Unpacking the Mysteries of the Purim Basket

By Carol Novis

Published March 10, 2006, issue of March 10, 2006.
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When Susan Weidman Schneider and her family left New York for Washington, D.C., eight years ago, she found herself dizzied by the chaos of the move. Then the doorbell rang.

“My friend and rabbi, Avis Miller, was there with a daffodil and a package of mishloach manot for Purim,” she recalled. “It was enormously sweet of her.”

For Schneider, editor of the Jewish feminist magazine Lilith, the mishloach manot (shalekh mones in Yiddish) food package made her feel welcome not only in her new home, but also in the local Jewish community.

And that’s part of what mishloach manot have meant for centuries. One reason for the mitzvah of giving two items of food to at least one person on Purim is to increase friendship between people, in order to disprove Haman’s contention that there is strife and dissension among Jews.

Think of Purim, and what generally comes to mind are children dressing up in costumes, hamantaschen baking and wild shaking of the grogger whenever Haman’s name is read out loud during the reading of the Book of Esther. But in Orthodox Jewish communities, and increasingly in others, too, the custom of giving gift packages is an important part of the holiday.

On Purim day, streets in Jewish areas around the world are crowded with costumed children bearing packages of mishloach manot for friends, in a sort of Jewish combination of Halloween and Valentine’s Day.

As in everything else in Jewish tradition, there is no lack of rules about how mishloach manot should be prepared and delivered.

The food in the packages, for example, must consist of two different kinds and preferably ready to eat. Drinks can be sent, too. The custom is to send them through a third person, usually a child, since the word mishloach is related to the word for messenger, shaliach.

There are other rules, as well: Mishloach manot should not be sent anonymously, since they are supposed to boost friendship. They are to be sent on Purim day, not before or after. Packages shouldn’t be sent to mourners, but they can be sent to other members of a mourner’s family. And the mourner can send packages that aren’t too elaborate. They should be sent, in particular, to people from whom one has grown estranged, as the packages are seen as a way to make peace.

Mishloach manot vary from the simple — a few treats on a paper plate stapled into a triangle — to elaborate gift baskets professionally prepared, but they generally all contain hamantaschen, the triangular cookies most associated with the holiday.

Of course mishloach packages can contain anything you want.

Lisa Keinan, who now lives in Jerusalem, remembers themed mishloach manot being in fashion in her former Teaneck, N.J., Conservative Congregation Beth Sholom.

“We had a ‘corny Purim’ once,” she said. “The mishloach manot contained popcorn and corn muffins.”

“These days, though, I’m trying to simplify. None of my friends wants to spend days baking and preparing, and then you get all this junk food you have to get rid of by Pesach. Who needs it?”

At Kol HaNeshama synagogue in Jerusalem, the communal mishloach manot last year had an Italian look, with packs of spaghetti, dried tomatoes and herbs in the packages. If members wanted to make a bigger contribution, they included a colander.

It may come as no surprise that competition for the biggest and best presentation sometimes occurs.

“My Purim stopped being fun the moment I married into an Orthodox family,” sighed one Israeli informant who asked that her name not be disclosed. “We spend the whole of the holiday making and delivering mishloach manot.”

Even people who don’t regularly send elaborate mishloach manot often bake hamantaschen and give them to friends.

Joan Horowitz recently moved from Sharon, Mass., to Albuquerque, N.M. She says her new area is “less tuned into customs such as mishloach manot,” and so her synagogue sponsors a community project instead. The local United Synagogue Youth group makes up plates for every family and delivers them.

Her family, though, still maintains the custom, and she is planning to make from 50 to 60 plates or bags, to be given to “every child at religious school, all the regulars at the morning minyan, office staff at the synagogue and probably other groups I’ve forgotten right this minute”.

Because not everyone is familiar with mishloach manot, she plans to include a sheet with information about why her family is doing it.

“In our chavurah back in Massachusetts, we used to prepare themed mishloach manot, like chocolate, but here, we’ll include baked goods, homemade trail mix and/or bread and fruit.”

