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Jewish Trick or Treat
By Yehuda Posnick
The Book of Esther (Megillat Esther in Hebrew, or simply referred to as "the Megillah") relates the story of the near-extermination of the Jews in the time of the Persian Empire in the year 354 B.C.E. The King Achashverosh was influenced by his advisor Haman to issue an edict to kill all the Jews in the empire. Chapter 6 of the Book of Esther tells of the sudden change of heart by the King, which led to 1) the promotion of the Jew, Mordechai, to be the King's advisor, 2) the downfall of Haman, and 3) the reversal of Haman's decree to exterminate the Jews in the following year.
The day that Haman chose for the extermination was the 13th of Adar. It is observed today as a fast, commemorating the fast the Jews undertook that very year when they were fighting against those peoples who adhered to Haman's original decree. The festival of Purim follows this fast day, on the 14th of Adar, which falls this year, 2006, on March 14th.
The end of the Book of Esther tells of four major commandments that were enacted to commemorate henceforth the happy turn of events in the Book of Esther. The text reads as follows (Chapter 9:20-22):
"And Mordechai wrote down these events, and he sent letters to all the Jews that were in all the provinces of the King Achashverosh
to take it upon themselves as a duty that they should celebrate the 14th day to the month of Adar, and the fifteenth day
in each and every year
to make them days of feasting and joy, and of sending portions one to the other, and gifts to the needy."
- Reading the Book of Esther, preferably publicly, both in the evening of the 14th of Adar and the morning,
- "Gifts to the needy", generally in the form of money, to at least two poor people (it can also be in the form of food gifts),
- "Sending [food] portions one to the other", interpreted to mean a minimum of two food gifts to at least one person,
- "To make them days of feasting and joy": partaking of a festive meal in the late afternoon of Purim.
Since both the choosing of Esther to be queen and the downfall of Haman all occurred as a result of feasts in which wine was served, the Purim feast is also observed with plentiful amounts of wine (or anything else intoxicating).
The last three mitzvot are linked very much one to another. The two days of the 14th and 15th of Adar are to be days of feasting. In order that no one should be excluded from the festive atmosphere, we are obligated to make sure that the needy have the means of making a feast appropriate to commemorating the events of the day - hence the gifts to the needy.
Giving charity is of such importance on Purim that one is obligated to give some amount of money to anyone who extends his hand and requests charity on this day. Even among those who have means, a feeling of companionship is promoted by giving food gifts to one's friends. When a person gets a gift, it immediately arouses in him a desire to care about the other in return. This also promotes the festive atmosphere on the holiday of Purim.
Let's examine some of the laws governing the sending of food gifts:
The two food gifts ideally should be food that can be eaten immediately for the Purim feast, without any further preparation. Generally one should send baked goods or fruit or a beverage, whereas some communities have the custom of sending portions of meat or fish - appropriate for a feast day of such importance. One must send to at least one personbut it is praiseworthy to give to many people, to increase the feeling of good will.
Because the Book of Esther uses the term "mishloach manot""sending [food] portions", it is interpreted that the food ideally should be sent, not delivered personally. It is customary that children dress up in costumes and deliver the food gifts, adding to the festive atmosphere, and also ingraining in them the beauty of the act of giving.
A noted rabbi and educator in America, Rabbi Jacob J. Hecht, once noticed the external similarity between Purim and Halloween. In both cases, children get dressed up and go door to door receiving food gifts. The distinction between the two is, however, in that on Halloween, the children only receive, whereas on Purim, the emphasis is that the children learn to give. The fact that they might receive in return is of secondary importance. Ideally men send food gifts only to men and women to women; as for giving charity to the poor, however, one is to give freely without discriminating.
As mentioned before, it is necessary to give the person the food portion so that he or she can partake of it at their Purim feast. If one has to go so far as to send it by messenger, he or she should ascertain that it gets to the intended person in time for Purim day meal.
The great codifier and philosopher, Maimonides, had the following to say on these commandments, which gives us a proper perspective for the significance of all the festivity:
"It is preferable for a person to increase in gifts to the poor than in one's Purim feast or food gifts to his friends. There is no greater or more glorious joy than gladdening the hearts of the poor, orphans, widows, and strangers. One who helps these unfortunate people rejoice is considered a partner of the Divine Presence, of whom it says, 'Who revives the spirits of the humble, and the hearts of the downtrodden' (Isaiah, 67:15)."
from the March 2006 Edition of the Jewish Magazine