February 27, 2003 – Number 4
The Megilla notes that the Jews of Persia celebrated their great victory over Haman by exchanging gifts of food with each other and providing for the poor. These customs have come down to us as MiShalach Manot and Matanot L’Evyonim.
MiShalach Manot are gift baskets of food that we exchange with our neighbors and friends. While many people consider Purim to be a “Jewish Halloween” because of the costumes and parties, there is a major difference. Judaism has no concept of “trick or treat”, it goes against most of what Judaism stands for. (Some call Halloween simply blackmail). Rather than go door to door demanding treats, on Purim we go door to door handing out treats. It really does change the entire tone of the day. Typically the baskets contain at least two different kinds of food.
Hamentachen, triangular cookies filled with poppy seeds or other fruit fillings are the food of the day. According to the Legend, the triangular shape is modeled after the hat that Haman wore. In Israel, the same cookies are called Oznai Haman, or “Haman’s Ears” on the assumption that Haman had triangular ears. Other foods that are included in the baskets are nuts, raisins or candy.
Matanot L’Evyonim are gifts to the poor. The first part of this gift is called M’hatzit HaShekel, a donation that is recalled in synagogue on Shabbat Shekalim, which is usually the Shabbat before the beginning of the month of Adar. Originally this was a tax paid to the Temple. Today, Synagogues may put out a collection plate on Purim to gather donations on behalf of the poor. Since the poor also should receive MiShelach Manot, some include money in their baskets for the poor. Since Purim always falls exactly a month before Passover, this is the beginning of the requests for contributions on behalf of those who will need support to celebrate Passover.
The final hours of Purim are often spent at a Purim Seudah, a costume gala party where everything and anything is fair game for a parody. I have heard a special Kiddush recited at the beginning of the meal that covered not only the gamut of Hebrew songs but included popular hits from the radio and even TV show tunes familiar to the participants. It is said that these parodies, often scathing, were the seeds from which the entire Yiddish Theater grew. It started with Purim plays, parodies of the Megilla or the Torah, and it kept growing right into the modern age. There is an old custom that one should get drunk on Purim, and the Seudah was the place that one could imbibe. On a personal note, however, this is a custom that we can live without. I have seen all too often the ravages that alcohol brings upon families and individuals. I feel that Jews can have a wild and crazy time and not have to get drunk to do it.
With the end of the Seudah and the end of Purim, it is time to turn our attention to preparing for Passover. The revelry of Purim must give way to the importance of preparing ourselves to recreate the Exodus.
Next week : Preparing for Pesach