Yesterday, we noted the Gemara’s brief account in Masekhet Megilla (7b) of two Amoraim who would fulfill the mishloach manot obligation on Purim by “exchanging meals.” Rashi, as we saw, explained this to mean that they celebrate the Purim feast together every year, each hosting on alternating years. The Rambam, however, in Hilkhot Megilla (2:15), appears to have understood the Gemara’s account differently. He writes that if a person is poor and cannot afford food for mishloach manot, he can fulfill the mitzva by sending his meal to another person, who then sends his own food to the first individual. This way, they both give somebody else food – as required by the mishloach manot obligation – in a way that ensures their having what to eat. The Rambam’s ruling is likely based on the Gemara’s account of the two sages who would “exchange meals,” which he seems to have understood to mean not they alternated hosting, but that they literally exchanged their meals on Purim, as this was the only way they could fulfill the obligation of mishloach manot. This is, indeed, how the Ran (Megilla 3b in the Rif) interpreted the Gemara’s account.
These different readings of the Gemara’s remark become relevant in the context of the discussion among the poskim as to whether one must send mishloach manot via a messenger. The expression “mishloach manot,” which is used by the Megilla itself in establishing this requirement (9:22), means “sending portions [of food],” which appears to indicate a requirement to specifically send food to somebody, as opposed to bringing it oneself. The question as to whether this is indeed the case was raised by Rav Yaakov Ettlinger, in his Binyan Tziyon (44). After expressing his amazement at the silence of earlier scholars regarding this question, Rav Ettlinger concludes that one fulfills the obligation by personally bringing mishloach manot to one’s fellow, though he raises the possibility that there might be a halakhic preference to sending it with a third party.
A number of writers noted that according to Rashi’s interpretation of the account of the sages who would “exchange meals,” it seems clear that in his view, one does not have to send food to fulfill the mishloach manot obligation. After all, Rashi understood that these rabbis fulfilled the mitzva by sharing their food with each other, and eating it together. No food was sent with a third party (or at all), and so necessarily, in Rashi’s view, one does not have to send the mishloach manot via a messenger. The Rambam, however, writes of the practice of two people “sending” their food to one another, which would imply that the food must, in fact, be sent, and not delivered personally.
Different theories have been advanced to explain why the mishloach manot obligation would not require sending the food, as suggested by the word “mishloach.” Rav Ettlinger proposes that the obligation was formulated in this manner to indicate that one fulfills the obligation even if his fellow does not accept the gift. Had the Megilla written that one must “give” food to his fellow, this would imply that the food must be accepted for the obligation to be fulfilled. It therefore formulated the obligation as a requirement to “send” food, establishing that one satisfies the obligation by sending or bringing the food, regardless of whether the intended recipient actually agrees to receive it.
Another approach was suggested by Rav Yehuda Assad (Yehuda Ya’aleh, vol. 1, O.C. 207), who writes that if the obligation was formulated as a requirement to “give” food, one might have concluded that it is preferable to bring the gift oneself. The famous halakhic principle of “mitzva bo yoter mi-bi-shlucho” establishes a preference for personally performing a mitzva, even a mitzva which can be fulfilled via an agent. Rav Yehuda Assad claims that the Megilla formulated the mishloach manot obligation with the term “mishloach” to instruct that sending a gift is equivalent to personally bringing a gift, as both achieve the same purpose of sharing food with one’s fellow, and thus there is no preference to personally bringing the gift over sending it via a messenger.
According to both these theories, the word “mishloach” should not be understood as requiring one to specifically send mishloach manot, as opposed to bringing it personally.