With Purim just around the corner, most people look forward to receiving baskets filled with an assortment of yummy goodies, and to sending food baskets to their friends and family. These baskets, mishloach manot, are an essential part of the celebration of Purim.
But Megillat Esther speaks of another type of gift to be given on Purim. One that the Talmud says is of equal significance and that must also be given to two or more people. In this article, we will examine the halachot of matanot l’evyonim (gifts to the poor).
The Megillah in 9:22 states that following the victory over Haman, the Jews sent gift baskets to one another and gifts to the poor. The Talmud in Tractate Megillah 7a states that just as two gift baskets are to be given to two different people, so too should gifts to the poor be given to at least two different people. But, is the mitzvah of matanot l’evyonim an extension of the mitzvah of giving tzedakah? Or is it a unique, separate mitzvah? What difference does it make to us today?
Much has been written about the importance of matanot l’evyonim and how it relates to the mitzvah of tzedakah.The Torah commands us to give one-tenth of our income to tzedakah. This mitzvah is known as ma’aser kesafim. The Rambam (Hilchot Megillah 2:17) states that matanot l’evyonim is not part of the mitzvah of tzedakah. The purpose of matanot l’evyonim is to increase simchah (joy) by giving money or food to those less fortunate, so that they can celebrate Purim properly by having a special Purim seudah (festive meal). Basing their decisions on this ruling, many later poskim (halachic decisors) rule that one may not use one’s ma’aser kesafim money to fulfil the obligation of matanot l’evyonim.
This same rationale is used in the reverse situation. The Mishnah Berurah 694:6 states that funds designated for matanot l’evyonim may not be given as charity in other situations, such as being put into a communal charity fund. It rules that all matanot l’evyonim money collected must be spent on feeding the poor during Purim.
The mitzvah of matanot l’evyonim is incumbent upon every Jew, male or female, over the age of 20 (Rama 694:1). It should be given either to the poor directly, or to a designated shaliach, such as one’s rabbi, no later than midday on Purim, with the express intention that it be used to fulfil the mitzvah.
Although a woman may fulfil the mitzvah through her husband’s donation, it is preferable that she give some money directly. The mitzvah is so important that the Shulchan Aruch rules that in towns that have the custom to occasionally give tzedakah funds to non-Jews, matanot l’evyonim money may even be given to them as well (Shulchan Aruch 694:5).
Most rabbinic commentators are of the opinion that one should spend more on matanot l’evyonim than on mishloach manot. Rather than sending elaborate mishloach manot baskets filled with countless items, it’s better to give the minimum mishloach manot needed to fulfil the mitzvah (two foods to two different people), and to give extra to those in need. Those that do are promised to receive additional blessings from HaShem.
With this in mind, be sure to help out those less fortunate this Purim, and have a Chag Samayach!