Basket-Making 101

It’s no secret that Jews love food: We love to prepare it, eat it, and, mostly, make other people eat it. Many of our holidays revolve around a festive meal of some sort, filled with traditional delicacies. Purim, which falls this year on March 20, is no exception.

Most people are familiar with hamantashen, the delicious triangle-shaped pastries filled with everything from poppy seeds to apricot jelly. A lesser-known but even more significant food-related Purim tradition involves delivering food to others. What could be more Jewish?

Mishloach manot — literally “meal delivery” or “sending of portions” — are baskets of food that are prepared for and delivered to friends and family on Purim. It is a mitzvah to provide mishloach manot, and in order to properly perform the mitzvah, a person must create and deliver at least one basket. There are also specific guidelines to be used when preparing mishloach manot: Each basket must contain at least two different food items, the items must be ready-to-eat (no cooking necessary), and the baskets must be hand-delivered on Purim.

Of course, there are many ways to fulfill the mitzvah, and some people like to get a little creative. Baskets can include chocolates, fruit, nuts, smoked salmon, bagels, cookies, pastries — even wine and spirits.

Many families and Jewish organizations have their own traditions surrounding mishloach manot. For the past 10 years, Conejo Jewish Day School in Thousand Oaks has involved its students, faculty, staff and parents in an annual Purim Shuttle, which is part fundraiser, part community-building activity.

“The Purim Shuttle is an opportunity to collaborate and save on waste,” says Rabbi Eli Broner, principal of Conejo Jewish Day School.

The shuttle works like this: People sign up to purchase a basket from parent volunteers. The baskets contain various items and a personalized scroll, which lists all of the people who contributed to the basket. In past years, baskets have also included student-produced artwork, poems or crosswords in Hebrew. Parents then divvy up the driving duties to deliver the assembled gift baskets to recipients.

Broner says the school is careful to inform the students of one fact: “These baskets do not count toward performing the mitzvah of mishloach manot.”

Mishloach manot must be personally delivered on Purim. The tradition dates back to ancient times when the baskets were symbolic of the Jews expressing goodwill toward one another, and to make sure that everyone had adequate food for the Purim feast.

“I think it helps the kids get excited about the holiday of Purim,” says Broner, referring to the shuttle program. “It helps them realize that excitement can come not only from receiving, but from giving. The holiday is about giving … and caring about one another. [Mishloach manot] tells the recipient, ‘I’ve taken the time and consideration to care about you.’ That’s the most important lesson kids can learn from this mitzvah.”

Students at Conejo Jewish Day School also participate in a Secret Mishloach Manot exchange: Each student picks a name and creates a basket for his or her recipient. “This way, everyone receives a basket,” Broner says. An additional way the school uses mishloach manot to give back: Some years, the students create and send baskets to senior living facilities in the area.

To those who’ve never before participated in the mitzvah, Broner says getting together with family and friends to create and distribute mishloach manot helps people feel connected.

“Yes, we are appreciative for the wonderful miracle of Purim, but we don’t show appreciation just by partying,” Broner says. “We can pay it forward. This is where it goes into action.”