The Three Mitzvot Concerning the Obliteration of Amalek
Three mitzvot in the Torah relate to Amalek. The first is a positive commandment to remember what Amalek did to us, as it says, Remember what Amalek did to you on the way when you were leaving Egypt(Devarim 25:17). The second is a negative commandment not to forget what Amalek did to us, as it says, Do not forget (ibid. 25:19). The third is a positive commandment to eradicate Amalek’s offspring from the world, as it says, It shall be that when the Lord your God gives you rest from all your enemies around, in the Land that the Lord your God gives you as an inheritance to possess it, you shall obliterate the remembrance of Amalek from under the heavens (ibid.).
The Amalekite people symbolize the root of evil in the world, and they introduced Jew-hatred to mankind. The Jewish people face a difficult struggle in this world. The idealistic, faith-based message that HaShem destined to Israel incites all the evildoers of the world to go out and fight against us. No other nation has been persecuted as much as we have been: from the destruction of the Temple through the Crusades, the Inquisition, the Chmielnicki Uprising of 1648-49, culminating in the horrific Holocaust that ravaged our nation. Amalek started it all.
Right after we left Egypt, even before we had a chance to coalesce and organize ourselves, Amalek came and attacked us, without any provocation or reason. And who did he attack? Slaves who were going free after an extended period of servitude. Amalek is the nation that embodies hatred of Israel, and consequently, hatred of Torah and the godly concept of universal rectification through kindness and truth. This is why the verse says, For the hand [of God] is on the throne (כס) of God (י-ה), [saying] the Lord will [wage] war against Amalek from generation to generation (Shemot 17:16). Rashi comments, “The Holy One, blessed be He, swore that His name (י-ה-ו-ה) and His throne (כסא) will be incomplete until the name of Amalek is utterly obliterated.”
Jews are naturally kind and compassionate, and many mitzvot in the Torah cultivate such traits within us. We would, therefore, be inclined to forgive Amalek [for his misdeeds], but the Torah commands us to remember what he did and obliterate him. This way, we will remember that there is evil in the world, against which we must fight to the bitter end, without compromise. Only then will we be able to perfect the world.
The Mitzvah to Wipe Out Amalek
The mitzvah to destroy Amalek is mainly incumbent upon Klal Yisrael (the Jewish nation as a whole). Thus, our Sages taught that the Jews were commanded to fulfill three mitzvoth upon entering the Land of Israel: first, to appoint a king over them; afterwards, to wipe out the seed of Amalek; and then, to build the Holy Temple (Sanhedrin 20b).
Indeed, after the Jews merged together in their Land, they appointed King Shaul, and after his kingdom stabilized, the prophet Shmuel approached Shaul and said to him, The Lord sent me to anoint you as king over His people, over Israel; therefore, hear now the voice of the Lord’s words. So says the Lord of Hosts, “I have remembered what Amalek did to Israel, how he set [an ambush] against him on the way, as he [Israel] went up from Egypt. Now go and smite Amalek and destroy everything he has; have no mercy on him; kill both man and woman, infant and suckling, ox and sheep, camel and donkey”(I Shmuel 15:1-3).
However, King Shaul did not fulfill the mitzvah properly, taking pity on Agag, King of Amalek, and the best of the sheep and cattle. As a result, HaShem took the kingdom away from him and gave it to David. Nevertheless, the damage was already done, and it was devastating. Because of Shaul’s weakness and compassion, many Amalekites survived, and they continued harassing Israel. A few years later, a band of Amalekites attacked Tziklag, where the families of David and his men lived, burning down the city and taking all the women and children captive. With God’s help, David and his men managed to rescue the captives and vanquish the marauders. But since David was not yet king and did not have the army of Israel at his disposal, he was unable to eradicate them. Four hundred youths rode on camels and escaped (I Shmuel 30). Apparently, other groups of Amalekites survived elsewhere, but despite his efforts David was unable to battle and destroy them all, even after he became king, because they were spread out far and wide. Chazal also tell us that because Shaul procrastinated in killing Agag, Agag’s seed was preserved – [he impregnated a woman from his prison cell before being killed] – eventually resulting in the birth of Haman the Aggagite, who attempted to wipe out the Jewish people (Megillah13a).
Even though the mitzvah to eradicate Amalek is mainly incumbent upon the community, every individual Jew is commanded to fulfill it, as well. Therefore, if a Jew meets an Amalekite, and has the ability to kill him, but refrains from doing so, he has neglected this mitzvah (Sefer HaChinuch 604). The descendants of Amalek are currently unknown, but if one would ascertain that a particular person is an Amalekite, who follows their ways, it would be a mitzvah to kill him.
Our Sages instituted the reading of Parashat Zachor once a year in order to fulfill the biblical commandments to remember and not forget the evil deeds of Amalek. One is considered to have forgotten about Amalek only if a year goes by without remembering him. Therefore, we discharge our obligation by mentioning the matter once a year. We read Zachor on the Sabbath before Purim in order to juxtapose the remembering of Amalek to the destruction of his descendent, Haman.
According to biblical law, one must communicate this remembrance verbally. There is no need, however, for every individual to read Parashat Zachor from a Torah scroll; rather, everyone fulfills the mitzvah by hearing the reader chant the verses from the Torah.
