The Origin of the Practice to Send “Shalach Manos”
In the aftermath of the Jews’ salvation from Haman’s plot, the Anshei Knesses HaGedolah (Men of the Great Assembly) instituted four rabbinic mitzvot to be performed on Purim: reading the megillah, eating a festive meal, giving gifts of money to the needy, and sending portions of food to friends. While all of these are worthy of further study, it is this last mitzvah, called “Mishloach Manot,” with which we will concern ourselves. (Colloquially, this mitzvah is often referred to as “shalach manos” but we’ll stick with the more correct “Mishloach Manot.”)
The mitzvah to send gifts of food is stated in Esther 9:19:
Therefore, the Jews of villages, who live in unwalled towns, make the fourteenth day of the month Adar a day of joy, feasting, and celebration, and of sending portions to one another.
This obligation is restated in Esther 9:22:
The days Jews had rest from their enemies on (these days) and the month was turned for them from sorrow to joy and from mourning to celebration, so they should make them days of feasting and rejoicing, and of sending portions to one another and gifts to the poor.
The Talmud in Megillah (7a) tells us that one fulfills this obligation by sending two portions of food to one person. This is easily inferred from the language used by the verses in Esther, which specify that a person must send “portions” (plural) to “one another” (ish l’rei’eihu – literally “a person to his friend,” singular).
What’s the Reason for Mishloach Manot (and What Difference Does It Make)?
Some say the reason for this mitzvah is to ensure that everyone will have food for the Purim meal. Others say that the mitzvah is intended to generate camaraderie and unity among the Jews. This is meant to counter Haman’s claim that the Jews were “scattered and dispersed” rather than unified (Esther 3:8).
There are some practical differences based upon the logic underlying these approaches. For example, the gift of a raw side of beef might engender camaraderie but it might not be usable for the recipient’s Purim meal. (It should be noted that our accepted practice is to send only ready-to-eat portions.) Conversely, if Mishloach Manot is sent anonymously, it might provide food for the recipient’s meal but it would not foster unity between the sender and the recipient.
If the reason for Mishloach Manot is to engender goodwill among Jews, the question arises as to whether it is preferable to send gifts of food to a close friend (with whom one already has a good relationship) or to an acquaintance (with whom one could become closer). If possible, it would be best to send two Mishloach Manot, one to an already-close friend and one to cultivate improved relations with another person. If this is not possible, then sending to one’s existing friend takes precedence.
What Should One Send for Mishloach Manot?
There is also some discussion as to what “two portions” entails. Some suggest that it means enough food for two portions, even if it is of the same item, while others understand it to require two different types of food. For purposes of “different,” a chicken breast and a chicken thigh qualify as sufficiently different, as do a bottle of red wine and a bottle of white wine.
Despite popular misconceptions to the contrary, there is absolutely no obligation for the foods in one’s Mishloach Manot to require different brachot. An apple and a pear (each taking the bracha of ha’eitz) is perfectly acceptable as Mishloach Manot, as is a cookie and a brownie (each taking the bracha of mezonot). It’s possible that the belief arose because of people striving to ensure that the foods they were sending were sufficiently different to count as two separate items.
In order to fulfill the obligation of Mishloach Manot, the portions sent must be considered significant by the recipient. It therefore might not fulfill one’s obligation if one were to send something very modest to a wealthy recipient.
The foods that are sent should be things that can be eaten by both the sender and the recipient. One does not fulfill his obligation, for example, by sending meat to a vegetarian. If one sends an item that has appropriate kosher certification, he fulfills his obligation even if the recipient doesn’t happen to eat food carrying that particular supervision. If one inadvertently sent Mishloach Manot that neither the sender nor the recipient can eat, he fulfills his obligation after the fact. However, if he becomes aware of the situation while it is still Purim, he should send another Mishloach Manot that is acceptable to both parties.
Who Sends Mishloach Manot?
Men and women are equally obligated in all the mitzvot of Purim, including the obligation to send Mishloach Manot. There is an opinion that a married woman can fulfill the obligation through her husband but it is preferable that a woman send her own Mishloach Manot.
Because the name “Mishloach Manot” means “sending portions,” people assume that Mishloach Manot should be sent through a messenger rather than delivered in person. The halacha does not actually require this but many people strive to accommodate the position that favors sending portions through an agent.
There are some limitations when it comes to a mourner sending and receiving Mishloach Manot. (This refers to a person who is in the year of mourning following the loss of a parent or the 30 days of mourning following the loss of other close relatives.) A mourner should only send Mishloach Manot to one recipient, in order to fulfill the mitzvah; this Mishloach Manot should not be particularly festive. The family may collectively send additional Mishloach Manot without specifying the mourner as sender.
Similarly, one should not send Mishloach Manot specifically to a mourner. Rather, one should address the Mishloach Manot collectively to the family. If one did send a mourner Mishloach Manot, he is permitted to accept it.
More About Mishloach Manot
Mishloach Manot must be given on Purim day, not on the night of Purim. (This is actually true of all the Purim mitzvot: the meal must be eaten by day, gifts to the needy must be given by day and the megillah must be read by day even though our practice is also to read it the night before.)
One fulfills his obligation if he sends Mishloach Manot via a messenger who is non-Jewish or under the age of bar or bat mitzvah.
Conversely, one might not fulfill his obligation by sending Mishloach Manot to a child under the age of bar or bat mitzvah.
Some have the practice for men only to send Mishloach Manot to male recipients and for women only to send Mishloach Manot to female recipients.
When hearing the bracha of shehechiyanu at the morning megillah reading, one should have in mind that this bracha also include the other mitzvot of Purim, including the festive meal, gifts to the needy, and Mishloach Manot.
The Most Important Thing
We have made it clear that one fulfills his obligation in Mishloach Manot by sending two food items to a single person. While this is the minimum requirement, it is considered meritorious to send Mishloach Manot to additional recipients.
However, if one has surplus funds available, it is more important to spend them on increasing gifts to the needy than on additional Mishloach Manot or on a more lavish Purim meal. This is because, as much as these things can enhance our Purim, the Rambam tells us (Hilchot Megillah 2:17) that there is no greater joy than to gladden the hearts of the needy, as well as those of orphans, widows and converts (all of whom lack support systems that others may take for granted). One who does so emulates God Himself, Who “revives the spirits of the humble and invigorates the hearts of the depressed” (Isaiah 57:15).
This article appears in cooperation with kosher.com