My mother always used to bake for Purim. We gave mishlochei manot* (MM) to a moderate number of people, most of whom didn’t observe the mitzvah themselves. We baked chocolate swirl cookies, and hamantashen, and thumbkins. We added some dried nuts and fruit on a plate, put the whole thing in a plastic bag, and voila! The recipes came from the Betty Crocker Cooky Book. I used to love to look through the book at the pictures of the painted cookies and the gingerbread house, which including detailed instructions. I have it still; every so often my husband asks why I haven’t thrown it out because it’s falling apart. (I wouldn’t dream of it.) Most of the recipes call for margarine or shortening, which I stopped using (except for frosting on birthday cakes) a few years ago. My mother, on the other hand, went through tubs of Crisco fairly regularly. Who knew then that Crisco was so bad for you?
Here’s an oil-based recipe for hamantashen dough.
When I made aliyah, I was surprised at the contents of the typical MM package. They consisted of assorted mini-chocolate bars, candies, and miniature bottles of wine. Only occasionally a homemade hamantash or brownie found its way in. An article by Kobi Arieli in the Paamonim newsletter lamented this development; he remembers the days when chickpeas and a bottle of malt beer were standard. Arieli also pointed out how elaborate the packaging has become, and how the purpose of MM has shifted from celebrating friendship and observing the mitzvah to impressing your neighbor. And an even more important goal has become receiving equally impressive packages. Naturally you also have to make sure that the MM you send is on the same level as the one you received last year. Arieli notes that other type of gifts also serve the same function. Instead of tokens of generosity, they have become some kind of social marker. Any gift worth less than what is expected is perceived as a social gaffe at best, an insult at worst.
Here’s what happens in our house. Almost all of our friends send us MM through Emunah women. We each get one package with a list of names of the people who sent to us. I help organize the project; we end up arguing about what to put in the package and how much to spend, but we eventually work it out. Our family also delivers about ten of these identical packages on Purim (out of about 300). Emunah takes the profit, which goes to their children’s homes. This leaves me with very few MM obligations; I send to a few neighbors and try to include people who wouldn’t ordinarily receive. I do cook and bake some but I get so little feedback afterward, even when I put in a lot of effort. It seems that most people get way too much stuff even to remember who sent what.
Most of the MM activity in our house revolves around the children, who are allowed to send two MM to each friend. Being that everything is store-bought and virtually identical, our mantra around here is recycle, recycle, recycle. No matter how little I start with, at the end of the day I am left with a huge pile of junk, plates and containers, and cellophane. I pick out the really good candy (for me), wine, fruit, and nuts, separate out the real junk (which goes to my husband’s office), and let the kids split up the rest. Really, everyone should just buy a bag of mini-chocolate bars and some wine to consume themselves instead of spending all that time packing, writing notes and shlepping the MM around the neighborhood. Arieli makes a different suggestion: Buy strips of colored paper, put them in a large pile in a bag to make the most impressive effect, and send them to as many people as you want. They will make people feel important, the true purpose of MM today.
The whole thing has become such a waste of money and material in the Orthodox community. Everyone sends to people who don’t need it and don’t want it. Many organizations now sell certificates that you can give to your neighbors instead of MM–that’s one solution, but even though it’s tzedakah it still obligates the recipient to reciprocate. I don’t need anyone to give tzedakah on my behalf while I’m still alive.
The MMs that I appreciated most were in thanks for doing someone a favor, such as giving a regular ride or hosting potential olim for Shabbat. Whereas in normal circumstances I wouldn’t want a gift for this type of chessed (kindness), this type of MM allows the giver to express appreciation through the mitzvah of MM, without obligating me in the same way; I would be defeating the purpose by sending a package back. I’m not talking about someone I cooked for when she had a baby, rather people who wouldn’t be able to return the favor at a later date.
Our community should be taking the money it spends on MM and giving it to tzedakah, either directly or through Purim cards and MM projects. The mitzvah of mishloach manot should be fulfilled either to thank those who did us a great kindness in the previous year (not teachers, who as part of the community receive huge amounts of MM anyway), or given to our nonobservant neighbors and others who might not be remembered (elderly, converts, singles, new olim). They also might appreciate the extra effort you choose to put into your package. And let’s not forget to extend an invitation to hear the megillah** and to join us at our Purim seudot.***
* Purim packages
**Book of Esther read joyfully in the synagogue
***festive meals on Purim day