods, and not two portions of the same food. Rav Moshe Harari writes (Mikra'ei Kodesh) that Rav Mordechai Eliyahu allows one to give two cookies or cakes, so long as they look or taste different from each other. Rav Harari goes on to say that it is certainly better to give bread and cooked foods (as the mitzva is connected to the festive meal), but the practice has become to mainly give sweet foods (a practice that was already noted by Chida in the 18th century). I have heard that one should give two foods that require two different blessings, but I have yet to find a single source that says this.

As a side point, there is a discussion about whether or not one has fulfilled his obligation if he send someone a chicken that is then found to be a treifah. The Be'eir Heitev is unsure, while the Chida permitted it. Any permissiveness in this matter derives from the fact that even if the food cannot be eaten, and thus the reason of the Terumat HaDeshen cannot be fulfilled, nevertheless the recipient has seen that his neighbor is befriending him, and thus the second rationale for this mitzva is accomplished.

 

IV. MISCELLANEOUS

The Pitchei Teshuva cites the Binyan Tzion (responsa #44) who is unsure whether or not one can deliver mishlo'ach manot himself. Since the mitzva is known as mishlo'ach manot, it implies that they must be sent (shalach) via a messenger. The Sdei Chemed believes that the Binyan Tzion would allow one to deliver the mishlo'ach manot without use of a third party, although he feels that most poskim prefer the use of a messenger. He goes on to say that even though we normally say that it is preferable for one to fulfill a commandment and not have a messenger do it (even though one's messenger is tantamount to he himself doing the action), nevertheless here a messenger is preferable since that is the very nature of the mitzva (Rav Ovadiah Yoseif notes that one should give the messenger something for his labors). The Chatam Sofer held that a messenger is required, but the Nachalat Binyamin, Yalkut Yoseif (Rav Ovadiah Yoseif), and Yad HaLevi all say that it is better for a person to do a mitzva rather than send a messenger, and thus each person should deliver his own mishlo'ach manot.

There is no blessing recited directly on the giving of mishlo'ach manot. Why is this so? The Sefer Ta'amei HaMinhagim claims that it is the result of a curiosity in the law. A person has the right to refuse to accept mishlo'ach manot, and even so Ramo rules that the giver fulfills his obligation when rejected, since he has still managed to exhibit feelings of friendship. That being the case, it is possible for a person to not actually give food to anyone and still discharge his obligation. However, this would make any blessing into a bracha l'vatala (a blessing made for no purpose), and thus we leave it out. The Mor V'Ohalot (page 39b) writes that since the point of this mitzva is to increase friendship, there is no way of knowing if the recipient actually feels more favorably inclined towards the giver, and thus we do not make any blessing out of doubt.

Finally, there is the issue of giving mishlo'ach manot through a shul or another such organization. The general practice is that one gives a certain sum of money to the organization, who then send each person a basket of food complete with a list of everyone who contributed. Rav Asher Bush (in an article in Beit Yitzchak, volume 26) writes that one should not, and perhaps cannot, fulfill his obligation in this manner. One reason is that since we require that one give an amount that is befitting the recipient, it is likely that each individual's share in the basket will be less than that amount. Even in places where the amount given is increased as per the number of givers, people should still not rely on this practice for their total fulfillment of this mitzva. Rav Bush gives two reasons for this. First, it will deny children the chance to see their parents put baskets together, thus denying them a valuable educational opportunity. Finally, since a major focus of this mitzva is increasing friendship, it would seem that that works more when one gives a personalized mishlo'ach manot, and does not just appear as another name on an organization's card (although one could argue that such arrangements allow people to give to more people and thus friendship is increased even more).


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