by R. Gil Student
On Purim, we send gifts of food to friends, in fulfillment of the verse “U-mishlo’ach manos ish le-rei’ehu, and of sending portions a man to his fellow” (Esther 9:22). Mishlo’ach manos is one of the mitzvos of Purim. We fulfill it by sending two different food items to one person, although it is common to send to many more people. How should families handle this obligation? Within a married couple, is each spouse required to give their own separate mishlo’ach manos? Before we address that question, we have to ask whether a woman is obligated at all. Mishlo’ach manos has become a mitzvah that women in particular embrace, yet there is a debate whether they are even obligated in it.
I. Positive Time-Bound Mitzvos
Rav Moshe Isserles (Rema, 16th cen., Poland; Shulchan Arukh, Orach Chaim 695:4) Mahari Brin who writes that women are obligated in mishlo’ach manos but does not explain why. Normally, women are exempt from time-bound positive mitzvos. I am not sure who Mahari Brin is. I doubt it is Rav Yisrael of Bruna (15th cen., Germany) because I did not find anything resembling this ruling in his responsa.
Rav Ya’akov de Castro (16th cen., Egypt; Eirekh Lechem, ad loc.) disagrees with Rema, pointing out that no major halakhic authority prior to Rema followed this practice. Because he was misquoted by later authorities, I quote here his precise words: “It does not seem like that to me from the words of the Talmud and also none of the famous authorities did not practice this way (kol ha-posekim ha-mefursamim gam lo nahagu kein.” Rav Chizkiyahu de Silva (17th cen., Israel; Pri Chadash, ad loc.) proves that women are not obligated in mishlo’ach manos from the verse itself, which says that a man sends it to his fellow (“ish le-rei’ehu”). The verse could have used a term that is gender neutral but instead says “man” to imply that women are exempt from this mitzvah.
II. Part of the Miracle
Rav Ya’akov Reischer (18th cen., Germany; Responsa Shevus Ya’akov 1:41) responds to these criticisms to defend Rema’s view. He says that women are obligated in mishloa’ach manos for the same reason they are obligated to hear megillah — they were part of the miraculous salvation (Megillah 4a). Just like women are obligated in the four cups of the Pesach seder and Chanukah lights because they were part of the miracle (Pesachim 108a; Shabbos 22a), so too they are obligated in reading megillah and performing the other mitzvos of Purim.
About all of this, the Bible says “the Jews took on themselves to do” (Esther 9:23, 27). “The Jews” includes both men and women. If so, why does the verse specify a man? Rav Reischer compares it honoring your parents. The Torah says, “Ish imo ve-aviv tira’u, You shall fear every man his mother and father” (Lev. 19:3). The Gemara (Kiddushin 30b) explains that both a man and a woman are obligated to honor and fear their parents. However, the Torah specifies a man because usually a woman does not always have the ability do so. Sometimes she does not have the financial means to honor her parents because communal funds of the family typically are under the husband’s control. Here, too, argues Rav Reischer, a woman is not specified with regard to mishlo’ach manos because her husband controls the money but nevertheless, she is still obligated.
III. Men and Women
Rav Ya’akov Emden (She’eilas Ya’avetz 1:120, 2:68:2) points out that the word ish does not necessarily exclude women. For example, regarding the preparation of the ashes of the red heifer, the Bible says “ve-asaf ish tahor, and a man that is clean shall gather [the ashes]” (Num. 19:9). The Gemara (Yoma 43a) learns from the word ish that even someone who is not a kohen can gather the ashes and from the word tahor that even a woman can do it. Very often we find the word ish understood as excluding a minor, i.e. requiring an adult, whether male or female.
Additionally, the verse says not just that the Jews accepted Purim on themselves but also on their descendants (zaram, literally their seed). This includes all descendants, male and female. With this, Rav Reischer and Rav Emden defend Rema’s ruling that women are obligated in mishlo’ach manos against the criticisms of Rav de Castro (Maharikash) and Rav de Silva (Pri Chadash).
IV. Women’s Ability to Give
Rav Chaim Yosef David Azulai (Chida, 18th cen., Israel; Birkei Yosef, Orach Chaim 695:8) responds on behalf of Rav Castro and Rav de Silva. When it says that “the Jews” accepted on themselves the day of Purim, Chida says that this only refers to observing the day as a holiday. We can see this from the fact that the Gemara had to learn that women are obligated to hear the megillah from the fact that they were part of the miracle. Why doesn’t the Gemara just say that women are part of “the Jews” who accepted the mitzvah?
When it says that the Torah specifies a man regarding honoring and fearing parents because a woman is not always able to do so, the Gemara is not referring to control of money. Tosafos (Kiddushin 30b s.v. she-yeish) explain that a woman lives with her husband and might not be anywhere near her parents. Tosafos say that the rule about communal money being under the husband’s control (as the default in a marriage unless they arrange to the contrary) is a rabbinic decree to prevent marital strife and could not be the reason for a biblical law. Similar, argues Chida, the usage of the word ish in the book of Esther could not have been due to the rabbinic decree unless you assume that the rabbinic decree predates Mordechai, which is a big assumption.
However, Rav Moshe Sofer (19th cen., Hungary; Responsa Chasam Sofer, Orach Chaim, no. 196) explains that a husband is biblically obligated to provide food for his wife (see Ramban, Ex. 21:9). A woman may not have food to give away because she is supported regarding food by her husband. Therefore, the verse says ish about mishlo’ach manos. However, really a woman is obligated in the mitzvah, as explained by Rav Reischer above.
Rav Yosef Zechariah Stern (19th cen., Lithuania; Responsa Zeikher Yehosef, Orach Chaim 252; Tahalukhos Ha-Aggados, ch. 27) argues that sometimes ish is understood to exclude a minor and sometimes to exclude a woman. With a dizzying list of examples throughout the Talmud, midrash and commentators, he shows the inability to predict how the word will be interpreted. It is improper for us to force a reading into the verse and conduct our own exegesis of the text, as Rav de Silva did in order to argue that women are exempt from mishlo’ach manos.
It would seem from the above that Ashkenazim hold that women are obligated to give mishloa’ach manos, following the Rema and all his Ashkenazim defenders. Likewise, Sephardim hold that women are exempt from the mitzvah, following the Sephardic sages Maharikash, Pri Chadash and Chida. However, the Vilna Gaon (18th cen., Lithuania; Commentary to Shulchan Arukh, ad loc.) rules like Pri Chadash that women are exempt, even though most Ashkenazim follow Rema. Rav Ovadiah Yosef (21st cen., Israel; Chazon Ovadiah, Purim, Dinei Mishlo’ach Manos, par. 14) rules like Rema and in a footnote defends at length the view that women are obligated to give mishloa’ach manos. Exactly how women should give, whether giving together with their husband suffices, requires more discussion that I hope to address in the near future.