The festival of Purim will be observed this week, with a series of main mitzvot (commandments). And in true Jewish fashion, two of those deal with food.
The first two commandments are to read the Megillah–which relates the story of Esther, Mordechai, Ahashverus, and the evil Haman–and to enjoy a festive meal. The other two both involve giving to others, with one specifically requiring food.
The idea of misloach manot, or “sending of portions,” says that gifts of food should be sent between Jews on Purim. It comes straight from scripture: the Book of Esther states that the Jews of Shushan celebrated their deliverance by making “the 14th day of the month of Adar a day of gladness and feasting, a holiday, and of sending portions to one another.”
Due to the particular phrasing, “sending portions,” several customs have sprung up around the practice. “Portions” has come to mean ready-to-eat servings of more than one food item. And “sending” suggests that the gifts should be delivered by a third party, such as children, although it is acceptable to deliver the food oneself.
Jews are generally expected to send at least one gift, and this practice is intended to be between Jews. One theory states that it shows Jewish unity, refuting Haman’s accusation that the Jews were “a scattered and divided nation.”
But the final commandment, matanot l’evyonim (gifts to the poor) can and should be delivered to anyone. The gifts do not have to be food–they can be monetary or goods. But food is certainly an appropriate gift, and some stipulate that these gifts are meant to ensure that everyone can partake of the festive Purim meal.