I know that people exchange gifts and food baskets with each other on Purim. Are there specific requirements for this? Is this just a nice practice or does it have a basis in Jewish law?
The Aish Rabbi Replies
What you have observed is one of the four special mitzvot of Purim, known as mishloach manot, or the sending of gifts. After the salvation of Purim, Mordechai and Esther instituted several means of celebrating the victory, among them "the sending of gifts, one to his fellow” (Esther 9:19,22). By so doing, every year on Purim we would experience the joy of giving to others and recreate the sense of unity and camaraderie the salvation engendered. Also, practically, it would ensure that Jews would all have the necessary food to enjoy the Purim celebration.
So yes, mishloach manot is a mitzvah instituted by the Sages rather than just an informal pleasantry. Here are some of the basics rules.
(a) As a minimum, one must send mishloach manot containing two types of food (or drink) to one other person (Talmud Megillah 7a). This is based on the literal translation of the verse “the sending of gifts, a man to his fellow.” Note that “gifts” is plural, while “fellow” is singular. (There is what I call a Jewish urban legend that the two foods must require different blessings, but there is no basis for this.)
(b) There is no limit to how much one may give and to how many people, as Maimonides writes, “whoever increases, it is praiseworthy” (Laws of Megillah 2:15). At the same time, Maimonides writes that it is preferable to spend more on the mitzvah of giving charity to the poor on Purim (matanot la’evyonim) than on mishloach manot and one’s own Purim feast – for there is no greater joy than bringing good cheer to the needy (2:17). In fact, many people today, rather than sending elaborate, decorated baskets to tens of friends and acquaintances, send greeting cards which state, “A donation was given to institution X in lieu of mishlaoch manot” – at the same time wishing them a happy Purim.
(c) One should preferably send foods which are ready-to-eat, so that his fellow can enjoy them on Purim itself (Mishna Berura 695:20).
(d) One should send mishloach manot on the day of Purim rather than on Purim eve (Rema 695:4).
(e) The mitzvah is binding on both men and women (Rema 695:4). Some married women rely on their husbands and send gifts as a couple, but more proper is for each spouse to send at least one gift on his or her own, the husband to a man and wife to a woman (see Mishna Berura 25).
(f) There is an opinion that mishloach manot should be sent via a messenger (Mishna Berura 18); based on this, it’s preferable to send at least one package via a third party.
(g) Being that the purpose of sending such gifts is to increase friendship among people, many rabbis recommend that one not just give to all his closest friends. Rather, one should seek out those he is not so close to – or perhaps the one he has had a strained relationship with in the past. Another excellent idea is to give to an acquaintance or coworker who may not otherwise be celebrating Purim. All such ideas help increase friendship and good will among people, rather than being the typical (expensive) yearly formality.
(h) I suppose that since it’s Purim we should close with one final important word of caution: Don’t drive to deliver your mishloach manot when you’re under the influence!
A happy Purim!