ANONYMOUS PURIM GIFTS

Following the victory over would-be assailants, the Jewish inhabitants of the Persian Empire celebrated with feasting and gift giving (Esther 9:19) which, according to Mordechai’s decree, would be repeated annually (Esther 9:22).  Gift giving took two forms: the sending of gifts between friends (mishlo-ah manot) and gifts to the poor (matanot l’evyonim).  From parsing the Hebrew text, Rabbi Joseph (Megillah 7a) deduced two rules.  First, to fulfill the obligation of gift giving, two portions must be given to one friend since portions (manot) are plural and friend (re-ehu) is singular.  And second, to fulfill the obligation of providing for the poor, two gifts must be given to two poor people since the Hebrew for both gifts (matanot) and poor people (evyonim) is plural and the minimum plural is two.  Giving above and beyond these minima is laudatory, but not required (cf. Rabbi Joseph Karo, Shulhan Arukh, Orah Hayyim 695:4).

While gift giving to the poor is later understood to mean a monetary gift (Bava Metzi’a 78b; Rabbi Joseph Karo, op. cit., 694:3), gift giving to a friend has generally been understood to mean food exclusively (Rabbi Yehiel Michel Epstein, Arukh HaShulhan, Orah Hayyim 695:14; yet cf. Rabbi Yehudah Ashkenazi of Tiktin, Ba’er Hetev, Orah Hayyim 695, sub-section 7 for exceptions).  Thus the two portions must be two different kinds of food, and difference is determined by what blessing would be recited before eating them.  Gifts to the poor are better given anonymously (Maimonides, Mishneh Torah, Gifts to the Poor 10:8) so presumably the same advice would apply on Purim.

When it comes to gifts given to friends, it seems that anonymity is not required.  The Talmud (Megillah 7a) reports that third century Rabbi Oshaya was well aware that the Purim gift of select meat and a barrel of wine came from Rabbi Yehudah Nesi’ah since Rabbi Oshaya sends back word to Rabbi Yehudah that he has fulfilled the Scriptural obligation.  And from the ensuing story (Megillah 7b), it is clear that while Abaye served as an agent for the exchange of gifts between Rabbah and Mari bar Mar, each was aware of the other.  Moreover, from the fact that Abaye ben Abin and Rabbi Hananiah ben Abin used to exchange meals on Purim they surely knew that the other was giving and what the other was giving.

Later sources will often speak of the use of agents in the delivery of gifts to friends (cf. e.g. Rabbi Yehiel Michel Epstein, op. cit., 695:14-17).  But this is a concession to the busy lives that people lead rather than a statement of Jewish law.  That is to say, agents were not appointed to deliver mishlo-ah manot because the gift giving was required to be anonymous.  Agents were appointed simply because it made life easier, freeing up more time for the celebrations of Purim.   Moreover, since, according to Rabbi Epstein (op. cit., 695:13) the reason for giving gifts to friends is to add to the happiness of the day, knowing from whom the gift has come – particularly when it comes from someone who is respected (like Rabbi Yehudah Nesi’ah, the political head of the Jewish community in Israel) better serves that purpose. 

Consequently, Purim gifts to the poor should be anonymous.  But gifts given to friends need not be.