The source for giving mishloach manot on Purim is the Megillah itself (Esther 9:19): “Therefore the Jews of the villages, who dwell in the unwalled towns, observe the 14th day of the month of Adar as a day of gladness and feasting and holiday, and of sending portions to one another” (emphasis added).
There are generally two principal reasons given for this beautiful mitzvah. First, it engenders unity and goodwill amongst Jews and serves as a powerful counterpoint to Haman’s allegation in the Megillah (Esther 3:8) that the Jews are “a scattered and divided nation.” Second, it constitutes a practical means of ensuring that every Jew has sufficient food for the festive Purim meal.
In this truly beautiful 1997 Purim correspondence sent along with mishloach manot to Rav Yosef Shalom Elyashiv, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu ties his philosophical approach to defending Israel to the lessons of the Megillah:
I am honored to submit to “the Honor of Your Torah” [i.e., to you] mishloach manot for Purim 1997 as our Rabbis commanded and in accordance with Jewish tradition.
Greetings for a happy Purim to you, to your entire household, and to your respected community.
The story of the Megillah is a powerful model for us regarding Jewish conduct, containing on the one hand proud determination and adherence to our principles (“And Mordechai did not bend or prostrate himself” [Esther 3:2]) and, at the same time, constituting the correct use of political and strategic means. To the best of my understanding, this is the path that we, too, are commanded to strive for and follow.
We hope that we will merit, with G-d’s help, peace and security to our people and our land from the joy of life and unity of hearts, and may the words of the Megillah be fulfilled for us: “To the Jews there was light and gladness, joy and honor” [Esther 8:16].”
Until his death in 2012 at age 102, R. Elyashiv was the supreme leader of the Lithuanian charedi community in both Israel and the Diaspora. Many Ashkenazi Jews regarded him as the posek ha’dor (the leading halachic authority of his generation) and most roshei yeshiva associated with the Agudath Israel of America movement frequently sought out his opinions and followed his advice and guidelines concerning a wide array of policy and communal issues.
Shown here is a small sheet of cloth sewn from two pieces of fabric in blue and white bearing the printed legend “Purim 5679 , for the volunteers of the nation, mishloach manot from the Haifa Women’s Association.” Decorated with Magen Davids, it was sent to the 40th Battalion of the Royal Fusiliers, soldiers in the Jewish Legion. The Battalion, comprised mostly of volunteers from Eretz Yisrael who performed exemplary service on behalf of the British effort against the Ottomans in World War I, was encamped near Haifa from December 1918 to May 1919.
The Hebrew Women’s Association was formed in Jerusalem immediately after the city was wrested from Ottoman control by General Allenby (December 1917). Similar independent organizations were formed in other cities soon thereafter, with the Haifa group originating shortly after the liberation of northern Eretz Yisrael in 1919.
Unlike most women’s organizations before and since, which were formed primarily to demand political, professional, and cultural equality with men, the goal of these associations was to gather women of all ethnicities to perform public service under the banner of the nationalist-Zionist camp. The mishloach manot project of the Haifa Women’s Association was exactly such a public service project.
Shown here is a postcard issued by the Mazza Zu Company used to export mishloach manot to Germany. Written on the front of the card is “Mishloach Manot” in Hebrew and “gifts export” in German. The verso specifies two rotels (a unit of weight) of matzah for export, with a price that “includes all packaging expenses of the sender” and for which “the recipient pays only customs fees.”
The inscription in the block box clearly states the purpose of the gift: “in the interests of timely and immediately usable kosher matzot for Pessach.” These cards and donations were also used later for sending packets of matzot for Passover use to Holocaust survivors in German camps after World War II.
Micrography, a creative medium particularly relevant to Jewish religious artistic expression, is a centuries-old manifestation of what is today characterized as “modernist art.” An originally Jewish art form, it uses minute Hebrew letters to form representational, geometric and abstract designs.
