Turning the Ordinary into Extraordinary – The Status of Yom Purim in Rambam’s Mishneh Torah: Part I by Rabbi Duvie Nachbar


 The relationship between the individual mitzvot of Purim and the general quality of the day constitutes one of the overarching questions regarding the nature of Purim and our celebration of it. To whatdegree are the Mitzvot of the day isolated actions performed against an otherwise profane backdrop; alternatively, might the mitzvot of Purim stem from the day’s character as a Yom Mishteh VeSimcha or, maybe even, a Yom Tov. This essay will analyze Rambam’s development of this central issue by investigating his novel presentation of Purim’s various facets. In some cases, identifying a prior source for Rambam’s positions and formulations proves elusive while, in other cases, Rambam overtly modifies or seemingly contradicts his Talmudic foundation. A common trend, though, unifies all of these instances and depicts Rambam’s distinctive approach toward our central question.

Issur Melachah

Rambam presents the potential existence of an Issur Melachah on Purim in a nuanced fashion, melakha is permitted, yet unqualifiedly inappropriate and ultimately unproductive (Hilchot Megillah 2:14) –

“U’Muttar B’Asiat Melachah, VeAf Al Pi Kein Ein Ra’ui LaAsot Bo Melachah. Amru Chachamim Kol HaOseh Melachah BaYom Purim Aino Ro’eh Siman Beracha LeOlam[1]”, “It is permitted to work on these days. It is not, however, proper to do so. Our Sages declared[2]: Whoever works on Purim will never see a sign of blessing[3].”

Rambam’s position seems problematic when assessed against the Talmud’s background discussion.

The Talmud (Megillah 5b) struggles with the question of whether Melachah ought to be prohibited on Purim. Historical precedent offers contradictory signals as R. Yehudah HaNassi himself planted trees on Purim; on the other hand, Rav cursed an individual whom he observed planting flax, permanently terminating the flax’s growth. Adding to the complexity of the matter, the Talmud cites Rav Yosef’s halakhic derivation of an Issur Melachah from the phrase ‘Yom Tov’ in the Pasuk’s description of Purim’s original celebration - “Simchah, U’Mishteh, VeYom Tov, U’Mishloach Manot ish Li’rei’eihu” (Esther 9:18).

Three resolutions seek to resolve the tension. According to the first suggestion, an Issur Melachah applies on the observed day of Purim, either the 14th for city-dwellers or the 15th for residents of walled cities; however, it doesn’t apply on the alternate day. R. Yehudah HaNassi observed Shushan Purim and was, therefore, permitted to plant on the 14th of Adar. Alternatively, Melachah is permitted on both days of Purim since the later Pasuk, which describes the establishment of Purim as a holiday, describes the days as “Yemei Mishteh VeSimchah, U’Mishloach Manot Ish Li’rei’eihu, U’Matanot Li'Evyonim” (Esther 9:22). The term ‘Yom Tov’ is replaced by the phrase ‘U’Matanot Li'Evyonim,’ indicating that the ‘Yom Tov’ quality failed to gain traction and acceptance within the nation; nonetheless, certain communities adopted an Issur Melachah as their communal norm, and Rav’s curse reflected local communal practice. R. Yehudah HaNassi planted trees on Purim due to his community’s preservation of the baseline standard. Finally, it is possible that R. Yehudah HaNassi’s community adopted the more ambitious standard of Issur Melachah, but R. Yehudah HaNassi’s planting for the construction of a wedding canopy for Simchat Chatan VeKallah was consistent in spirit with Simchat Purim.[4]

Rambam’s qualified position that Melachah is permitted, but universally inappropriate and unproductive, seems to contradict all three approaches in the Gemara. According to the first approach, Melachah is absolutely prohibited while according to the second and third approaches it is purely the function of communal practice. Rambam’s view that Melachah is permitted, but deemed unconditionally inappropriate, seems baseless.[5] [6] Furthermore, the inner logic of Rambam’s view is difficult irrespective of his source. If the ‘Yom Tov’ quality of Purim was rejected, the roots of Melacha’s inappropriate character are obscured.


