Latest update: May 20th, 2013
In reading Parshat Zachor (Deut. 25:17-19) we fulfill the commandment to remember what the nation of Amalek did to us. The sages instituted its reading just before Purim in order to link this mitzvah to the feast day on which we celebrate the blotting out of Haman, who was of Amalekite genealogy.
In order to better understand both our relationship with the nation of Amalek and the great importance the Torah places on the remembrance of this nation’s evil acts, we must take note of the fact that there are three explicit Torah commandments dealing with Amalek.
The first commandment is to “Remember that which Amalek did to you on the way, while you were leaving Egypt” (Deut. 25:17). In addition to being commanded to remember what they did to us, we are commanded not to forget, as it is written: “Do not forget” (ibid. 19). Lastly, there is a positive mitzvah to obliterate the entire nation of Amalek from the world, as it is written, “And when God allows you to rest from all of your surrounding enemies, in the land which the Lord your God has given you as an inheritance to possess, obliterate all memory of Amalek from under the sky” (ibid.).
Since the reading of Parshat Zachor is a Torah-based commandment, great care is taken that it be read with exactness and incantation from a choice Torah scroll. It is preferable that each individual hear it in the incantation and pronunciation of his own family’s custom. But even if one hears it in a different incantation and pronunciation, he has fulfilled his obligation.
(There are conflicting opinions as to whether or not women are obligated to hear Parshat Zachor. Most authorities rule they need not hear it. Still, it is preferable they hear it, or at least read it to themselves.)
What did Amalek do to cause the Torah to take such an extreme stand, commanding us to “obliterate all memory of Amalek from under the sky”?
Amalek was the first anti-Semite. The nation of Israel has a problem in this world. It appears the faith-related and ideological message of the Jews causes the evil people of the world to attack us.
This is not the place for an in-depth examination of the motives of anti-Semites throughout history, yet one thing is certain: There has never been a nation in the world so hunted down as the nation of Israel. Ink and paper would run out before all the stories of evil done to our people by the nations could be told.
And all of this began with Amalek. At the very birth of our nation, while we were leaving Egypt and even before we had an opportunity to organize and unify ourselves, Amalek came and attacked us for no cause or reason.
Amalek is a nation that, by its very existence, gives expression to hatred of the people of Israel, and, in turn, to hatred of the Torah and of the idea of perfecting the world through God’s kingship. Therefore, the Torah commands us to wipe that nation out.
But while the Torah commands us to obliterate the nation of Amalek, once an individual Amalekite decides to take upon himself the fulfillment of the seven mitzvot of Noah’s sons, there is, according to Jewish law, no longer an obligation to kill him. The Rambam writes that it is forbidden to declare war on anybody without first attempting to settle things peacefully; if an adversary agrees to our peace terms – the main condition of which is the adversary’s acceptance of the seven mitzvot of Noah’s sons – then we are forbidden to attack.
That is, the obligation to kill the Amalekites only applies when they refuse to accept the fundamental mitzvot the Torah places upon the children of Noah: not to worship idols, not to commit adultery or incest, not to murder, not to steal, not to curse God, not to eat flesh from a living animal, and to establish courts of justice to rule ethically and justly. When an Amalekite takes these mitzvot upon himself, he is no longer considered an Amalekite but rather a son of Noah.
There are conflicting opinions among Torah authorities regarding the question of Amalekite conversion to Judaism. In the Mechilta, Rabbi Eliezer teaches that God swore by his Throne of Glory that if an Amalekite should come to convert, he would not be accepted.
Yet the Rambam appears to hold that it is permissible to receive a convert from the nation of Amalek, for, as the he explains in Mishneh Torah, any nation that converts, taking upon itself all the mitzvot of the Torah, becomes just like Israel – except for Ammon, Moab, Mitzrayim, and Edom. (Though these nations can convert, restrictions are placed on them when it comes to marrying Jewish women.)
In this light it is important to note that we are taught in the Talmud (Gittin 57b) that “the grandchildren of Haman the wicked taught Torah in [the city of] Bnei-Brak.”
In other words, it appears the grandchildren of Haman converted and even became leading disseminators of Torah.
There are those who explain that this was a case where a Torah court, not in keeping with Jewish law, accepted these Amalekite converts – but that once they were accepted their conversions became completely valid and from them came leading disseminators of Torah.
Another explanation is that an Amalekite raped a Jewish woman, and she gave birth to a child who, because his mother was Jewish, was considered Jewish. This opinion does not view the story of Haman’s grandchildren as proof that Amalekites may convert.
Still another possibility is that we are dealing with an Amalekite who took on himself the seven mitzvot of Noah’s sons, leaving his people and joining another. After becoming integrated into this other nation, one of his children decided to convert to Judaism, and from him came leading disseminators of Torah.
In any case, it is imperative that all Jews take the opportunity this week to “remember that which Amalek did to you….”
About the Author: Rabbi Eliezer Melamed, a leader of Israel’s religious-Zionist community, is dean of Yeshiva Har Bracha and a prolific author on Jewish Law. His books “The Laws of Prayer,” “The Laws of Passover” and “Nation, Land, Army” are being translated into English. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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