The Purim mitzvah of mishloach manot, which traditionally consisted of a package of homemade hamantaschen and small bottle of grape juice, has super-sized over the past decade into lavishly decorated baskets of delicacies large enough to feed a small army.
The mitzvah calls for Jews to send two prepared foods to at least one person. But many people can be spotted on Purim mornings loading up their minivans with dozens of packages for friends and relatives throughout the area.
Some say the mass distribution of the packages is a way to bring people closer together. Several rabbis have even advocated that people give mishloach manot to those they do not normally associate with to encourage friendship.
But others lament that the mitzvah has evolved into a status symbol in a world already burdened with conspicuous consumption. They fear that the mishloach manot mania is creating an atmosphere of one-upmanship, forcing the Cohens to keep up with the Golds.
The Rabbinical Council of Bergen County has come to the rescue, launching a campaign in recent years to put mishloach manot madness to rest. For the past four years, the organization has written to members of Orthodox synagogues urging them to cut down on waste by sending out fewer packages to friends and to donate money to the needy instead. In this way, the rabbis say, the community will celebrate Purim in its truest spirit.
This year, their message carries a special urgency. “At such a time when our economy is struggling and many in our community are seeking outlets for financial relief, it seems especially irresponsible to sit back and allow this halachically inappropriate distribution of resources to take place before our eyes,” said Rabbi Laurence Rothwachs, the RCBC vice president. “There are undoubtedly many that can no longer afford to match what they had given in the past and they need to be reassured and relieved of this presumed burden. At the same time, there are others that could benefit from communal assistance in more substantive ways than receiving hundreds of chocolate bars.”
One national Jewish leader hinted that this could be a part of a nationwide movement. “I think that we’ve seen a trend, the last few years around the country, towards doing mishloach manot through the local shuls,” said Rabbi Steven Burg, national director of program development of the Orthodox Union and international director of the OU’s National Conference of Synagogue Youth. “This raises money for the shul and cuts down on waste,” Burg said.
Many area residents said they will heed the RCBC’s advice. Others said that while they still plan to send out the baskets to their friends, they will reduce their usual number of mishloach manot in deference to the rabbis’ request.
“I always feel funny when people come to my door and I’ve run out of mishloach manot,” said Rachi Garb, a mother of three from Teaneck, who agrees wholeheartedly with the RCBC initiative. “I want to cut down this year but it’s not easy – especially with my kids’ friends, their teachers, and our neighbors.”
Banji Ganchrow, a social worker and mother from Teaneck, believes that the RCBC’s concept has been implemented to some extent already. When she and her husband first moved to Teaneck from Englewood several years ago, they and their friends distributed specially themed baskets. But last year, she and most of her friends sent mishloach manot that their synagogues and schools sold as a fund-raiser.
This year, she is sending only a few, enough to fulfill the mitzvah. “If people show up at our door, we will give them one of the few packages we made and hope we don’t run out. I agree with the RCBC – it’s more important to give money to those in need than [spend it] on candy nobody wants.”
But she added that when she sees people distributing the baskets throughout the neighborhood, it warms her heart. Purim is one of the most beautiful days in Teaneck, she said. “Everyone is so friendly, and you always see vans stopping with kids getting out making deliveries,” she said.
Teaneck grandmother Marilyn Zeidel said she misses simpler times when she and her children made pastries for Purim and delivered them to their neighbors. As her children grew older, she has tried to downsize. She now buys mishloach manot from her grandson’s yeshiva to raise funds for the school.
There are drawbacks to the RCBC’s campaign though, she points out. “I see so many advertisements for beautiful Purim baskets. Lots of businesses will lose money if we don’t buy.”
Not to worry. Some diehards are having a hard time giving up old habits. A Teaneck husband who agrees in his heart with the RCBC’s project can’t win over his wife. “I’m a fan of doing less but my wife insists on ‘being festive,'” said the businessman who asked not to be named. “I already see all the boxes … in the garage.” There’s always next year, he added.
Some people have found deeper meanings in the RCBC’s letter. Its lessons can be applied to many aspects of life, said Adina Lederer, a parent coach from Bergenfield with a private practice in Bogota. “It’s important to feel comfortable with who you are. You can’t measure yourself against your neighbors. As a parent you owe it to yourself to focus on what’s good for you and your family. This is a key of effective parenting – being able to identify your family needs.”
Before Purim, she added, parents must consider what aspect of the holiday they want their children to come away with. “What do we want our children to remember? Parents who spent countless hours planning extravagant mishloach manot but are too stressed to enjoy Purim with their children? Or parents who involved their children in the preparations, made them feel important enough by giving them their time and attention, and in the end were able to enjoy all the aspects of the holiday as a family? Purim, as do all the yamim tovim, provides us with a unique opportunity to focus on our families – what a wonderful gift that should not be squandered!”
And one Bergen County grandmother read the RCBC letter and determined that it did not go far enough. “Now they need to do the same thing for weddings and bar mitzvahs,” she said.