Fact: This widespread misconception has no halachic basis.
Background: Mishloach manot is one of the four mitzvot established by Mordechai and Esther to be performed on Purim day. Alluded to in Megillat Esther, these mitzvot are: reading the megillah, eating a festive meal (seudah), giving money to the poor (matanot l’evyonim) and giving gifts of food to friends (mishloach manot).
The mitzvah of mishloach manot is based on Megillat Esther (9:19 and 22), which states that Purim was established as a day “of gladness and feasting, [a yom tov] and of sending portions one individual to his friend [and gifts to the poor].” Like all of the mitzvot of Purim, it applies equally to men and women (Rema, OC 695:4), but there are various opinions as to how this principle is applied in practice. The Magen Avraham (695:14) and Mishnah Berurah (695:25) express surprise that many women are not scrupulous about personally performing this mitzvah and suggest that a married woman possibly fulfills the obligation through her husband. Nonetheless, they say that it is proper to be stringent, implying that a married woman should, in fact, send her own mishloach manot. Regarding matanot l’evyonim, the Aruch Hashulchan (694:2) invokes the principle that a husband and wife are considered as one; however, when it comes to mishloach manot (695:18), he explicitly states that a woman does not fulfill her obligation via her husband and must send her own. He adds that the women in his region do so. Rabbi Shlomo Zalman Auerbach (Halichot Shlomo, p. 338, n. chaf zayin) states that a man should specifically send mishloach manot on his wife’s behalf or make it clear that it is from both of them. The Kitzur Shulchan Aruch (142:4) rejects this idea and advises women to send their own.
Why Send Mishloach Manot?
Later authorities offer two basic reasons for this mitzvah. The Terumat Hadeshen (Rav Israel Isserlin [1390-1460], 111) viewed it as a practical way to ensure that everyone will have sufficient food for the festive Purim meal.1 Rav Shlomo Alkabetz, who lived in the sixteenth century and is best known as the author of Lecha Dodi, provides another reason. In his work Manot HaLevi, which he sent to his father-in-law as “mishloach manot,” he explains that the mitzvah is intended to engender friendship and brotherhood among Jews.2 This is to counter Haman’s critical statement describing the Jewish people as “one nation dispersed and divided [among the nations]” (Esther 3:8).
The posekim of the last several hundred years discuss many differences in the performance of the mitzvah, depending on the reasoning behind it. For example, according to Rav Alkabetz, sending non-food items is acceptable3 because such a package also engenders friendship, while the Terumat Hadeshen rejects any item that cannot be used at the seudah. If one sends mishloach manot anonymously, according to the Terumat Hadeshen, the sender fulfills his obligation; however, according to Rav Alkabetz, because the mishloach manot does nothing toward engendering good will, the sender does not fulfill his obligation (see Ketav Sofer 141).
Based on the reasoning of the Terumat Hadeshen that the purpose of mishloach manot is to provide food for the seudah, the Magen Avraham (695:11), Chayei Adam (135:31), Kitzur Shulchan Aruch (142:2) and Aruch Hashulchan (695:15) rule that the food should not be raw. However, others opine that sending unprepared food is permissible and the Mishnah Berurah (695:20) cites both opinions as acceptable. He suggests (see Sha’ar Hatziyun 695:28) that the Taz permits uncooked food. Rav Ovadia Yosef (Yechave Da’at 6:45) rules that raw meat is acceptable.
What to Send?
The basic obligation is to send any combination of two portions of food to one individual (Megillah 7a; SA, OC 695:4). This is derived from the fact that the pasuk (Rashi, Megillah 7a, s.v. “shtei manot”) says “manot,” portions (plural) but “ish l’reiayhu,” an individual to his friend (singular). A drink would be considered a type of food, and thus two items, one food and one drink or even two drinks, may be sent (MB 695:20; AH 695:14).