Rambam introduces several novel features in his presentation of Seudat Purim (Hilchot Megillah 2:15) -

“Keitzad Chovat Seudah Zu? SheYochal Bassar VeYitakein Seudah Na’eh K’Fi Asher Timtzah Yado, VeShoteh Yayin Ad SheYishtacher VeYeiradeim BeShichrut”, “What is the nature of our obligation for this feast? A person should eat meat and prepare an attractive feast in accordance with his financial means. He should drink wine until he becomes intoxicated and falls asleep in a drunken stupor”

Rambam incorporates the consumption of meat within his definition of the mitzvah, but simultaneously omits any requirement to eat bread. Moreover, Rambam surprisingly includes drinking wine within the Seudah’s framework. Rambam’s basis for requiring wine consumption is, undoubtedly, Rava’s statement (Megillah 7b) – “Michayeiv Inish Li’vsumei Bi’puraya Ad Delo Yada Bein Arur Haman Li’Varuch Mordechai”, “a person is obligated to become intoxicated with wine on Purim until he can no longer distinguish between how cursed is Haman and blessed is Mordecai.” – which Rambam treated as a Halachic norm. The inclusion of this norm as part of the Seudah’s framework, though, is not apparent in Rava’s words. What is additionally striking about Rambam’s core definition of the Seudah, is the subjective standard that he sets for its fulfillment. Typically, obligations to eat and drink have quantifiable measures which determine whether one has properly fulfilled the Mitzvah. With respect to Seudat Purim, though, Rambam introduces an ascending scale depending on the individual. A ‘nice meal’ should be prepared ‘in accordance with one’s financial means.’ Likewise, the quantity of wine necessary to cause one to fall asleep in a drunken stupor would seemingly vary between people. Rambam’s innovative features of Seudat Purim – the inclusion of meat and wine[7], the omission of bread[8], and a subjective, ascending-scale[9] [10] – are without an immediately apparent source.

Mishloach Manot and Matanot Li'Evyonim

The Talmud (Megillah 7a) establishes objective measures for the necessary number of gifts and recipients for the fulfillment of Mishloach Manot and Matanot Li'Evyonim –“Tani Rav Yosef: U’Mishloach Manot Ish Le’rei’eihu Shtei Manot LeIsh Echad. U’Matanot Li'Evyonim Shtei Matanot LeShnei B’nei Adam”, “Rav Yosef taught that the verse states: ‘And of sending portions one to another’ (Esther 9:22), indicating two portions to one person. The verse continues: ‘And gifts to the poor’ (Esther 9:22), indicating two gifts to two people.”

Two portions must be delivered to one individual for Mishloach Manot, and two gifts must be given to two poor individuals for Matanot Li'Evyonim. Rambam’s presentation of both Halachot modifies the Talmud’s definition. He writes (Hilchot Megillah 2:15-16) –“VeChain Chayav Adam LeShloach Shtei Manot... VeChol HaMarbeh LeShloach LeRei’im Meshubach… VeChayav LeChalek LeAniyim BaYom HaPurim Ein Pachot MiShnei Aniyim”, “and similarly a person is obligated to send two portions… and anyone who increases his sending to friends is praiseworthy… and one is obligated to distribute to the poor on the day of Purim, not less than two poor individuals,”

In both instances, Rambam converts the Talmud’s quantifiable measures into minimum standards. With respect to Mishloach Manot, the praiseworthiness of the gesture is commensurate with the number of gifts and people one delivers to – “Ve’Chol HaMarbeh…Meshubach.” The escalating quality of the mitzvah is even more pronounced with respect to Matanot Li'Evyonim where Rambam includes an aspirational quality in his initial basic definition – “not less than two poor individuals.”[11]

The expansive scope of Matanot Li'Evyonim’s distribution relates to which individuals qualify as deserving recipients in addition to the number of individuals who are given to. Rambam adopts an exceedingly accommodating standard (Hilchot Megillah 2:16) - “Ein Medakdekin BeMa’ot Purim, Ela Kol HaPoshet Yado Li’tol Notnim Lo”, “we should not be discriminating regarding money collected for Purim. Instead, one should give to whomever stretches out his hand.”

