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


Purim’s Aspirational Standards

Several surprising positions and formulations stand out in Rambam’s presentation of Purim - his qualified presentation of Purim’s Issur Melachah seems to contradict the Talmud, his definition of Seudat Purim seems to lack a clear basis in the Talmud and adopts a subjective, ascending-scale definition, and, finally, his definitions of Mishloach Manot and Matanot Le’Evyonim modify the Talmud’s formulation in order to introduce an escalating scale for ambitious fulfillment of both Mitzvot. (Editor’s note: Last week’s issue of Kol Torah on Parashat Terumah contains an expanded presentation of these issues. See “Turning the Ordinary Into Extraordinary – The Status of Yom Purim in Rambam’s Mishneh Torah: Part I.”)

The common strand unifying each of these novelties is the aspirational quality of Purim. In each instance, there exists a basic definition that sets a minimum standard, but one that can be subjectively and ambitiously built upon.

Rambam’s opening formulation of Purim’s multiple facets unearths the underlying motive behind Purim’s aspirational standards (Hilchot Megillah 2:14) –

“Mitzvat Yom Arba’ah Assar LeBnei Kefarim, VeAyarot VeYom Chamishah Assar LeBnei Kerachim, LeHiyot Yom Simchah VeMishteh U’Mishloach Manot LeRe’im U’Matanot Le’Evyonim”, “It is a Mitzvah for the inhabitants of the villages and unwalled cities on the fourteenth of Adar, and for the inhabitants of the walled cities on the fifteenth of Adar, for it to be a day of joy and celebration and gift-giving to friends and to the poor.”

Rambam’s remarkable opening definition sets the tone for the ensuing Halachot. There is no Mitzvah to eat a Seudah, nor is there a Mitzvah to send Mishloach Manot or Matanot Le’Evyonim, per se; rather, the Mitzvah is to engage in these activities in order to transform an ordinary, routine, profane day into “a day of joy and celebration and gift-giving to friends and to the poor.” The Mitzvah, in his definition, is “for it to be a day of….”[1] The Mitzvah activities that we perform do not exist against a profane backdrop nor do they stem from a day whose already established character is one of a Yom Mishteh VeSimchah or a Yom Tov. The relationship is reversed such that engagement in these Mitzvah activities transforms the day’s character and creates the extraordinary out of the ordinary.

With this orientation, Rambam’s innovations share a common internal logic. The day is inherently profane and routine,[2] and, hence, Melachah is permitted; however, it is inappropriate because of the aspirational motif which seeks to transform the day into a Yom Mishteh VeSimchah or, possibly even, a Yom Tov.[3] Rambam’s definition of Seudah draws upon the Mitzvah of Simchat Yom Tov which is defined by meat and wine, too. Rambam, unlike other opinions, believed that the Mitzvah of Simchat Yom Tov still finds Biblical expression even following the destruction of the Beit HaMikdash through the consumption of meat and wine - “there is no Simchah other than with meat, and there is no Simchah other than with wine” (Hilchot Yom Tov 6:18 based on Pesachim 109a).[4] The aspirational definition that Rambam introduces into the various Mitzvot of the day – “in accordance with his financial means” for Seudah, “whoever increases his sending of gifts to friends, is praiseworthy” for Mishloach Manot, and “not less than two poor individuals” for Matanot Le'Evyonim - all reflect this goal of transforming the day’s quality. Discrete Mitzvah actions are quantifiable and can be objectively defined. The goal of Purim’s Mitzvot, though, is to transform its quality of time and character of the day.[5] Toward that end, the transformation of the day’s quality as a “Yom Simchah U’Mishteh, U’Mishloach Manot LeRe’im, U’Matanot Le'Evyonim” is commensurate with the degree and extent of one’s investment. 

The Mitzvot’s goal-oriented focus of transforming the day’s character rather than process orientation that focuses on specific methods might be responsible for Rambam’s willing accommodation of any individual who extends their hand for Ma’ot Purim (money distributed on Purim). A process orientation would treat the funds collected for Matanot Le'Evyonim as earmarked for that Mitzvah alone, and any distribution to an undeserving individual as a complete misappropriation of the money. All of the day’s Mitzvot, however, are aimed at a common goal, the creation of a “Yom Simchah U’Mishteh.” If the distributed funds qualify as Mishloach Manot rather than Matanot Le'Evyonim, the shared primary goal might remain unaffected.[6] 

Matanot Le'Evyonim and Rejoicing in Hashem’s Presence

The aspirational quality of Purim day finds greatest expression in one’s investment in Matanot Le'Evyonim, surpassing both the importance of enhancing one’s Seudah “in accordance with one’s financial needs” and the praiseworthiness of embellishing one’s Mishloach Manot. Rambam explains (Hilchot Megillah 2:17) –

“Mutav La’Adam LeHarbot BeMatanot Evyonim MiLeHarbot BeSe’udato U’VeShiluach Manot LeRei’av. She’Ein Sham Simchah Gedolah U’Mefoa’arah Ela LeSamei’ach Leiv Aniyim ViYetomim VeAlmenot VeGeirim. SheHaMesamei’ach Leiv HaUmlalim HaEilu Domeh LaShechinah, SheNe’emar LeHachayot Ru’ach Shefalim ULehachayot Leiv Nidka’im,” “It is preferable for a person to be more liberal with his donations 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 converts. One who brings happiness to the hearts of these unfortunate individuals resembles the Divine Presence, which Yeshayahu (57:15) describes as having the tendency "to revive the spirit of the lowly and to revive those with broken hearts[7].’"

