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Purim

Purim

A List of Mitzvot for Purim

Published on Tuesday March 10th, 2020

The festival of Purim is here; let’s take this opportunity to review the various mitzvot to observe on that day:

1) Reading the Megillah

"Reading the Megillah at the appointed time is a positive rabbinical mitzvah. This mitzvah was instituted by the prophets."

Maimonides introduces the laws on the Megillah (Hilchot Megillah Ve Chanukah 1,1) in these terms. And indeed, many decision makers confirm that this precept was instituted by the men of the Great Assembly, at the time of Esther.

This mitzvah prescribes that one reads the Megillah twice: once on Purim night, and a second time on the following day, in memory of the Jews who implored God by day and by night for deliverance. The Talmud (Megillah 4a) infers this commandment from a verse in Psalms: "My God, I call by day and You do not answer, by night and there is no dream for me" (22, 3). Our Sages attribute this verse to Esther. Women are also commanded to listen to the reading of the Megillah, as they too were delivered by this miracle. But many Sephardic decision-makers instituted that women are exempted from reciting the blessing before the reading of the Megillah (Ben Ish Chai).

It is strictly forbidden to eat anything before the reading of the Megillah, even when the fast of Esther falls on the day prior to the Purim night likewise, in the morning: after reciting the morning prayers, it is forbidden to eat before hearing the reading of the Megillah. Some decision makers are less rigorous towards women, and others allow men to drink coffee before the reading.

A priori, it is best to read the Megillah in the presence of a quorum of ten men. But even when an individual reads the Megillah alone, he may pronounce the blessings of the Megillah (Shulchan Aruch 690, 18). According to certain opinions, ten women may also constitute a minyan in this case.

During the reading, it is customary to unfold the parchment of the Megillah, as the reading proceeds, to emphasize the miracle (Shulchan Aruch ad 17, custom quoted by Rav Hai Gaon). According to some customs, the Megillah is fully unfolded before the reading begins (Rama ibid.).

Another custom requires that when we mention the ten sons of Haman, we read their names in one breath to show that they all perished simultaneously (Megillah 16b).

Several customs flourished around Haman’s character. According to a Babylonian custom, a few days before Purim, people fabricated Haman figurines and hung them from the roofs. On Purim day, they lit large fires to burn these effigies (Aruch).

In the Sefer HaManhig, we learn that "the children of France and Provence used pebbles on which they engraved the name of Haman and whenever Haman's name was mentioned in the Megillah, they struck the pebbles between them to 'destroy the names of non-believers' (according to Proverbs 10, 7). The Rama concludes this subject with the words of Abudarham and Bet: "It is from these customs that the tradition of 'hitting Haman' every time one reads his name in the synagogue was spread. One should not dispute any custom or mock it, because none of these customs were established in vain! ".

2) Gifts to the Poor (Matanot L'Evyonim)

"Everyone is obligated to give a minimum of two gifts to at least two needy people on Purim". The Shulchan Aruch describes this mitzvah as Matanot L'evyonim. It is actually explicitly mentioned in the Megillah: "Gifts are donated to the poor" (9:22).

For some decision-makers, women are also obligated to give gifts to at least two needy persons, and cannot rely on their husbands’ donations to be exempted from this mitzvah.  (Rama 695, 4). Others consider that every married woman is exempted by her husband’s gift (Magen Avraham ibid.).

This donation may only be made on Purim day, so it benefits the recipients on the festival and is not used (spent) beforehand. However, donations may be entrusted to a charity fund which will distribute them on Purim.

This mitzvah gives rise to another peculiarity related to Purim: "One avoids being stingy regarding the mitzvah of Tzedakah and should give to anyone who reaches out to him on Purim" (Shulchan Aruch 694, 3 to name the Jerusalem Talmud).

3) Gifts to Friends (Mishloach Manot)

There is also an obligation to deliver "presents to one another" on Purim (Esther ad loc.). Different reasons are attributed to this mitzvah: 1) To allow everyone to enjoy the Purim banquet lavishly, even those who are not utterly depraved. 2. To cultivate friendships and improve relationships between fellow men. 3. To add to the festival’s rejoicing.

Therefore, the decision makers write that one is not acquitted of this mitzvah unless he sends two types of food to one person at least (loc 695, 4). In the majority of cases, we may fulfill our obligation by delivering beverages. The Maharil adds that whatever food is sent, it must be ready for immediate consumption.  Many decision makers take this advice into account. Finally, some recommend sending food through a messenger (Mishna Berura 695, 18).

4) The Purim Banquet (Mishteh)

The Talmud teaches: "Rav Yosef says: All opinions converge regarding the obligation of rejoicing and multiplying celebrations on Purim.  Where do we draw this from? From the verse that explicitly says: 'Days of banquets and rejoicing' (Esther ibid.).

As such, the Rama decrees: "It is a mitzvah to prepare a lavish meal on Purim". Women also have the obligation to partake in the meal. This "feast" can only take place specifically on the day of Purim, and not on the previous day. The Rama stresses an important point: "It is customary to carry out this feast after the Mincha prayer and to pray Arvit afterward, by night. However, we pray Mincha first in the light of day, so that the bigger part of the meal takes place in daylight. Unlike some people who sit down to the meal towards the evening, overlapping into the night of the 15 (ad loc.).

5) Getting Drunk on Purim

This theme is the subject of an ongoing controversy that was never resolved. It draws its source from this Gemara: "Rava says: It is an obligation for men to get drunk on Purim to the point of no longer being able to tell the difference between 'Cursed Haman' and 'Blessed Mordechai'. One year Rabba and Rav Zira spent the feast together. Rabba got drunk and he slaughtered Rav Zira. On the following day, he implored divine mercy and resuscitated him. The following year, the former asked the latter: 'Do you want to spend the festival of Purim with me?' The latter replied: 'We cannot rely on miracles at our whim.”

According to some decision-makers, the Talmud does not just recount an unusual story. They infer from this anecdote that Rava's decision should not be followed and that it is forbidden to get drunk on Purim. Others say that even if you have to drink alcohol on Purim, you must be careful not to get drunk. But in the Shulchan Aruch, these nuances are not addressed: "It is a mitzvah to get drunk on Purim". To conclude, opinions remain divided, and while some adopt the position of the Shulchan Aruch, others maintain that nowadays,  when we can hardly control the effect of alcohol in our bodies, it is advisable to avoid the risk of getting inebriated out of proportion (see the Pri Chadah in particular).

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