Just last week we experienced the crowning point of the month of Adar by commemorating the extraordinary events that unfolded in the ancient Persian Empire. We read the scroll of Esther, enjoyed a hearty feast, and traded gifts of goodies with each other.
Days later, shalach manos remnants still clutter available surface space in most homes, while the truly artistic, edible works of art sit undisturbed and whole, adorning our dining room sideboards in their original attractive packaging. Not for long, though, because Pesach’s clean sweep will have us scrambling to dismantle or ingest or give away most of the items.
Why, of all holidays, was Purim singled out for the mitzvah of shalach manos? One perspective, attributed to the Chofetz Chaim, links this to the Jews having taken part in the feast of Achashveirosh while nonetheless maintaining kashrus in their own homes. Sending and receiving shalach manos signaled trust in one another, their contention being that participation in the king’s lavish celebration was merely a show of respect for his reign.
Decidedly of greater impact, if less eye-catching, is the Purim mitzvah of matanas l’evyonim, gifts for the poor. Since the mitzvah of tzedakah is boundless as well as consistently incumbent upon us, why does it warrant such top billing at this time of year?
For one, as the twelfth month of the year, Adar affords us a last-ditch opportunity to compensate for our deficiency in repentance a half-year earlier (in the month of Elul). In the same way that we begin our thirty-day preparation at the start of Elul to stand before God on the Yom HaDin, we use the month of Adar to get into shape for Nissan, also a z’man teshuvah, a time when we recall how our Father in Heaven extracted us from the depths of impurity and raised us up to the level of kedushah. A yearning for His closeness prompts us to feel remorse for our wrongdoing, and, as the Talmud states, we will only be redeemed when we do teshuvah.
With the distribution of tzedakah, we fulfill the criteria of teshuvah: tzom (fasting) – we fast on Ta’anis Esther; kol (voice) – we listen to the reading of the megillah; and mamon (money) – we disperse charity with a generous hand.
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The Arba Parshiyos, the four portions of Torah read on the Shabbos of their relevancy beginning with Rosh Chodesh Adar and culminating with Rosh Chodesh Nissan – namely Parshas Shekalim, Parshas Zachor, Parshas Parah and Parshas HaChodesh – correspond to the four elements that are the foundation of all creation: fire, water, earth and wind.
Shabbos Parshas Shekalim
Intended as a spiritual uplifting of the yesod of aish (the element of fire), this portion ushers in the month of Adar, during which time we renew our bond with Hashem, and is read in remembrance of the machatzis hashekel, the half shekel each member of the Jewish nation would contribute toward the upkeep of the Beis HaMikdash.
Since we, alas, do not have the Beis HaMikdash in our time, the machatzis hashekel serves as a symbol of that era and is donated to the poor (an act that should not be confused with Purim’s mitzvah of matanas l’evyonim, which is a separate observance).
The root word of machatzis is chatzi (half), composed of the letters ches, tzaddik and yud. The tzaddik in the center stands for tzedakah (charity), while the ches and yud on either side form chai (life) – emphasizing that charity confers life on the giver.
According to an interpretation ascribed to the Shach, man can never be fully satisfied with what he attains and will always feel the need for something more, due to the fact that of the four elements involved in man’s creation, only half – water and earth – are weighable; the machatzis hashekel comes to symbolize that man will invariably have only half of what he craves.
Shabbos Parshas Zachor
The second of the four parshiyos, read on the Shabbos preceding Purim, conveys correction of the element of water and recalls what Amalek did to us on the way out of Egypt (asher karcha baderech – when they met you on the way). The root of the word karach is kar (cold), an allusion to the yesod hamayim (foundation of water), which is cold – as are the cold-blooded Amalekim bent on annihilating the Jewish nation to this day.
The portion begins with an admonition to “Zachor… remember what Amalek did to you…” and ends with “Lo tishkach – do not forget.” Why the redundancy? Reb Elimelech’s reaction to someone who complained of his increasing forgetfulness offers us a clue. The tzaddik advised the sufferer to do teshuvah because repentance is a segulah for good memory retention. Giving in to the yetzer hara leads to a mind blockage, whereas the act of teshuvah has the power of removing one’s forgetfulness. Hence, the mitzvah of obliterating any vestige of evil – as in eradicating one’s evil inclination – will promote good memory.