Question: Is mishlo’ach manot a form of tzedakah like matanot la’evyonim?
Answer: The Mechaber (Orach Chayim 694:1) states: “Every person is required [on Purim] to give at least two gifts to two indigent people,” i.e., matanot la’evyonim. The Rema adds: “Some say that before Purim [at Mincha] a person should contribute half a coin of the standard local currency unit as a remembrance of the half-shekel that was given in the month of Adar…”
The Ba’er Heitev (Orach Chayim, ad loc.) explains that collected funds [Ma’ot Purim] may be used to fulfill matanot la’evyonim, but only if they are given to the poor. According to the Mishnah Berurah (loc. cit), what is being referred to is money collected for charity – more specifically, for the se’udat Purim of needy people.
The Gemara (Bava Metzia 78b) notes that money collected for Purim has to be used for Purim needs. Rashi (s.v. “migbat Purim…” ad loc.) specifies that all funds collected by community charity trustees for the Purim se’udah of the poor have to be distributed among the poor on Purim.
The Rosh (Bava Metzia 6:9) cites this halacha, and Hagahot Asheri (ad loc.) explains that charity collectors may not decide to set aside only a certain amount for Purim and reserve the rest for other charity needs. They may only use the funds for non-Purim needs if they have already met all Purim needs.
Thus, we see that there are two distinct collections – matanot la’evyonim and ma’ot Purim. The latter may possibly be used for matanot la’evyonim.
The Ba’er Heitev and Pri Chadash (Orach Chayim 694:4) write that a poor person need not give matanot la’evyonim. The majority view, however, is that he must. So it is not ordinary charitable giving. Mishlo’ach manot, which poor people are also required to give, is also not charitable giving.
Rav Moshe Sternbuch, however (Teshuvot V’Hanhagot 3:237), implies otherwise. The Acharonim debate whether mishlo’ach manot is charitable giving or gifts to foster friendship. Rav Sternbuch seems to agree with the first view – that it is a form of charitable giving. Why, then, is it okay to give mishlo’ach manot even to rich people? Because if only the poor receive mishlo’ach manot, they will be embarrassed. (Accepting food out of necessity is embarrassing.) Therefore, our sages enacted that both rich and poor can receive them.
That mishlo’ach manot can be considered charitable giving can be deduced from the following comment of the Pri Megadim (Orach Chayim 692): “Why don’t we recite a blessing over [matanot la’evyonim and mishlo’ach manot]? Both these precepts require two parties, a donor and a recipient. But we are not sure that the recipient will readily accept the gift.” (People don’t always like to accept charity, which would explain why somebody might not want to accept mishlo’ach manot.)
So, mishlo’ach manot is evidently a form of hidden charitable giving, which is yet another example of hester panim (hiding) that is associated with the redemption of Purim. May we soon be worthy of heavenly charity as we witness our people’s final redemption speedily in our days!