Mishloach Manot, Social Expectations, and Rabbinic Tales
I assume we all sometimes wonder about the gap between the halakhic obligation on Purim “to send portions of food to one another,” which the Shulhan Arukh (Orah Haim 695) defines as “two portions to one person,” and the current custom not only to reciprocate, but to fulfill social expectations for a certain amount and quality of food (or candy). While the Shulhan Arukh did write “and anyone who sends more to his fellows is praiseworthy,” this custom sometimes seems to have lost all proportion.
While there is room to relax the current mishloach manot standard, it is important to acknowledge the social context. The Gemara (Megilla 7a-b) tells the story of R. Yehuda ha-Nasi, who sent a prime heifer and a barrel of wine to R. Oshaya, who responded to his gift by saying: “You have fulfilled [the mitzvah] through us, our teacher, of ‘sending portions one to another’.” Some Rishonim and Achronim learn from this story that according to R. Oshaya one may fulfill the mitzvah of mishloach manot with a portion of liquid instead of food.
The Jerusalem Talmud (Megilla 1:4) cites another version of this story (which was also integrated into some versions of the Babylonian Talmud). According to this version of the story, R. Yehuda ha-Nasi sent R. Oshaya a portion of meat and a cask of wine, and R. Oshaya responded to the gift by saying, “You have fulfilled the mitzvah through us of ‘gifts to the poor’.” Having received this response, R. Judah sent R. Oshaya and additional cake, or perhaps a larger portion of meat, and a barrel of wine, and having received this second gift R. Oshaya responded: “You have fulfilled [the mitzvah] through us, our teacher, of ‘sending portions one to another’.”
What is the meaning of this exchange? According to some commentators of the Jerusalem Talmud, R. Oshaya doubly appreciated the gift because he was poor, and therefore defined the portion as matanot la-evyonim; from here we learn that the mitzvah of giving to the poor may be fulfilled through giving food, not only money, to the poor. However, others viewed R. Oshaya’s comment as an unsubtle hint that he believed R. Yehuda’s gift to be unworthy of mishloach manot – since it was meager, and could therefore be considered no more than a gift for the poor, which only exempts R. Yehuda of matanot la-evyonim. R. Yehuda understood the hint, and sent a more substantial portion, which was worthy of the title ‘mishloach manot.’
The Ritva (on Megilla 7) understood the story this way, and accordingly the Hayei Adam wrote (Shabbat u-Moadim 155, which was also cited in Biur Halakhah on Shulhan Arukh 695:4) that one does not fulfill the mitzvah of mishloach manot by sending a meager portion to someone wealthy. While other poskim do not cite this position, the Biur Halakhah writes that this should be the objective lechatchila (although according to the Hayei Adam one is also not exempt by sending a meager portion to a poor person). This indicates that there is significance not only to the actual portions, but also to the social context in which they are sent.
The Gemara supports this analysis in the subsequent story of Rabbah who sends gifts through Abaye to Mari b. Mar, and Abaye’s comments on each one of the gifts: Rabbah sent a basket of dates and a cup of (sweet) barley flour, and Abaye commented that this was more appropriate for a farmer than a king (an aristocrat like Rabbah). When Mari b. Mar sent Rabbah ginger and pepper, Abaye commented that Mari received sweets but gave spicy foods. Some understood from these stories that mishloach manot should be worthy of the sender.
Therefore, while halakhah sets a minimal requirement of two portions for one person (and according to some Achronim – real food, and not only raw ingredients), the stories in the Gemara indicate that there is value to the social context as well. Nonetheless, there is a need to return the mitzvah of mishloach manot to its correct proportions, while ensuring that their contents do spread joy and friendship which are appropriate to the specific social context.