The Talmud (Bava Metzia 78b) provides the basis for Rambam’s ruling when it states “Ein Midakdekim BeDavar,” we don’t adopt a calculated approach with respect to money collected for Matanot Li'Evyonim. Rambam, based on the Talmud Yerushalmi (Megillah 1:4), interprets that funds should be distributed to anyone who stretches out their hand without inquiring further about the individual’s financial standing and deservedness.[12] Although Rambam’s approach seems well rooted in earlier sources, the risky attitude that is adopted appears surprising. If funds were collected for distribution to the poor, it seems reckless for Gabbaim to carelessly misappropriate the money.[13]


See next week’s issue of Kol Torah for a continuation of the discussion. 

[1] The Frankel edition records a version of Rambam’s text that omits the word ‘LeOlam’.

[2] Later Acharonim debate Rambam’s source that one will never see a “Siman Beracha” from work done on Purim. R. Joseph Caro (Beit Yosef O.C. 696:1) speculates that it is based on Rav’s curse that was issued in response to the planting of flax on Purim. Looking at that precedent, Rav’s curse was narrowly focused on the flax’s growth, the direct product of the Melachah performed, and was not a more sweeping curse as the word ‘LeOlam’ might indicate. R. Caro’s qualification (Shulchan Aruch O.C. 696:1) is consistent with this conclusion – “one who does Melachah will never see a sign of blessing from that work.” Gr”a notes that Rambam’s precise phraseology appears in the Talmud (Pesachim 50b) - “one who does Melachah on Erev Shabbat and Erev Yom Tov from Mincha and onward, Motzei Shabbat, Motzei Yom Tov, or Motzei Yom HaKippurim and any time there is a Nidnud Aveirah (Rashi – a hint of sin) which includes a Ta’anit Tzibbur, one will never see a sign of Berachah.” Gr”a identifies the sweeping phrase, “any time there is a Nidnud Aveirah,” as Rambam’s source, feeling that it must encompass additional examples like Purim and not be limited to Ta’anit Tzibbur alone. The Sefat Emet (Megillah 5b s.v. m”t latyei), though, raises a counterpoint to the Gr”a, noting that the Gemara specifically includes Ta’anit Tzibbur, implying Purim’s omission from the “Eino Ro’eh Siman Beracha LeOlam.”

[3] Magen Avraham (O.C. 696:3) wonders whether one will simply not profit from the work, as R. Eliyahu Mizrachi believed, or whether one will actually suffer financial loss as was his personal view.

[4] The allowance of Melachot which foster feelings of Simcha independent from Simchat Purim simultaneously tests the nature and parameters of Purim’s Issur Melachah and its comparison to Yom Tov’s parallel prohibition as well as the nature of Simchat Purim and how generic or tailored the Simchat HaYom must be to the specific themes of the day.

[5] Lechem Mishneh (Hilchot Megillah 2:14) wonders why Rambam did not reserve his remarks specifically for communities that adopted the Issur Melachah as their communal practice. Similarly, the Magen Avraham (O.C. 696:2) and Sefat Emet (Megillah 5b, s.v. m”t latyei) both observe that according to the Beit Yosef’s explanation that Rav’s curse serves as Rambam’s basis, the “Eino Ro’eh Siman Berachah LeOlam” should depend on communal practice as the Gemara explains. Magen Avraham notes, though, that R. Eliyahu Mizrachi understood Rambam’s pronouncement as applying universally, irrespective of communal standards.  

[6] Several Provencal Rishonim argue that a widespread, national acceptance of the Issur Melachah, rendered it no longer subject to individual review and adoption on a local, communal level. See Orchot Chaim (Hilchot Purim no. 27), Kol Bo (cited in Darkhei Moshe O.C. 696:1), and Meiri (Megillah 5b s.v. Shnei Yamim). This, too, might serve as a basis for an unconditional reading of Rambam.