Judy Aharoni, formerly from Albany, N.Y., and now living in a Modern Orthodox community in Kedumim, Israel, describes the annual mishloach manot effort as “balagan” (chaotic).

“People send to everybody and their wife, and it’s such a big deal that some families just order them through the yeshivas. My family prepares about 20, and the kids really get into it. Personally, I try to make them healthy.”

The commercial possibilities of mishloach manot have not escaped Jewish organizations and private firms.

At the Jewish Theological Seminary, in New York, the Va’ad Gemilut Hasadim, (the seminary’s Center for Community Outreach) organizes a Purim tzedakah (charity) campaign. Staff, students, and faculty members can log on to a site that contains the names of all the members of the community. For $2 per recipient, the committee will ensure that a mishloach manot package is sent to anyone the sender chooses, along with a personal greeting.

There is also a “reciprocity” option at a cost of $36, which avoids possible embarrassment. The option is a kind of insurance guaranteeing that if someone signs up to send a mishloach manot to you, the person automatically will get one in return. No one is left out ,and no one is offended.

Last year the project raised more than $18,000, which was distributed as charity to such organizations as Women in Need, Inc., The Abraham Fund and City Harvest.

Many synagogues have adopted similar Purim mishloach manot fund-raising programs.

Alex Sinclair, his wife, Peri, and their two young sons are members of Congregation Agudath Israel in Caldwell, N.J., and are enthusiastic about their community’s Purim basket scheme.

“It’s a wonderful event,” Alex said. “All the members of the synagogue — and there are [more than] 1,000 — get a computerized list of every other member in the congregation. You check off the names of the ones you want to give mishloach manot to and send it back to the shul. Then, the synagogue holds a big packing party, at which volunteers of all ages get together to fill the boxes with all kinds of sweets and snacks and then deliver them.

“It’s kind of like sending Valentine’s cards; you wonder how many you’ll get.”

Not surprisingly, private firms have jumped on the mishloach manot bandwagon. Many options can be ordered through the Internet.

The Kosher Candy Man (www. KosherCandyMan.com), for example, offers a wide range of mishloach manot packages — ranging from one for kids, called Purim Peckelach, for $2.99 each, to The Masterful Manos for $179.99, a whole magazine rack filled with goodies.

Broadway Basketeers (www.bb-baskets.com) has a range of kosher lemehadrin and Cholov Israel offerings: from the Moonlight Sonata — a gold wire basket filled with such delicacies as pistachios, chocolates and red Concord wine — for $34.95, all the way up to the $74.95 Broadway Tower, which features a pile of individual boxes. It includes a “mezzanine,” “penthouse” and “sky deck” box, all filled with truffles, cookies, nuts, wine and so on. Delivery is an additional $13.95.

You can treat your health conscious or diabetic friends to a considerate mishloach manot package through The Kosher Connection (thekosherconnection.com), which offers Purim Diabetic Delicacies for $49.95, or an All Natural and Delicious package, to “power your day and fuel your life,” for $42.95.

The usual candies and snacks just too blah and boring? Kosher Cornucopia (www.koshercornucopia) will send your friends a Purim Taste of Israel for $59.95 (sunflower seeds, halvah, etc); the Deli Special for $64.95 (a whole salami, cocktail rye, mustard) or the Purim Brunch Buffet for $62.95 (smoked salmon and cream cheese, Brooklyn bialys).

And if you really want to impress, the huge Fit for a King selection is “a truly majestic basket resplendent enough for royalty.” At $139.95, it should be.

Despite the effort and the expense, few of the people who prepare mishloach manot yearly are willing to give it up.

“It’s basically a lot of fun,” said Candy Spigelman Schorer, a Queens native who now lives in Ra’anana, Israel.

“My kids are bigger now, but they used to love finding baskets by the door, filled with good things. Sometimes, you’d be in your car delivering the mishloach manot and you’d pass a car coming to you with the same thing. I can’t wait to have grandchildren and start the whole cycle over again.”

Carol Novis, formerly of Canada, has lived in Israel for 30 years. She writes and edits for Ha’aretz.






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