Ask the Expert: Mishloach Manot

How do I give these gifts?

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Question: I know I’m supposed to give gift packages on Purim. Are there any rules about what has to be in them? How many should I give?
–Claire, Bergen County

expertAnswer: In my opinion, Claire, giving gifts is the best part of Purim. It’s so much fun to make up little packets of goodies for my favorite people, and of course I love receiving these packets, too.

The commandment of mishloach manot, giving gifts on Purim, comes from a verse in the Book of Esther after the Jewish people have been saved from annihilation, “They were to observe them as days of feasting and merrymaking, and as an occasion for sending gifts to one another and presents to the poor.” (9:22) This is a relatively simple verse, but traditional rabbinic authorities have extrapolated a number of rules about what constitutes a Purim gift.

According to the Shulhan Arukh, each person is obligated to send to at least one other person, and each gift should be comprised of at least two different elements. Some people have the custom of making sure the contents of their mishloach manot require two different blessings (say, a cookie and a piece of fruit) but this is not a halakhic obligation. The foods that are contained in a Purim gift should be ready-to-eat, such as cured fish, cooked meat, baked goods, fruits, wines, or other beverages. Ideally, one should not give something that requires preparation (Oreh Haim 695:4).

Many synagogues have organized fundraisers around mishloach manot. Basically, you can pay a fee, and your money goes toward a package that goes to each family. In theory, this allows everyone to fulfill the mitzvah much more efficiently, and if the synagogue charges an overhead, they can make money, too. However, this does pose some halakhic difficulties. I asked Rabbi Steven Exler, the Associate Rabbi of the Hebrew Institute of Riverdale, to explain some of the concerns one might have with this practice. He noted that it’s important to ensure that your money is going toward mishloach manot and not the fundraiser. However, he said, “I think we tend to be lenient here, and as long as a normal calculation shows that your expense can be linked to the costs of the actual food procurement for two minimal food items for one family…you’re fine.”

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