Holidays

Purim, Poverty, And Propriety—Three Talmudic Stories

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The Book of Esther relates that when the Jews of Persia vanquished those who attempted to murder them at Haman’s behest, Mordekhai established Purim, with its distinctive feasting, merrymaking, mishloah manot (the exchange of gifts), and matanot la-evyonim (giving presents to the poor):

Mordekhai recorded these events. And he sent dispatches to all the Jews throughout the provinces of King Ahasuerus, near and far, charging them to observe the fourteenth and fifteenth days of Adar, every year―the same days on which the Jews enjoyed relief from their foes and the same month which was turned for them from sorrow to joy and from mourning to holiday (Yom Tov). They were to observe them as days of feasting and merrymaking, and as an occasion for sending gifts to one another and presents to the poor.[1] (Esther 9:2-22)

In the Babylonian Talmud, aggadot (non-legal narratives) often follow a mishnah and its ensuing Talmudic discussions as counter-texts that (at times indirectly) critique how―or even if―the Rabbis applied the law ethically.[2] Three Talmudic narratives in Megillah 7a-b follow seemingly straightforward rules about mishloah manot and matanot la-evyonim on Purim. My focus in this essay is on the potential difficulties these stories raise about performing these Purim commandments, specifically the social dangers surrounding their fulfillment. One would think that these practices would be easily fulfilled mitzvot. What could be complicated about giving presents to one’s fellow Jews, especially those who are economically disadvantaged? However, giving to the poor―on Purim or anytime, whether as part of a gift exchange or as explicit tzedakah, philanthropy―can be complicated by the social and emotional dynamics surrounding people’s often vast economic inequalities.

These problems are made more pronounced by the exalted position that matanot la-evyonim holds in Jewish tradition. Rambam asserts the supreme importance of matanot la-evyonim, going so far (as he at times does) as to make his point without any explicit Talmudic source to support him:

It is preferable for a person to be more liberal with his presents to the poor than to be lavish in his preparation of the Purim feast or in sending portions to his friends. For there is no greater and more splendid happiness than to gladden the hearts of the poor, the orphans, the widows, and the strangers. One who brings happiness to the hearts of these unfortunate individuals resembles the Divine Presence, which Isaiah 57:15 describes as having the tendency “to revive the spirit of the lowly and to revive those with broken hearts.”[3]

Similarly, in his commentary on the book of Esther, Rabbi Meir Leibush Weisser (Malbim) explicitly notes that matanot la-evyonim was Mordekhai’s replacement for the full Yom Tov into which he would have made Purim (adding this non-biblical holiday to the shalosh regalim, the three pilgrimage festivals) had he been permitted to do so by Halakhah, Jewish law:

The month which was turned to them from sorrow to joy and from mourning to holiday (Yom Tov)”… To mark this transformation from sorrow to joy, Mordekhai had the people hold joyous feasts. To mark the transformation from mourning to Yom Tov, he (also) established the giving of gifts to the poor. At that point in history, Mordekhai could no longer decree that the Jews establish Purim as a Yom Tov holiday, for (by then) it was forbidden to decree any new Yom Tov for the Jewish community… Therefore, he established the giving of tzedakah in lieu of a Yom Tov.[4]

Both sources only underscore this honored position that matanot la-evyonim holds as a type of tzedakah in Jewish tradition. I suggest that the three stories below―explicitly and implicitlyconflate matanot la-evyonim with mishloah manot. They do this precisely to sensitize us to the potentially messy social and moral complexities surrounding interactions between unequal socioeconomic classes. These interactions can have the unintended consequence of humiliating the poor when they are not fulfilled with the greatest sensitivity.

Three Talmudic Stories About Exchanging Gifts And Presents To The Poor On Purim

The first story:

Rav Yosef taught a baraita (a tannaitic or mishnaic-era teaching):
To fulfill the Purim requirement of giving gifts to your friends, you must give at least two portions of food to one person.
To fulfill the Purim requirement of giving presents to the poor, you must give at least two gifts to two people. (Rav Yosef cites Esther, chapter 9 as his prooftext for both commandments.)

