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The secret ‘shalach manot’ code

What if we use our gifts of food to engage our hidden selves in subtle conversation, and reveal what's behind our masks?
Illustrative. Purim mishloach manot. (iStock)
Illustrative. Purim mishloach manot. (iStock)

Mishloach manot, sending gifts of food on Purim, is a pleasant enough ritual. Delivering packages into each other’s hands as an expression of friendship or neighborliness. Reconciling with a former friend by leaving wine and cake at their door. Surprising a lonely muggle by apparating at their threshold with Butterbeer and chocolate frogs. Giving packages to IDF soldiers so they will be obese and out of shape when trying to defend the country. What could be better?

But this custom is not without its difficulties and shadows. Others have already written about poor shaming — the embarrassment of families who can’t afford to be lavish. And while some might love spending many hours baking and preparing, for others it’s very stressful and perhaps influenced by the need to keep up with the Cohens.

What was Queen Esther thinking, establishing a custom that fills our houses with inedible chametz (leavened food) a month before Passover? (She wasn’t thinking — she never had to make Pesach). Not to mention those of us trying to lose weight or reduce sugar intake, for whom to have sugary items delivered to the door is tantamount to a recovered alcoholic waking up on his birthday to find ribbon-wrapped whiskey and beer on his doorstep. Cheers, mate.

Even putting all this aside, it gets a little boring and samey, year after year.

But what if shalach manot went beyond the superficial? What if they symbolized something, in their composition, taught us something? The gemara in Megillah 7b tells the story of Rabbah who sent a shalach manot to Mari Bar Mar, of dates and dried grain, i.e., cheap and sweet foods. In return, Mari Bar Mar sent ginger and long peppers, i.e., expensive and sharp foods. There is discussion about what this means, but possibly a conversation is taking place between them, about the nature of Torah learning, or about themselves. I am sweet, you are sharp; or, You are sweet, I am sharp.

Thought-provoking as ever, Rabbi Natan of Breslov writes that mishloach manot are a communication of sorts, that they should contain hints that will cause profound enlightenment (though omitting to explain exactly how these hints are to be inserted amongst the hamantaschen). We find that God actually delivers messages through symbolic language, directing the prophet Jeremiah to look at an almond branch for the word for almond, shaqed, will remind him of God’s being shoqed (hastening) to fulfill the divine word.

So what if, in sending these shalach manot, rather than trying to expand our friends’ waistline or fill their houses with chametz, we were actually to communicate unsayable thoughts and feelings, in an oblique fashion? What if I reveal to you, in symbolic language, my own vulnerability, my hidden self, the one behind the mask? And if you in turn reveal yours, or somehow respond to mine?

What if I sent you a basket of lemons and horseradish, and you handed me in return bagels filled with Swiss cheese? What if a therapist sent hardtack and a politician sent lamb bacon? What if deprived singles sent tomatoes and eggplants, and the gender unclear sent oddly-shaped hamantaschen? What if the elderly sent expired yogurts and children sent green bananas? What if black people sent meringues and white people sent chocolate? Or both sent Oreos? What kind of subtle conversation might take place below the surface of the “Happy Purim!” clown faces and smileys?

Perhaps spies could send messages in code. Or people could propose marriage or make psychic predictions through these baskets. Would anyone understand?

I don’t really expect all this to happen, I am just mixing it up and imagining something beyond the banality of sugary treats, in a fit of “venahafoch hu” topsy-turvy Purim mischief.

But perhaps this year, slip a secret code into your basket, and see if anyone gets it. If they don’t, maybe it’s enough that you did.

Happy Purim!

PS: If you’re still reading, you might find this well-known joke apt for the topic:

One day, the pope decided that all the Jews had to vacate the area in which they lived. The Jews protested vigorously, so the pope made a deal.  He would have a religious debate with a member of the community, and whoever won would have their own way.

None of the Jews wanted to be the debater — it was too much responsibility. In the end, Moishie, a simple baker, said he would do it, on one condition: neither side would be allowed to talk. The pope agreed.

The day of the great debate came. The pope began by raising his hand and showing three fingers. Moishe raised one finger. The pope waved his fingers in a circle around his head. Moishe pointed to the ground. The pope pulled out a wafer and a glass of wine. Moishe pulled out an apple. The pope stood up and said, “This man has won. The Jews can stay.”

Then the cardinals gathered around the pope, and he explained what happened. “First I held up three fingers to represent the Trinity. He responded by holding up one finger to remind me that there was still one God common to both our religions. Then I waved my finger around me to show him that God was all around us. He responded by pointing to the ground and showing that God was also right here with us. I pulled out the wine and the wafer to show that God absolves us from our sins. He pulled out an apple to remind me of original sin. He had an answer for everything. What could I do?”

Meanwhile, the Jewish community had crowded around Moishe. “What happened?” they asked. Moishe said, “Well, first told me that we had three days to get out of here. I told him not one of us was leaving. Then he said that this whole city would be cleared of Jews. I let him know that we were staying right here. Then he took out his lunch — so what could I do? I took out mine.”

About the Author
Yael Unterman is a Jerusalem-based international author, lecturer, Bibliodrama facilitator and life coach. Her first book "Nehama Leibowitz, Teacher and Bible Scholar" was a finalist in the 2009 National Jewish Book Awards . Her second book, a collection of fictional stories, "The Hidden of Things: Twelve Stories of Love & Longing", was a finalist for the USA Best Book Awards. Contact Yael if you would like to participate in Bibliodrama sessions on Zoom.
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