It is a mitzva for each and every Jew to give matanot la-evyonim on Purim. In order to fulfill this mitzva, one must give a minimum of two gifts – one each to two poor people – but it is praiseworthy to give more. The gift may be money or a food item, but not clothing or books, as some say that the gifts must be items that one can enjoy at the Purim se’uda. As such, one should give food items or money that can be used to purchase food. While the gift must be something that can contribute to the Purim feast, the poor person may do with the gift as he pleases. He is not obligated to use the gift specifically as part of his Purim feast (sa 694:1, Rema ad loc. 2, mb ad loc. 2).
Each gift must be worth the amount of money that could be used to purchase ordinary foods that would satiate a person eating a small, simple meal – for example, a sandwich. To discharge one’s obligation, one can give an amount of money that would purchase about three slices of bread for each gift (in Israel, this is about one shekel). This amount of bread is approximately equivalent to the volume of three eggs, which is enough to minimally satisfy a person. However, giving more matanot la-evyonim is praiseworthy (see below, section 8).
One may not count matanot la-evyonim toward the ma’aser kesafim he owes, as one may not fulfill this obligation with money that he is anyway required to give to charity. However, one may set aside the minimum amount of money per gift and then add to and increase the sum with ma’aser kesafim money.
An evyon is defined by halakha as a poor person who has insufficient funds for his family’s essential needs, as defined by the time and place in which he lives. There were times when a person who had bread to eat and two sets of clothes to wear was not considered poor, whereas today even one who has four sets of clothes and bread and cheese to eat is still considered poor.
One may give matanot la-evyonim even to a poor child, on condition that he is sufficiently intelligent not to lose the money. If one gives the equivalent of two gifts to a poor couple, he fulfills his obligation to give a minimum of two gifts. Similarly, if one gives the equivalent of two gifts to a widow and her young son who is dependent on her, he fulfills his obligation. However, one who gives two gifts to a single poor person does not fulfill his obligation, even if he gives the gifts one after the other, because one must give to two poor people.
If one does not know two poor people, or if he is embarrassed to give them gifts, he should give his matanot la-evyonim to a reputable gabbai tzedaka (charity fund manager) to distribute to the poor on his behalf. The gabbai must attempt to give these gifts to the poor in a way that will enhance their joy at the Purim meal.
. In the past, gabba’ei tzedaka would purchase calves and slaughter them for the poor people’s Purim meal. They were not permitted to purchase fewer calves in order to leave money over for the other needs of the poor. Rather, they would prepare an abundant amount of food for the Purim meal, and if there was extra money left over, they would direct it toward the other needs of the poor after Purim (bm 78b; sa 694:2).