Once, Rabbi Yehudah Nesiyah sent Rabbi Oshaya a Purim gift basket filled with the thigh of a young calf and a jug of wine.
Rabbi Oshaya wrote back: “You have fulfilled through us (Oshaya and his family) both the commandment to send gifts to your friends and the commandment to send presents to poor people on Purim!”

The Talmud precedes the three vignettes with Rav Yosef’s straightforward teaching that the obligations of gift-giving and sustaining the poor during Purim have their sources in the Book of Esther. It then proceeds with the first story about Rabbi Yehudah Nesiyah, patriarch of the Jewish community in third-century-CE Eretz Yisrael. He sends expensive Purim treats to his colleague, Rabbi Oshaya, high-class portions of food and wine that are “fit for a king,” even though Oshaya is very poor. Yehudah Nesiyah, as it were, kills two birds with one stone. His very fancy and plentiful gifts to his friend cover both requirements of Purim: giving your friend at least two portions, as well as giving at least two poor people (in this instance, Rabbi Oshaya’s impoverished household) two presents. Oshaya praises Yehudah Nesiyah for fulfilling both commandments with his very generous gift; but he also thanks him for sensitively folding his donation to Oshaya’s poor family into his gift to Oshaya, his friend and colleague. As a patriarch and the grandson of the patriarch, Yehudah Ha-Nasi, Yehudah Nesiyah is actual royalty, yet he treats Oshaya the poor man as someone worthy of noble status.

We might infer from this first story that such “exchanges of equality” between Jews of unequal status are―or should be―the normal course of events. However, the next story seems to make clear that this is not always the case:

Rabbah had Abaye take a Purim gift basket filled with a sack of dates and a cup of roasted wheat flour to Mari bar Mar.
Abaye told Rabbah, “Now Mari will say about you, ‘Once a poor farmer always a poor farmer!’”
Mari bar Mar sent back with Abaye a Purim gift basket filled with ginger and a cup filled with long peppers (a much more expensive and pungent gift).
Abaye told Mari, “Now Rabbah will say about you, ‘I sent him sweet foods and he sends me back pungent ones?’”

Abaye, who is poor, is sent by his similarly poor uncle, Rabbah, to their much wealthier colleague, Mari bar Mar, to give him a gift for Purim. Rabbah was a poor farmer who rose to rabbinic prominence to become the head of the Yeshiva in the Babylonian city of Pumbedita. However, his very simple gift to Mari implies that he remained a man of modest, even impoverished means, despite his rise in status. Mari sends a gift back to Rabbah through Abaye, which is filled with ginger and long peppers, more expensive condiments than dates and roasted wheat flour. I interpret Mari’s action generously: Rabbah sends his wealthier colleague what he can, albeit as a full participant in the community’s religious life. Mari sends back the very best, as a way of showing honor to his poorer friend, who once again deserves foods “fit for a king.” He does this precisely because, as head of the Yeshiva, Rabbah is like royalty, his impoverishment notwithstanding. In fact, without all of Abaye’s anxious monologues, we could read this second story as simply being about two colleagues who give each other gifts that don’t break the tight budget of the first one, that reflect the class sensitivity of the second one, and that preserve the dignified friendship of both.

Abaye clearly doesn’t see things this way. He frets to his uncle that Mari will disparage Rabbah’s simple gift: “Once a poor farmer, always a poor farmer!” It is noteworthy that the literal translation of this statement in the Talmud is: “A farmer becomes king, but he still won’t take the feedbag off his neck!” In other words, Abaye fears his uncle, now a “king” of sorts as the head of the local academy, will be derided by his wealthy colleague for his paltry Purim gift. Abaye continues to fret after Mari hands him the expensive gift intended for his uncle Rabbah: “Oh, great, now my uncle will perceive that you’re sending back pungent food items as a ‘pungent’ way of disparaging him for the sweet but meager foods that he sent!”

Abaye’s anxiety, I suggest, is driven by his humiliation and hunger that are the results of his dire poverty. As a member of poor Uncle Rabbah’s family (according to Talmudic tradition, Rabbah raised him), Abaye is thinking almost like the kid from the poor side of town who is terrified to go to the wealthier kids’ parties, even as he longs for what they possess. His off-brand shoes, cheap sweater, and even cheaper birthday present are eyesores among the other kids’ fancier goods. He has no reason to interpret the largesse of others or their inclusiveness as anything other than paternalistic condescension, their actual intentions notwithstanding.

