Many of the Jewish holidays revolve around the dinner table. Food's prominent role throughout the festivals ranges from dipping apples in honey on Rosh Hashanah to eating in little huts on Sukkos; from drinking four cups of wine at the seder to drinking to a stupor on Purim.

Even within the laws of Purim, three of the four primary mitzvot revolve around food: Eating the festive meal, extending meal packages to friends (mishlo'ach manos), and providing for the poor (matanos la'evyonim). The common denominator of all these mitzvos centers around the basic human need for sustenance.

The Rambam states that on Purim it is better to involve oneself more extensively with helping the needy than with embellishing one's own meal or giving food gifts to acquaintances. Why is the mitzvah of taking care of the needy on Purim superior to the other mitzvot of the day? Of course we should always try to help the poor whenever possible, and Hashem gave us many mitzvot involving tzedakah and chesed throughout the year, but why should that obligation be any more important than the other mitzvot of Purim?

There are two fundamental benefits derived from supporting the poor which distinguish this mitzvah from the others of Purim. The most obvious and perhaps the most important aspect is the beneficial impact upon the impoverished person. During the holiday season, when everyone else is in a festive mood, the poor still worry about their next meal. The most immediate result of your provision is the improvement of the poor person's security, for he can now rely on this mitzvah of matanos la'evyonim to provide some support for at least one day. From this perspective, this mitzvah is merely an extension of the regular year-round mitzvah to give charity. We provide the needy with an opportunity to celebrate the holiday in a proper manner befitting a day of such magnitude.

However, aside from the direct impact on the poor, the people giving and providing also profit greatly from the mitzvah. The Rambam in his halachic code explains the reason for the high stature given to this mitzvah by stating that the focus of Purim is simcha: "There is no greater nor more beautiful joy than making the poor happy because the person who raises the spirits of the poor is similar to Hashem." This mitzvah directs the giver along a path of noble goals, ultimately striving to behave with the same compassion as does Hashem, an achievement which is perhaps the ultimate level of happiness.

Giving tzedakah contributes to a person's character development more readily than do any of the other mitzvot of Purim, conferring additional credit on the mitzvah of matanos la'evyonim and justifying its prominence.

This notion of the giver himself benefiting manifests itself further in the halacha that we can satisfy our obligation to give to the poor on Purim even by giving to a non-Jew. Although a gentile is certainly not obligated in the mitzvah of Purim, and providing him support will not contribute to his Purim happiness, nevertheless the giver grows from the experience of supporting someone else. The concern, understanding, and compassion required to sacrifice for the needy is critical for us to feel part of the miracle of Purim. Hashem demonstrated compassion towards the Jewish people when they were in need at the time of Esther, and today we should emulate that same compassion by supporting others in need. We should all strive to accomplish both goals of providing for the poor -- assisting them through the holiday and training ourselves to be more sympathetic and sensitive to other people's needs. Both aspects are of great significance.

Chag Same'ach

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