Purim Do’s and Don’ts

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Purim holiday cookies, Oznei Haman in Hebrew Colorful noisemaker and Purim Mask
25 Feb 2019

Purim has always been my favorite holiday.

(While we have not yet welcomed the month with Purim, it is Adar. If I can already be thinking about how to use up a Costco box of crackers before Pesach, we can all certainly be thinking about Purim – especially in areas that might take some planning.)

It started with the organizational joy of setting up mishloach manot; one of my earliest memories is reaching up to drop chocolates onto paper plates spread over the dining room table. The satisfaction of this job hasn’t gotten old, and my appreciation of Purim has grown to include other aspects of mishloach manot, the story of the Megillah, the seudah, etc. There’s a lot to love about Purim.

Of course, where there’s a lot to love, there’s potential for other emotions too. A lot can go right on Purim, and a lot can go wrong. Over the past n years of observing some of the good and the bad, I’ve come up with a few suggestions:

  1. Don’t bring young children to Megillah reading. Shuls, do consider arranging child care during the reading, as well as multiple readings with time in between for caregivers to trade places, wherever possible.

When I wrote a few months ago (positively) about bringing kids to shul, I was dismayed to hear one reader thought I was including Megillah reading. I promised I would write before Purim with a 180-degree shift, so here it is: Do be sympathetic to parental attempts to sensitively balance values related to children, prayer, and community; do not bring kids to shul for Megillah reading who can’t be relied on to stay silent for the entire time.

Even the kids who know to whisper in shul, who can basically stay quiet – “whispers” and “basically,” in my experience, are not good enough for Megillah.

True, the Shulchan Aruch calls it a “minhag tov – good custom” to bring young boys and girls to hear Megillah (Orach Chaim 689:6). But it’s also true that the mitzvah can only be fulfilled by hearing every word in order (Mishna Berurah 690:5; ask your preferred halachic authority for details), which is perhaps why the Magen Avraham and others are quick to point out that bringing children is only a good practice if they are old enough to not distract those listening to the Megillah. The Mishna Berurah expands on the challenge, lamenting how today (he meant his day, but could easily have been talking about ours), “nahafoch hu,” things have flipped and not only do the children not listen (which is the point of bringing them), but they make it impossible for adults to hear because they only care about beating Haman (s.k. 18).

Given the inherent challenges in performing the mitzvah properly, especially when many baalei kriah practice speed reading, why make it harder? And why create unrealistic expectations for our kids? Even those who are able to sit in shul at other times will almost inevitably whisper and have to be quieted, creating unnecessary tension around the mitzvah we’d hoped to teach them.

The Gemara in Megillah (21b) says people feel attached to Megillat Esther, and therefore listen with careful attention. It takes careful balance to educate our children towards this attachment without sacrificing our own (and others’) ability to listen with careful, halachically effective attention.

  1. Do consider organizing/attending special Megillah readings for children

Because of course, it is important to give children the experience and help build their habits of hearing Megillah reading on Purim. This is especially valuable for [parents of] those who come home with a new grogger every year, since in the absence of a proper opportunity to use those groggers, they will be forced to simply run around the house shaking them incessantly.

Many communities do offer such opportunities; for the past couple of years (and I hope this year), one of the shuls my family attends has held a special reading on Purim morning for families with kids of all ages and levels of volume control. The reading is not expected to fulfill anyone’s obligation; they don’t even read the whole Megillah. The reader does make sure to use funny voices and to include lots of opportunities to make noise at Haman’s name. We also use “stop” signs so the kids get used to the idea that the noise has limits – a lesson that, as the Mishna Berura indicates (s.k. 19), should serve them well as adults.

  1. Please do not, under any circumstances, tell impressionable children (or anybody) that Vashti didn’t go to the party because she had pimples. See here for more.
  2. Do be sensitive in choosing costumes, and consider how we would feel if others dressed up like us.
  3. When setting up those mishloach manot some of us love so much – do label homemade food. And even packaged food, if the individual pieces don’t have useful information.