Exacerbating these fears is the intense physical hunger Abaye experiences in his uncle’s home, as seen in the third story:

(Reflecting upon his experience in both houses that very same Purim day,) Abaye said the following:
“When I left Rabbah’s house that day, I was full after eating his Purim meal. When I came to Mari’s house (to deliver his gift to him), they served me sixty cooked dishes on sixty plates, and I ate sixty portions of food from each of them. The last dish they served me was called pot roast. I was so hungry I wanted to chew on the dishes! This is like the old saying: ‘The poor man doesn’t realize how hungry he is.’” (Megillah 7a-b)[5]

In this story, Abaye eats an obscene amount in Mari’s wealthy home during seudat Purim, the obligatory Purim feast, to compensate for his lack of food; however, he remains unsated, even to the point of trying to chew on Mari’s dishes. Abaye explains as much when he quotes a local saying: “The poor man doesn’t realize how hungry he is.” Abaye is so hungry that being around so much good food makes him try to compensate for his hunger in ways he could never have imagined while in Uncle Rabbah’s house.

Taken together, these three Talmudic stories point toward a critical ethical lesson, however indirectly. Poverty too often robs its victims of their self-respect. It is not enough to provide for indigent people’s physical needs. Judaism demands that we “listen to Abaye”―that is, that we also anticipate their emotional and spiritual needs. This includes creating ways to present our support as gifts which we give, with the deepest respect for those people. That respect also requires that we give them the opportunity to give us gifts as well. The reality of their financial limitations must never preclude them from being empowered, as our full equals, to contribute to our welfare and that of the wider community. Further, the reality of our financial prowess does not grant us the right to treat them paternalistically as “tzedakah projects,” however well-meaning our actions.

Perhaps that is why Rambam’s eight levels of tzedakah, a hierarchical compilation of Talmudic rulings on philanthropic giving, implies that all giving be done with the highest goal of promoting the recipient’s self-worth and independence.[6] On Purim and year round, as we hopefully dig deeper into our pockets to honor our loved ones and help the economically disadvantaged, can we remember to do that digging with a sensitive eye and ear toward their dignity as well?[7]


 

[1] The translation is taken from the Jewish Publication Society’s Tanakh, 1996.
[2] See Jeffrey L. Rubenstein, Talmudic Stories: Narrative Art, Composition, and Culture (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1999), ch. 1 and 268-282.
[3] See Rambam, Mishneh Torah, Hilkhot Megillah Ve-hanukkah (“Laws of Purim and Hanukkah”), 2:17. Rabbi Eliyahu Touger’s translation with modifications by this author. Maggid Mishneh and Maaseh Rokeah, two commentaries on Mishneh Torah, assert politely that “devarav re-uyin eilav,”―Rambam’s words are fitting to him; that is, they reflect his personal opinion with no authoritative basis in any Talmudic source.
[4] Malbim on Esther 9:22. Author’s translation. Here, Malbim understands the Hebrew words “Yom Tov” to mean literally a Yom Tov with all of its halakhic restrictions, not merely a day of general celebration.
[5] Author’s translation with modifications from Sefaria. In his commentary on the Talmud, Rabbi Shmuel Eidels (known as Maharsha) treats this passage as Purim Torah, an exaggerated tale intended to make us laugh in keeping with the mood of the holiday. I suggest that these stories are, in fact, intended to have a far more serious purpose. See his Hiddushei Aggadot Maharsha to Megillah 7b, s.v. Iy Haklaah Malka.
[6] Mishneh Torah, Hilkhot Matnot Aniyim, (“Laws of Gifts to the Poor”), 10:7-14.
[7] Many thanks to my dear friend, Yitzhak Francus, for his insights and editorial assistance as I wrote this essay.

Dan Ornstein is the rabbi of Congregation Ohav Shalom, a writer, and a day school Judaic Studies teacher living with his family in Albany, NY. He is the author of Cain v Abel: A Jewish Courtroom Drama (Jewish Publication Society 2020.