The gemara (Megillah 7a-b) relates several incidents regarding mishloach manot from which the commentators derive some of the halachot governing this mitzvah. “[On Purim] Rabbi Yehuda Nesiah sent to Rabbi Oshaya the thigh of a third-born calf and a bottle of wine. Rabbi Oshaya told him that he had thereby fulfilled both the mitzvot of mishloach manot and matanot l’evyonim.4 Rabbah sent with Abaye to Mari bar Mar a basket filled with dates and a cup filled with the flour of roasted wheat . . . . [Mari bar Mar] sent back [to Rabbah] a basket filled with ginger and a cup filled with long peppers . . . ”5
The basic requirement is to send two portions, but what exactly constitutes “two portions”?6 The Shulchan Aruch states “two portions of meat.” Based on this, some understand that even one large piece of meat that can be divided into two reasonable portions would suffice, and indeed Eshel Avraham (Buchacher, last comment in OC) entertains this possibility.7 The Mishnah Berurah and many other posekim do not discuss the need for different types of food.8 Others understand (and this is the accepted halachah) that while two “types” of food are needed, the same item can be used as long as there are two distinct tastes. For example, Rav Auerbach (Halichot Shlomo 19:12) says that one can use two pieces of chicken—a top and a bottom—because they do not taste the same. Rav Nachman Kahana (Spinka Rebbe, late nineteenth century) suggests (Orchot Chaim 695:12) that in the Talmudic story, Rabbi Yehuda Nesiah fulfilled his obligation by sending meat because each limb of the animal tastes different. He quotes Rav Moshe Falk (nineteenth century) who discusses whether two types of wine, such as red and white, are considered two different types of food. Rav Falk (Tikkun Moshe, Purim 93a) also wonders whether roasted and cooked food would be regarded as two different types. He concludes that, based on the wording of the Shulchan Aruch, it would appear that they are indeed different. Rav Yosef Teomim (author of Pri Megadim), in analyzing the Talmudic story (Rosh Yosef, Megillah 7a), implies that two different fruits are considered two types of food.9 Rav Yitzchak Yosef (Hilchot Mishloach Manot 6) rules that one can send two similar pieces of raw chicken (or meat) because they can be cooked in different ways. The accepted halachah seems to be that two cuts of meat (i.e., from different parts of an animal), even from the very same animal, or two different fruits or types of wine, are regarded as two types of food and therefore can be used to fulfill the obligation of mishloach manot.
There is no source anywhere indicating that the two foods must have different berachot; in fact, from the above examples, it is clearly not the case. It is possible that this notion became popular as many were confused about what constitutes two types of food. To avoid confusion, they began sending food from two different categories of blessings.
Chazal also comment on the quality of the food. The Mishnah Berurah (in Biur Halachah 695, s.v. “chayav”) states that the food should be worthy of the status of the recipient. Thus, it would seem to be halachically problematic for an upper-middle-class individual to send a very inexpensive item to his peer. Rav Moshe Sternbuch (Teshuvot v’Hanhagot 2:354) states that both items should be of significant value. The gemara (Megillah 7a) mentions sending a substantial piece of beef and a large quantity of wine. Rav Sternbuch expresses surprise that people are not scrupulous about sending the finest foods for mishloach manot. He states that it is preferable to give two items of significant value to one recipient rather than many items of lesser value to numerous people. The Aruch Hashulchan (695:15) says that those who send “little pieces” do not fulfill their obligation. While some authorities maintain that each portion need be no larger than the size of a k’zayit, most require that there be a substantial quantity of the food, enough to serve an important guest. In Yemen (see Halichot Teiman, p. 42), the custom was to send a cloth of about 3 x 3 feet filled with a meat dish and a bottle of wine or arak, in addition to a special treat consisting of nuts, seeds, candies and other items. In contrast, many people today send “junk food.” This might not be an entirely new practice as both the Knesset Hagedolah (seventeenth century, Shiurei Knesset Hagedolah on Tur, 695:10) and the nineteenth-century Turkish Rabbi Chaim Palagi (Moed Kol Chai 31:82) say that the custom in their day was to send sweet items.10 Sending candy is justified by Piskei Teshuvot (695, n. 88), who explains that it will help fathers get their children to eat the seudah, and thereby help them fulfill their obligation to educate their children in the mitzvot of Purim. Yosef Ometz (1099) suggests that after sending two items of significant value to one person, one can then send items of lesser worth to many others to foster good will and camaraderie.
Another common assumption about mishloach manot is that it is preferable to use a messenger (shaliach). The Mishnah Berurah (695:18) relates that the Binyan Zion (44) wondered whether one fulfills his obligation if he did not use a shaliach.11 The Eshel Avraham (Buchacher) takes the opposite position and maintains that, as with all mitzvot, it is preferable to perform it personally. The halachah is that the mitzvah does not require a shaliach, but because the suggestion was put forth by an authority of such stature, Rav Auerbach (Halichot Shlomo, p. 337, n. 44) would give one mishloach manot via a shaliach.