The value expressed here is strikingly parallel to Rambam’s description of Yom Tov (Hilchot Yom Tov 6:18) –

"U’CheSheHu Ocheil VeShoteh Chayav LeHa’Achil LaGeir LaYatom VeLaAlmanah Im She’ar Aniyim HaUmlalim. Aval Mi SheNoeil Daltot Chatzeiro VeOcheil VeShoteh Hu U’Banav Ve’Ishto Ve’Eino Ma’achil U’Mashkeh LeAniyim U’LeMarei Nefesh Ein Zo Simchat Mitzvah Ela Simchat Kereiso,” “When a person eats and drinks [in celebration of a holiday], he is obligated to feed converts, orphans, widows and others who are destitute and poor. In contrast, a person who locks the gates of his courtyard and eats and drinks with his children and his wife, without feeding the poor and the embittered, is [not indulging in] rejoicing associated with a Mitzvah, but rather the rejoicing of his gut.”

Rambam’s terminology as well as the religious value of including less fortunate individuals in one’s celebration are shared in both contexts, Purim and Yom Tov.

At the same time, the inverted relationship between Purim and Yom Tov is also captured in this very comparison. On Yom Tov, we are bidden to celebrate before Hashem, “You shall rejoice before Hashem, your God,” and as part of that celebration, the Pasuk continues, we are commanded to include in our celebration individuals facing difficult challenges and compromised circumstances, “you….the Levi within your gates, the convert, the orphan, and the widow amongst you” (Devarim 16:11). Hashem is the paradigm of compassion, mercy, kindness, and boundless, selfless giving, and, as a result, celebration in His presence must express itself through appreciating the source of one’s bounty and through selfless giving. On Purim, the relationship is inverted. Whereas on Yom Tov “rejoicing before Hashem” translates into acts of selfless giving, on Purim acts of selfless, boundless giving create a “rejoicing before Hashem.” By acting selflessly, empathetically, and kindly toward impoverished and downtrodden people, the divine quality of man comes to the fore, “one who gladdens the heart of these unfortunate individuals is comparable to the Divine presence,” as the Rambam writes in Hilchot Purim. The celebration of Purim is thus transformed into a “rejoicing before Hashem.”

For this reason, Matanot Le'Evyonim surpasses Seudat Purim and Mishloach Manot in its aspirational quality and its ability to transform the character of the day. It, more than the others, can infuse the day with a Yom Tov-esque quality of “rejoicing before Hashem.” The ‘Yom Tov’ quality (Esther 9:19) that was featured in the initial celebration of Purim was not rejected when it was later replaced by Matanot Le'Evyonim (Esther 9:22) in the establishment of Purim as a holiday.[8] Purim seeks to remind us that living in Hashem’s presence and leading a divinely inspired life ought not be reserved exclusively for the Kedushat Ha’Zeman of the Yamim Tovim or for the Kedushat HaMakom of the Beit HaMikdash. Even the ordinary can be made extraordinary and the profane into a quasi-Yom Tov when we tap into the divinity embedded in our humanity and engage in boundless, selfless giving to others.

[1] In my opinion, Maggid Mishnah’s comment (Hilchot Megillah 2:14) that Rambam’s introduction is “explicit there (Masechet Megillah) in many places” glosses over the emphasis and novelty of Rambam’s formulation.

[2] The inherently profane nature of Purim is possibly responsible for Rambam’s extreme view (Hilchot Aveil 11:3) that Aveilut (the state of mourning) is fully applicable on Purim – “Nohagin Bahen Kol Divrei Aveilut.” This stands in contrast with the view of the She'iltot and Sefer Miktzo’ot who believe that Purim terminates the observance of Shiv’ah were it to have started, and the more compromising position of Maharam of Rothenberg that Devarim SheBeTzina are practiced, but not Devarim SheBeFarhesia, private but not public expressions of mourning (Rosh Moed Katan 3:85, Tur O.C. 696:4-6).