Careful labeling and packaging is obviously important with the rise of food allergies, especially since even proximity to an allergen can cause life-threatening reactions in some people. It’s hard to know sometimes which information can be assumed and which can’t – do we have to label cookies as containing wheat, when most do? Maybe not. But we can certainly make wrapping potential allergens well, and providing a reasonable amount of information, the norm.

Perhaps less-often thought about is the value of labeling with regard to kashrus. Not because some people have personal policies not to eat others’ home-cooked food; labeling won’t affect that. But those who might eat it need to know which foods are dairy, meat, cooked in dairy or meat utensils, etc. One of the best things about Purim leftovers is that so many of them are great with coffee – but if the cookie/cake/hamentasch/whatever isn’t labeled, no one will know whether it can be eaten with coffee (meat equipment?) or after a meat meal (dairy ingredients?).

In the absence of sufficient information, I’ve been known to give my kids baked treats as an appetizer for a meat meal, during the month between Purim and Pesach, because I don’t know when else we can safely eat them and I hate to throw out good food. What a shame, when I could have enjoyed your generous gift with my coffee!

  1. Don’t overdo mishloach manot – but also don’t underdo what you like and are able to do.

Why do we give mishloach manot? I’ve never seen anything in halachic sources about impressing others with our creativity, finances, or sugar content. The basic obligation is to give two foods to one individual, and the discussions in sources I have seen suggest the goal is to foster a sense of community and friendship – a goal which can be furthered by giving to more people, but not by creating pressure on others.

In the communities in which I’ve lived most of my life, the sense of community and friendship is palpable as the streets fill with Jews, in high spirits and fun outfits, pulling in and out of driveways and exchanging greetings and gifts in passing. Some people find the whole thing stressful, financially or otherwise, and give the minimum; others derive great pleasure from coming up with elaborate themes, using fancy wrappings, and/or giving more upscale items. Some, like my family, fall somewhere in between – we enjoy themes and silly poems, but use paper lunch bags and limit the contents to a few inexpensive items.

Should anyone feel they have to do more or less than they enjoy and can handle, just because others prioritize differently?

In fact, that space for individualization, based on means and interest, is pretty clear in the Shulchan Aruch: “A person is obligated to send to his friend two portions… And anyone who increases sending to friends is praiseworthy. And if one doesn’t have, he exchanges with a friend…” (Orach Chaim 695:4).

Two foods, one person. In the spirit of community and friendship at the root of this mitzvah, we can embrace and respect each other and ourselves regardless of how much or little we choose to engage in the extras.

  1. Do give matanot la’evyonim as generously as possible. We all know the importance of this mitzvah, but it can be easy to simply forget – especially if we get caught up in planning for the other mitzvos and fun of Purim.
  2. Do remember that there are many ways to understand the Gemara about drinking on Purim, and only one of them can be interpreted to advocate getting “wasted.” (Editor’s note: please see more on this topic here.)

Even if one takes the approach that extreme drunkenness, or any drunkenness at all, is mandated on Purim – any such mandate would be unequivocally overridden by any concern of danger. Though I don’t generally get involved in practical halacha, I’m comfortable that this is all well established in halachic sources, and indeed should be self-evident after years of horrific stories and repeated cautions from community leaders – but safety and responsibility cannot be emphasized too much.

  1. Eat, drink (in moderation), and be merry! For tomorrow we shall start Pesach cleaning.

Sarah C. Rudolph is a Jewish educator and freelance writer. She has been sharing her passion for Jewish texts of all kinds for over 15 years, with students of all ages. Sarah’s essays have been published in a variety of internet and print media, including Times of Israel, Kveller, Jewish Action, The Lehrhaus, TorahMusings, and more. Sarah lives in Cleveland with her husband and four children, but is privileged to learn online with students all over the world through www.TorahTutors.org and www.WebYeshiva.org.

The words of this author reflect his/her own opinions and do not necessarily represent the official position of the Orthodox Union.