The Terumat Ha-deshen (111) comments that the obligation of mishloach manot on Purim was established in order to ensure that everybody has goods with which to enjoy a proper, lavish feast, as is required on Purim. Many have noted that this appears to be the view of the Rambam, as well. In Hilkhot Megilla (2:15), the Rambam delineates the requirements of the Purim feast, and then adds in that very same passage, “Likewise, a person is obligated to send two portions…to his fellow…” The Rambam incorporates the obligation of mishloach manot within his presentation of the laws relevant to the Purim feast, suggesting that these two mitzvot are interrelated, as mishloach manot is intended to help facilitate the feast. (Although one fulfills the mishloach manot obligation even by sending to a wealthy person, who does not need assistance, it has been suggested that this requirement is fundamentally geared towards assisting the needy, but in order not to bring shame to the poor, it was instituted as a general obligation to share food with others.)
In truth, however, there seems to be an important difference between the way the Terumat Ha-deshen’s explains this requirement and the Rambam’s formulation. Whereas the Terumat Ha-deshen understood mishloach manot as intended to facilitate the recipient’s fulfillment of the feasting obligation, the Rambam, curiously, seems to imply that sending mishloach manot is included within the sender’s requirement to feast. The Rambam in this passage lists the specific requirements of the mitzva to feast on Purim, and in this list he includes the obligation to send gifts of food to one’s fellow – suggesting that one must send mishloach manot not to help his fellow fulfill his mitzva to feast, but rather as part of his own mitzva to feast.
The explanation of the Rambam’s comments likely emerges from his famous remarks elsewhere, in Hilkhot Yom Tov (6:18), where he emphatically asserts that the obligation of simchat Yom Tov – rejoicing on Yom Tov – includes lending assistance to the needy. If one enjoys himself in the company of his family without sharing his blessings with others, the Rambam states, he experiences not “simchat mitzva” – joy that fulfills a mitzva – but rather “simchat kereiso” – “the joy of his stomach.” Indulging without sharing and helping is mere indulgence, which does not fulfill any religious requirement. In order for feasting to fulfill a halakhic requirement to celebrate, it must include charitable giving and sharing one’s joy with other people, for true joy, the Rambam writes, is achieved through bringing joy to those in need.
This notion appears to underlie the Rambam’s presentation of the mishloach manot obligation, as well. In order to properly feast on Purim, one must send gifts to other people. Our celebration, joy and festivity are incomplete, and even inappropriate, if they does not include mishloach manot, sharing our blessings with other people and looking out for those in need of assistance. We cannot experience the true joy of Purim simply by eating and drinking; we need to also show concern for, and lend assistance to, our fellow Jews, and only then will the special joy of the Purim celebration be complete and meaningful.
(Based on an article by Rav Avraham Yosef Schwartz in Ha-pardeis, February, 1993)