[3] Three potential expressions of Purim’s remnant ‘Yom Tov’ quality might be the aforementioned positions of the She’iltot and Sefer Miktzo’ot that Purim cancels the remaining period of Aveilut Shivah, the Maharil’s practice (Darchei Moshe and Rema O.C. 695:1) to wear Shabbat and Yom Tov clothing to honor the day, and the Yesh SheMegalgeil (cited in Meiri Beit HaBechirah Megillah 4a, s.v. chayav) who argue that the Beracha of SheHechiyanu during the daytime applies to the day’s quality as a Yom Tov which only begins during the day of Purim, as opposed to other Yamim Tovim where it begins at night. Netziv (Ha’Amek She’Eilah 67:2) views the She’iltot’s view regarding Aveilut as a function of Purim’s Chiyuv Simchat MeRei’ut, rather than the day’s general status as a Yom Tov. For this reason, he posits that there is no aspect of Kavod that pertains to the day, nor an obligation to shave and launder clothing prior to Purim unlike Yom Tov.

[4] Indeed, Maggid Mishnah (Hilchot Megillah 2:15) references the formulation in Pesachim (109b) and Hilchot Yom Tov (6:18) of “Ein Simchah…” as Rambam’s source for including meat. The connection to Simchat Yom Tov is further strengthened by a linguistic parallel in Hilchot Yom Tov (6:18) where Rambam describes the obligation to purchase new items as part of Simchat Yom Tov – “one should purchase for them nice clothing and jewelry in accordance with one’s financial means.” The concept relies upon the Torah’s formulation of celebrating the Yamim Tovim “in accordance with God’s blessing which He has given you” (Devarim 16:10, 17). The connection to Simchat Yom Tov can be conceptualized in one of two ways. A more ambitious formulation would argue that the goal of Seudat Purim is to infuse a Yom Tov quality into our experience of Purim, whereas a more tempered formulation would explain that, although Purim technically lacks the status of a Yom Tov, we draw upon a parallel institution in order to define the appropriate Halachic outlets for Simchah. If the wine component of Seudat Purim also draws upon the Mitzvah of Simchat Yom Tov, its tailored Purim application would far exceed its quantity and role on a typical Yom Tov. In fact, Rambam stridently cautions against drinking excessively on Yom Tov contrasting proper Simchah that serves Hashem with drunken frivolity and lightheadedness which eviscerates any service of Hashem.

[5] The Talmud Yerushalmi’s treatment (Megillah 1:4) of Purim or Shushan Purim which coincides with Shabbat roughly expresses this concept that Purim’s status as a Yom Mishteh Vi’Simchah must be actively created by man rather than viewed as naturally or heavenly endowed. In the Yerushalmi’s view, Seudat Purim cannot be fulfilled on Shabbat, but must rather be delayed until Sunday since the Pasuk states “to make them days of Mishteh VeSimchah.” This teaches that Purim’s Simchah is dependent on Beit Din’s creation, not on heaven. The focus of the Yerushalmi is on Beit Din’s role in actively creating Purim’s character whereas in the approach developed here the activities of the nation and individuals impact the day’s quality.

[6] Ramban (Bava Metzia 68b, s.v. VeEin) might have this in mind when he explains – “DeYemei Mishteh VeSimchah Ketiv, U’Mishloach Manot Nami Ketiv.” All of the Mitzvot are geared toward transforming the day, and, as a result, the specific methods are not as consequential. Alternatively, the interchangeability of deserving Evyonim with undeserving, wealthier takers might relate to the relationship between the specific methods of Mishloach Manot and Matanot Le'Evyonim. It’s intuitive to view the two gifts as differing fundamentally in their nature, especially if Matanot Le'Evyonim possesses a general, or Purim specific, Tzedakah foundation. The Purim gifts, though, might possess a fundamentally similar nature, differing only in the quantity of portions given based on the intended audience, two gifts to a wealthy individual but sufficing with less to each pauper. See Ritva (Bava Metzia 68b, s.v. Ve’Ein) who formulates “She’Ein Yom Zeh MiDin Tzedakah Bilvad Ela MiDin Simchah U’Manot, SheHarei Af Be’Ashirim Ketiv U’Mishloach Manot Ish LeRei’eihu.” For this reason, classification as one type of gift as opposed to another carries less significance and can alleviate the pressure to investigate extensively.

[7] Rambam’s prioritization of Matanot Le'Evyonim over the Mitzvot of Seudat Purim and Mishloach Manot seems to reflect his personal viewpoint and is without a specific source in Talmudic discussions about Purim. The Maggid Mishnah, who typically provides background sources for Rambam’s Halachot, simply states – “Divrei Rabbeinu Re’uyin Eilav.”

[8] Mori VeRabi, Rav Michael Rosensweig, felt that Rambam’s description of “Yom Simchah U’Mishteh U’Mishloach Manot LeRei’im U’Matanot Le'Evyonim” seeks to strike a balanced chord of, on the one hand, recording the later Pasuk’s replacement of ‘Yom Tov’ with ‘Matanot Le'Evyonim’ while, at the same time, not completely relinquishing the ‘Yom Tov’ aspiration by preserving the original order of ‘Simchah’ prior to ‘Mishteh’ unlike that later Pasuk’s reversal of ‘Mishteh’ preceding ‘Simchah’.

Internal and External Teshuvah by Eitan Leff

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