How to give, how to receive

When we open ourselves up to truly share what we have with each other...we can elevate and transform the day into true celebration.

HAMAN RECOGNIZES His Fate’ (produced between 1648 and 1665) by either the famed Dutch painter Rembrandt or his workshopMEMBERS OF the Jewish community carry gifts as they celebrate Purim in London in 2016 (photo credit: NEIL HALL/REUTERS)
HAMAN RECOGNIZES His Fate’ (produced between 1648 and 1665) by either the famed Dutch painter Rembrandt or his workshopMEMBERS OF the Jewish community carry gifts as they celebrate Purim in London in 2016
(photo credit: NEIL HALL/REUTERS)
Purim is upon us and with it, once again, the various mitzvot of the day, particularly mishloah manot (sending of portions).
Several years ago, Tablet magazine published an article by Tova Ross in which she described the ritual as leading to “Mishloah Manot Wars” and gave some over-the-top examples of the lengths people go to express themselves creatively with costumes, themes and gift giving that for some, can turn a beautiful concept into a nightmare of competition and expense.
This mitzva, which is unique in that it requires giving portions of food to our friends, in addition to and distinct from the mitzva to give charity to the poor, sits uncomfortably with many people. There is a challenge to giving horizontally. Give too extravagant a gift and people feel challenged or inadequate. Give too little and people feel disgruntled.
The Talmud in Megila 7a defines the mitzva as follows: One must give two portions (of food) to a friend, and two gifts to two poor people. The word manot translates to portions, in plural, which requires giving more than one portion of food. However, this is often misunderstood to mean two different portions of food with two different blessings. In fact, it could be the same portion doubled in size or alternatively, two different foods but of the same type. Finally, one need send only one mishloah manot to one friend while one must give the equivalent of two charity donations to two different poor people. In short, the basic requirement to fulfill the mitzva is fairly modest. In reality people often given dozens of manot to family, friends and neighbors, going well beyond the letter, and possibly the spirit, of the law.
THE TALMUD is well aware of the psychology behind giving and receiving. One of my favorite excerpts of the Talmud can be found in Megila 7a-b (based on the version in the Babylonian Talmud manuscripts and Jerusalem Talmud) and has such deep insight that it could be written today. It involves an interaction between Rabbi Judah the Prince and his colleague Rabbi Oshaya. Rabbi Judah came from a very wealthy home.
Rabbi Judah, the Prince, sent a leg of a third-born calf and a jug of wine to Rabbi Oshaya. The gift is a handsome one by all standards. A large piece of a particularly soft, tasty meat and a large bottle of wine is enough to enhance any meal. Nonetheless, Rabbi Oshaya sends a message back to Rabbi Judah: “You have fulfilled the mitzva of giving gifts to the poor.”
Rabbi Oshaya is not satisfied with the gift, which in his opinion is more or less the standard Rabbi Judah should be giving to poor people. It is certainly not what he should be giving to his friends. The story continues. Rabbi Judah accepts the barbed response and at this point sends back an entire third-born calf and a barrel of wine. The story now has closure as Rabbi Oshaya sends a final message: “Through this you have fulfilled the mitzva of sending gifts one to the other.”
Rabbi Oshaya felt slighted and mistreated. The generosity of Rabbi Judah’s response in sending a completely new and very expensive mishloah manot shows that he understood Rabbi Oshaya. In this short story, which surprises us by taking place between two rabbinic sages, we find out that no one is immune to the disappointment and tension that results when we are given gifts that fall short of our expectations.
This anxiety over giving and receiving continues in the next story.
Rabba, who had become the head of the Talmudic academy in Pumbedita, sent a mishloah manot to his colleague Marei bar Mar via his student and nephew, Abaye. He sent a sack full of dates and a cupful of roasted flour. Abaye, in a wonderful narrative aside, said, “Now, Marei will say if a farmer becomes the king, the basket does not descend from his neck.” Abaye recognizes the perceived insult in the mishloah manot. Now that his uncle had a public leadership position, his gift giving, even in a ritualistic context, would be carefully scrutinized. Rabba, in contrast, had not yet internalized the difference his appointment to head the academy made, particularly with regard to his mishloah manot and continued to send his standard gift.
The response was swift and sharp. Marei bar Mar sent back to him a sack full of ginger and a cupful of long peppers. Abaye continued his role as narrator and commented, “The master [Rabba] will now say: I sent him sweet [food items] and he sent me pungent [ones].” Marei bar Mar’s mishloah manot was far more expensive than the one he received from Rabba and served as a rebuke both in its sharpness and in the deliberate choice of delicacies in contrast to Rabba’s meager gift.
The pressure of how much to give often clouds a potentially meaningful mitzva either with pettiness when we receive something perceived to be inadequate or alternatively, inadequateness when we receive a gift that is far beyond our ability to reciprocate. The Talmud concludes this section with one final story.
The Talmud relates that Abaye bar Avin and Rabbi Hanina bar Avin would exchange their meals with each other. This approach of the two brothers exchanging meals encapsulates the real spirit of the ritual. Each brother feeds the other a meal, fulfilling both the mishloah manot and the festive meal requirement and saving on expense and external competition.
On Purim, the Megila instructs us to turn these days into “gladness and feasting and holiday, and of sending choice portions to one another.” These are days that symbolize the move from sorrow to joy and from mourning to happiness. The mishloah manot are a central part of the this transformative process.
It is when we allow the essence of joy to come from the giving and the receiving and when we open ourselves up to truly share what we have with each other that we can elevate and transform the day into true celebration.
The writer teaches contemporary Halacha at the Matan Advanced Talmud Institute. She also teaches Talmud at Pardes along with courses on Sexuality and Sanctity in the Jewish tradition.