The Shulchan Aruch (695:4), based on the Rambam (Hilchot Megillah 2:15), writes that one who sends mishloach manot to more friends is praiseworthy. Nevertheless, the Rambam goes on to say (Megillah 2:17) that it is better to spend one’s resources on giving a greater amount of matanot l’evyonim rather than on the seudah and mishloach manot. This is because there is no greater simchah than gladdening the hearts of the poor, orphans, widows and converts.
As seen, the obligation is to send two portions, i.e., two servings. This seems like a strange requirement; why send two servings to one person? Regarding the korban todah, the Torah mandates that a large amount of the korban must be eaten within a short period of time. The rabbis explain (see e.g., Ha’emek Davar to Vayikra 7:13) the rationale behind this puzzling commandment: the beneficiary of the miracle will then be forced to invite others to his meal and have the opportunity to share his story and express his gratitude to Hashem. Similarly, it may be that Chazal mandated the sending of two portions on Purim to force the recipient to share his food with others. Unlike the case of the todah, where the purpose is to proclaim God’s greatness, or that of the korban Pesach, where the purpose is to transmit our national history, on Purim the goal is to increase camaraderie and unity. Very possibly, Chazal instituted that two portions be sent in order to encourage communal feasts, which help promote good will, friendship and achdut among Am Yisrael.
Rabbi Dr. Ari Zivotofsky is on the faculty of the Brain Science Program at Bar-Ilan University in Israel.
1. There are many authorities who link the mitzvot of seudah and mishloach manot. The Ran (Megillah 3b in Rif pages, end of s.v. “ela”) connects the day of giving mishloach manot to the seudah. The Magen Avraham (OC 688:10) cites an opinion that when the fifteenth of Adar is on Shabbat, those living in walled cities are required to have their Purim seudah on Shabbat; therefore, despite the inherent difficulties, mishloach manot must be distributed on Shabbat.
2. The Bach (OC 695) uses this reason for mishloach manot to give a creative, startling explanation to Rashi’s understanding of the story in Megillah 7b regarding the yearly practice of Abbaye bar Abin and Rabbi Chanina bar Abin.
3. Some reject non-food ideas for technical reasons. For example, the Gra (695 on seif 4) learns from Beitzah 14b that “manot” means specifically food. Some suggest that one can send money because it can then be used to purchase food. The Be’er Heiteiv (695:6) rules that non-food items are acceptable as long as there is still time on Purim day to sell the items and purchase food. See Yechave Da’at 6:45 for a discussion of this.
It was suggested that a talmid chacham who sends chiddushei Torah has fulfilled his obligation because that fosters friendship. Rav Yitzchak Yosef (Yalkut Yosef Moadim, p. 323, n. 8) responded that this is mere pilpul and not halachah.
4. Rashi (Megillah 7b, first Rashi) states that with this gift Rabbi Yehuda Nesiah fulfilled his obligation because it contained two items. Of importance here is that Rabbeinu Chananel has a different version of this story that is similar to the version found in the Yerushalmi in which Rav Yudan Nesia was the sender and he sent a second gift of a calf and a barrel of wine. Many later authorities base their rulings on this version. See, for example, Rav Tzvi Pesach Frank, Mikraei Kodesh, siman 38.
5. Rabbi Joseph Ber Soloveitchik (Harerei Kedem, vol. 1, siman 206:3) learns from here that the recipient should reciprocate in kind.
6. The concept of two portions is also mentioned in the context of eruv tavshilin and the erev-Tishah B’Av seudah hamafseket.
7. See Tzitz Eliezer 14:65 and 15:31.
8. Note that some posekim distinguish between meat (where even one piece large enough to serve two people suffices) and other types of food where two kinds are required.
9. Nitei Gavriel (5760 ed.) 58, n. 8, seems to have understood the Rosh Yosef differently.
10. Nitei Gavriel (5760 ed.) 57, n. 8, understands this to mean not that they sent sweets, but rather that one should send sweet rather than sharp food. Note that Piskei Teshuvot and Nitei Gavriel cite this from Knesset Hagedolah while it is actually in the Shiurei Knesset Hagedolah.
11. The Kaf Hachaim (695:14) rejects the Binyan Zion’s derashah from the word “mishloach.” Chatam Sofer (Gittin 22b) says that ideally a messenger should be used.