Two Purim Mitzvot

by Rabbi Shaul Leiter

Two of Purim's mitzvahs are mishloach manot (sending 2 food items to 1 other Jew via a messenger) and matanot l'evyonim (giving food or money to 2 poor Jews). We may ask:

1) What is the connection between these mitzvot and the holiday of Purim?
2) Considering the advantage of giving tzedakah secretly so the recipient won't know the benefactor's identity, why aren't the gifts to the poor given via a messenger, as the gifts to the friends are?
3) Why are 2 food types given to 1 acquaintance, but 1 charitable gift is given to 2 poor people?
4) Why must we give food to a friend, but for the poor we can choose between food and money?

The Lubavitcher Rebbe answers: Purim is physically and spiritually unique. At Purim there was a decree made in the physical realm to annihilate every person identified as a Jew. The subsequent salvation included all Jews. Similarly on a spiritual plane, our tradition says, the Jews decided to complete the process begun at Mount Sinai. They unanimously accepted the Torah and its laws of their own free will, not under duress, as was the case at Mt. Sinai (see commentaries on Exodus 19:17).

The purpose of giving the Torah is to create a dwelling place for G-d in this earthly domain. An important prerequisite for the Torah's giving was the Jews' unity. Since Purim was the completion of the process started at Sinai, the mitzvahs of Purim hint at these three revolutionary events: 1) Making a dwelling place for G-d in this dimension; 2) Jewish unity; and 3) Things happening from our own initiative.

In this light, we can examine the mitzvahs of Purim: Making a dwelling place for G-d occurs in two ways: perfecting our relationship with Him through learning Torah and doing mitzvahs, and by encouraging others to follow suit. Torah and mitzvahs, which connect us to G-d, are compared to food and drink, which connect our souls to our bodies. Love and awe of G-d, which accompany our divine service, are compared to gold and silver, which are used to buy food and drink.

With mishloach manot, when each Jew gives to another person (G-d) gifts of food (mitzvahs), there must be two foods in each gift to prove that we are not performing the mitzvahs easily and naturally, but breaking out of our limitations to achieve the higher standard of doing them for the sake of Heaven. Just as mitzvahs cannot be elevated on their own, but must be 'accompanied' with love and awe, so also mishloach manot must also be through a messenger. On the other hand, money alone can't suffice, because love and fear are not by themselves valued gifts to G-d. It is our actions that count.

So now we have taken care of ourselves, but what about our obligation to others? For this comes the next mitzvah of Purim, matanot l'evyonim-gifts to the poor, which is also a hint to our obligation to encourage the 'poor' in knowledge of G-d to come closer to Judaism. For some, encouragement comes through seeing peers doing a mitzvah and wanting to join in. For others intellectual explanation may inspire. In the same way that there is not just one way to help another Jew become more aware, so too the gifts to the poor can be either food or money. Our responsibility is to give only one gift to each because our task is to take them out of poverty, to start them on their Jewish journey. However there are two parts to every Jew, the body and the soul. Both of these elements must be influenced to serve G-d. Therefore the mitzvah of giving to the poor must be to two needy Jews.

Happy Purim!


Rabbi Shaul Y. Leiter is the executive director of Ascent-of-Safed.


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