Sofrim (religious scribes), who were trained to write very small letters in creating mezuzahs and commentaries in the margins of Hebrew Bibles, used this specialized skill to create art from sacred biblical text – including sometimes from the Torah itself – to form an image, often decorative, when viewed at a distance.
Originally developed by Jews in the 9th century, micrography spread from the scribes of Eretz Yisrael to Jewish Diasporan communities throughout the world and, by the 17th century, it had been adopted for use in Omer schedules (used to count the 49 days between Passover and Shavuot), in ketubot (Jewish marriage contracts), and for sukkah decorations.
Shown here is a lovely example of micrography employing a Purim theme. The entire Megillah – all 10 chapters – are micrographically written within the large letters, which spell out “mishloach manot, in honor of David, joy has blossomed” followed at the bottom by “in honor of Purim.”
* * * * *
Hamantashen (literally, “ears of Haman”) symbolize the defeat of Haman and all enemies of the Jewish people. “Tasche” – which means “pouch” or “pocket” in German – may refer to Haman’s pockets, symbolizing the money that he offered to King Ahasuerus in exchange for permission to destroy the Jews.
Alternatively, “tash” in Hebrew means “weaken,” and the hamantash may therefore celebrate the weakening of Haman and the hope that Hashem will weaken all of the enemies of the Jews.
The reason for its three-sided shape is lost to antiquity, though numerous theories have been advanced. According to an old legend, Haman wore a three-cornered hat. Alternatively, the three sides symbolize the three Patriarchs – Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob – as the Midrash explains that Haman’s strength immediately weakened when he realized that the Patriarchs’ merit would help the Jewish people. A third explanation is that the pastries symbolize the pyramidal shape of the dice use by Haman for his pur (the lots he cast to choose the day on which to destroy all the Jews), which gives Purim its name.
Shown here is a certificate issued by the Jewish National Fund for two aznei Haman (Hebrew for “ears of Haman”), an amusing manifestation of the celebration of Purim as a jovial time of frivolity (although there are, of course, important halachic limitations on such expressions). It bears the legend “Food Fee” and constitutes “the official writ of decree (reference to Esther 8:13) to receive two aznei Haman,” for which there is a coupon attached to each side of the document.
The coupons, which “have full validity from the Fast of Esther until Purim 1925,” are good for “one earlobe,” which “the waitress pierces with an awl and receives a nice share.” (This is a reference to Exodus 21:5-6, pursuant to which if a Jewish servant refuses his freedom and prefers to remain enslaved to his master, his ear is punctured with an awl and he remains the property of his master until the next Jubilee year.) The certificate drolly warns that “whoever loses this certificate will have no ears until Purim 1926.”
Shown here is a beautiful mishloach manot card sent by Moshav Zekeinim on March 10, 1908, a week before Purim that year, to a recipient in Wernfeld/Adelsberg, a parish village about six miles from Karlstadt in Bavaria.
Moshav Zekeinim, Jerusalem’s preeminent old-age home, was founded in 1840 in the Old City as a home for Jerusalem’s elderly men, but it was later expanded when a women’s wing was built.
In the early 1700s, the Jews of Adelsberg, which had been home to a medieval Jewish community, lived on the grounds of a freeman’s castle, where they established a synagogue in 1775. After leaving the castle grounds in 1848, they built a new synagogue, maintained a mikveh, and retained a schoolteacher, who also served as their chazzan and shochet. The Jewish community was still active at the time of this mishloach manot card but, by the time of the Holocaust, it could barely muster a minyan.
Finally, the sending of mishloach manot has been adapted by many Jewish charitable institutions as a fundraising tool. Shown here is a 1927 mishloach manot leaf in Hebrew and Yiddish issued by the Jewish National Fund “from the People of Israel to the Land of Israel: …Contributions to be given during Purim for the benefit of the JNF – these are the gifts and portions.”
Wishing everyone a happy and healthy Purim!