Purim is a fun holiday for children and adults alike. But, as revealed by Rabbi Daniel Goldfarb, the holiday also has a more serious side, demanding that in addition to the fun, we also raise up the most disadvantaged around us.
By Rabbi Daniel Goldfarb
Purim is a fun and “funny” holiday. It is not commanded by the Torah, but arose from Haman’s plan to kill the Jews as recorded in Megillat Esther. God’s name is not mentioned in the Megillah, and indeed, nothing is quite as it seems. The name Esther itself suggests “hidden,” we disguise ourselves with masks, and the story of the Jews being saved is nahafoch hu, a turning of the tables and all coming out quite the opposite of what Haman planned. Even Purim’s fate is different from other holidays – the Rabbis taught that all the festivals will lapse in the future, “but Purim will survive forever.”
One explanation may lie in chapter 9 at the end of the Megillah, which we often breeze through, anxious to get to the games and the food. Verses 16-18 tell of the Jews’ victory over their enemies – they celebrated the occasion spontaneously with feasting and merrymaking (mishteh v’simchah). Verse 19 tells that the Jews in the unwalled cities (not Shushan the capital) made it a holiday (yom tov) of merrymaking and feasting and of sending gifts one to another (mishloach manot). Here we see the source of two of Purim’s mitvot – the joyous meal (seudah) and the sharing of gifts, usually food – the commemorating of the day coming “from the people,” not commanded from above.
The verses that follow tell how Mordechai, now the prime minister, charges the Jews to observe the fourteenth and fifteenth days of Adar bchol shana v’shana, every year, as days of feasting and merrymaking (mishteh v’simchah) and sending gifts one to another (so far he’s adopted what apparently began as popular practice), but Mordechai adds (v. 22) u’matanot l’evyonim, presents for the poor. The chapter concludes that the Jews in Persia accepted these instructions on themselves as binding for all generations, and these days are nizkarim v’na’asim (recalled and observed) in every generation — the “recalling” being done by the reading of the Megillah, telling the story, as Jews often do on holidays. And so chapter 9 gives us the source of the four mitsvot of Purim.
In fact the idea of sending gifts to the poor on holidays predates Mordechai. Deuteronomy 16:14 commands us to rejoice on Sukkot (v’samachta b’chagecha) – “you, your children and servants, the Levites, and the stranger, the orphans and the widows.” It is more specific in Nechemiah 8:10, where he and Ezra, in reinstituting Rosh Hashanah, instructed the people to eat and drink “and send portions to those who don’t have, for this day is holy to the Lord.”
Mordechai added to the celebrations gifts for the poor from the people, and over the years a hierarchy has developed. Maimonides says it is preferable to spend more on matanot l’evyonim (presents to the poor) than on one’s holiday meal or mishloach manot (to friends/relatives), “for there is no greater and more splendid happiness than to gladden the hearts of the poor, the orphans, the widows and the converts” (Mishneh Torah, Zmanim, Hilchot Megillah 2:16).
Those who live in “walled cities” (Jerusalem, Shushan, etc) celebrate Purim on 15 Adar, and thus “split” the mitsvot of Purim over three days in those years when the 15th falls on Shabbat, Purim meshuleshet. The festive meal and sending portions to friends is delayed till Sunday, the 16th, but the gifts for the poor are done early, on Friday the 14th, when the Megillah is read, lest the poor, who know Purim by when the Megillah is read, be disappointed and perhaps left hungry. A holiday that includes the strangers, the poor, the converts, the orphans and widows is indeed one that deserves to remain forever.
As you celebrate Purim this year in your own way, please take a moment to fulfill Mordechai’s mitzvah of matanot l’evyonim by making a donation to Rabbis for Human Rights. You may choose to earmark your donation to our socio-economic department (under “projects”), which strives not only to ensure economically vulnerable Israelis receive their socio-economic rights, but also tirelessly works to enshrine the Jewish imperative to “defend the weak and the fatherless; uphold the cause of the poor and the oppressed” into Israeli law. Over the last six months, we have taken critical steps in the fight to save public housing, ensure fair urban renewal practices, guarantee the rights of Israel’s elderly, sick and the disabled to live in dignity, and much more.
Rabbi Daniel Goldfarb is a member of Rabbis for Human Rights and a faculty member of the Conservative Yeshiva of Jerusalem