Purim and Giving: What is Our Obligation?

Fun costumes, drinking (for those who drink), delicious hamantaschenhamantaschenאֹזֶן הָמָןTriangle-shaped pastries commonly filled with apricot jam or poppyseed spread (or other fillings) and eaten on Purim; the shape represents Haman's hat or ears , Haman (booo!), Esther and Mordecai, another tale of Jewish persecution and redemption: These are the first thoughts that come to mind when I think of Purim.

I grew up living a somewhat "typical" Reform Jewish East Coast life, where I learned about and celebrated the various Jewish holidays at Hebrew school, camp, and youth group. The annual production of the Purim spielPurim spielפּוּרִים שְׁפִּילHumorous play performed as part of the celebration of Purim. in my home congregation was a huge deal; an outside producer was even hired as the director! As a child, Purim served solely as an excuse to dress up in costume and run around with friends.

Though all of these images are integral parts of Purim, we cannot forget that another crucial component of the celebration is to remember the less fortunate. But there is another, more serious component on Purim, matanot la-evyonimmatanot la-evyonim מַתָּנוֹת לָאֶבְיוֹנִים“Presents for the poor” (Hebrew). Tzedakah (charitable giving) in honor of Purim. , which means “gifts to the poor." All of the fun and merriment of the holiday aside, the true obligations of Purim are not fulfilled if we do not help the needy. With all of the partying associated with the holiday, it is easy to focus on our wants and forget about others’ needs.

The M'gillahm'gillahמְגִלָּה"Scroll;" One of the five m'gillot (plural) in the Bible: Esther, Song of Songs, Ruth, Lamentation and Ecclesiastes.  instructs us that “sending food portions one to another and giving gifts to the poor” must be included in our Purim celebrations. Traditionally, adults must give donations to two people in need as well as two different foods to someone who is hungry. The two donations to the poor can be given as food or money to cover the cost of a meal. Of all the mitzvotmitzvahמִצְוָהLiterally, “commandment." A sacred obligation. Jewish tradition says the Torah contains 613 mitzvot Mitzvot refer to both religious and ethical obligations. that are required of us on Purim, giving to the poor is surely the most important.

I honestly do not remember learning this lesson during Purim as a child. It is possible that my memory fails me, but it is equally possible that this lesson was lost in the shuffle of the costumes and parties and celebrations. Every child (and adult) should make matanot la-evyonim a priority. It is never too late (or early) to enhance how we celebrate a holiday, and it is enriching to find a philanthropic link already incorporated in our traditions.

During this year’s Purim celebration, I challenge you to try something new. For every hamantaschen you eat, every drink you enjoy, every time you hear Haman’s name (booo!), try putting a dollar in a jar. When your festivities end, double the money you saved and find a way to help someone in need. Donate it, buy someone a sandwich, do something to help someone less fortunate than you have a chance to not be hungry this Purim.

See our Purim Social Action Guide for more ways to make your Purim especially meaningful.