[7] Orchot Chaim (Hilchot Purim no. 39 and cited in Shulchan Arukh O.C. 696:7), permits an Onen to consume meat and wine on Purim, arguing that an Asei Di’Yachid, the laws of private mourning, cannot supersede an Asei Di’Rabbim Deoraita, the Biblically mandated national celebration of Purim. In his opinion, the requirement to consume meat and wine on Purim obtains Biblical standing since Divrei Kabbalah KiDivrei Torah, laws from Scripture share similar halakhic standing as Torah laws.

[8] Whether Seudat Purim requires the framework of bread is subject to debate. Sha’arei Teshuva (O.C. 695:1) cites a view presented in Birkei Yosef that one can fulfill the Mitzvah of Seudat Purim without bread. Similarly, Magen Avraham (O.C. 695:9) explains that one should not repeat Birkat HaMazon if Al HaNissim was omitted, and certainly not if they have already eaten a meal earlier that day, since it is nowhere stated that bread is a required component of the Seudah; rather, one can fulfill the obligation of Seudah with “Sha’ar Minei Matamim,” other delicacies. Aruch HaShulchan (O.C. 695:7) argues that Mishteh’s composition requires bread. Relatedly, Maharam Schick (Teshuvot O.C. no. 340) believes that the expression of Simcha demands bread; at the same time, he attempts to justify Magen Avraham’s perspective.

[9] Tur’s formulation (O.C. 695:1) also gives voice to the ascending scale measure of Seudat Purim – “Mitzvah LeHarbot BeSeudat Purim.” Bach explains that Tur inferred this embellishment of the Seudah from the Talmudic account (Megillah 7b) in which Rav Ashi questioned the Rabbanan’s absence from the Beit Midrash on Purim day. Rav Kahane’s response “Dilma Tridi BeSeudat Purim” implies that the overwhelming, all-encompassing investment of time and energy toward preparing the Seudah must qualify as a Mitzvah; otherwise, the Rabbanan’s absence would still be inexcusable. Gr”a points to Abaye’s description of how he was full when he left Rabbah’s Seudah, yet when he arrived at the home of Mari bar Mar, he was served and consumed “sixty dishes with sixty different types of cooked foods and I ate sixty pieces from it” (Megillah 7b).

[10] Mor u’Ketziah’s surprising comment (cited in Sha’arei Teshuvah O.C. 695:1) crystallizes the ascendant scale of Seudat Purim. The Talmud (Bava Batra 60b) provides a culinary example of a Jew’s ever-present consciousness of our ongoing national mourning for Jerusalem and the Beit HaMikdash. One is obligated to leave out a small item while preparing a festive meal to symbolize the incompletion of our simcha. The Mor u’Ketziah argues that this requirement does not apply to Seudat Purim. Meiri (Megillah 7b s.v. Chayav) similarly states that excessive feasting on Purim should not be lacking in any way – “She’lo Yechsar Shum Davar.”

[11] Tur (O.C. 695:4) incorporates the aspirational quality of “not less than” even into his basic definition of Mishloach Manot – “one must send portions to his friend, at least, two portions to a single individual.” Coupled with his comment to embellish one’s Seudah, Tur adopts an ascending scale measure for all three Mitzvot of the day.

[12] Rashi (Bava Metzia 78b s.v. Ve’Ein, Aval, Vi’ha’motar), based on the Tosefta (Megillah 1:5), explains the Gemara differently that we don’t calculate how much food is required by poor individuals and slaughter just enough to precisely meet their needs; rather, we slaughter animals in abundance and sell any leftovers that might remain afterward. Rashi’s approach, too, demonstrates the expansive approach that is employed toward quantifying Matanot Li'Evyonim gifts rather than the adoption of a narrow, calculating attitude.

[13] The challenge is compounded according to the Minhag Kol Yisrael (recorded in Ramban Bava Metzia 68b, s.v. Vei’ein) that funds are distributed to Aniyei Aku”m, as well (the non-Jewish poor). It seems inexcusable to nonchalantly release communal funds collected for a specific Mitzvah. Regarding this particular practice, see Magen Avraham (O.C. 694:6) and Taz (O.C. 694:2).

Turning the Ordinary Into Extraordinary – The Status of Yom Purim in Rambam’s Mishneh Torah: Part II by Rabbi Duvie Nachbar

A Positive Impact By Natan Lehman