According to some of the greatest Rishonim, the Torah commands us to read Parashat Zachor from the Torah scroll itself [as opposed to a printed Chumash]. Therefore, it is advisable to read it from an exceptional Torah scroll, and the reader must try to read it as meticulously as possible.
Preferably, everyone should hear Zachor read according to the melody and pronunciation to which his family is accustomed. From a halachic standpoint, however, members of all the communities may discharge their obligation by hearing it read according to any version accepted among the Jewish people, whether it be Sefardic, Ashkenazic, or Yemenite.
One who finds himself in a place where there is no minyan (a quorum of ten) should read Zachor from a Torah scroll without a minyan. And if no Torah scroll is available, he should read it from a Chumash or a Siddur.
Mitzvot require intent; therefore, one must have intention to fulfill the mitzvah of remembering Amalek’s deeds when reading or hearing Parashat Zachor. It is a good practice for the gabbai (synagogue attendant) or reader to announce this before commencing the reading.
Are Women Obligated to Hear Parashat Zachor?
According to most poskim (Jewish law arbiters), women are exempt from the mitzvah of remembering Amalek, because this mitzvah is connected to the mitzvah of annihilating Amalek, and since women are not commanded to wage war, they need not remember what Amalek did to us (Sefer HaChinuch 603). Others claim that the mitzvah to wage war applies to women, as well, for they are required to assist the soldiers. Therefore, they, too, are obligated to remember Amalek. And even though the Sages established a fixed time for reading Parashat Zachor – the Sabbath before Purim – it has no time limit according to Torah law. Thus, it is a mitzvah independent of time, and women are obligated to perform it (Minchat Chinuch, ibid.).
Practically speaking, women are exempt from hearing Parashat Zachor. Ideally (le’chatchilah), however, women should hear the reading, and many are accustomed to doing so. A woman who finds it difficult to attend the services, but nevertheless wants to fulfill the mitzvah, should read the parashah herself from a Chumash. After all, many authorities hold that this fulfills the biblical requirement to remember Amalek. If there is a class for women in the synagogue, a man may take out a Torah scroll and read Zachorfor them. Even though no minyan is present, it is commendable for them to hear the parashah from a kosher Torah scroll.
Can an Amalekite Save Himself or Convert to Judaism?
Even though the Torah commands us to wipe out the descendants of Amalek, if one of them agrees to keep the seven Noachide laws, he no longer has the status of an Amalekite, and it is forbidden to kill him. The seven Noachide laws are as follows: the prohibitions against idolatry, adultery, murder, theft, blasphemy, and eating the limbs of a live animal; and the obligation to set up a court system that will adjudicate all interpersonal disputes justly.
Moreover, even if the Amalekites do not volunteer to keep the seven Noachide laws, we are commanded to offer them peace before going to war with them. That is, we offer them the opportunity to adopt the seven Noachide laws and agree to be subservient to the Jewish people, including the payment of tributes. If they accept these conditions of peace, we do not wage war against them. If they refuse, however, we fight them to the finish. Even if they reconsider afterwards and beg for peace, we do not accept them, for once the war has begun we fight them until they are annihilated (Rambam, Hilchot Melachim 6:1-4, with Kesef Mishnah).
The poskim dispute whether or not we accept an Amalekite who wants to convert to Judaism. The Rambam (Hilchot Issurei Bi’ah 12:17) holds that he may convert. Accordingly, Chazal state that descendants of Haman, himself a descendant of Amalek, taught Torah in B’nei Brak (Gittin 57b, Sanhedrin 96b). Clearly, our forebears accepted converts from Amalek.
Others assert that we do not accept Amalekite converts. This is Rabbi Eliezer’s opinion in the Mechilta (end of BeShalach). He relates that HaShem swore by His glorious throne that an Amalekite who comes to convert will not be accepted. And what about Chazal‘s statement that Haman’s descendants taught Torah in B’nei Brak? We must say that this happened by mistake: a beit din (rabbinic court) converted someone without knowing that he was from Amalek. Alternatively, an Amalekite from the wicked Haman’s lineage raped a Jewish woman, and those Torah teachers from B’nei Brak descended from her son, who was considered a Jew (Resisei Laylah 38:5).
The Fast of Esther
All Jews have a custom, originating in the Gaonic period, to fast on the thirteenth of Adar in commemoration of the fasts that Esther observed before approaching King Achashveirosh to annul the decree (Esther 4:16) and the fast that the Jews observed on the thirteenth of Adar of that year. The wicked Haman decreed that all Jews – young and old, men, women, and children – be destroyed, killed, annihilated, and plundered on the thirteenth of Adar. Thanks to the Purim miracle, the hanging of Haman, and the rise of Mordechai and Esther, King Achashveirosh issued a second letter allowing the Jews to defend themselves and kill their enemies on that same day. The original decree, however, was not rescinded, because any decree written and signed by the king could not be annulled. Therefore, the enemies of Israel also had permission to kill the Jews. In other words, the kingdom established the thirteenth of Adar as the day on which the anti-Semites could destroy the Jews, but the Jews were permitted to fight back. And even though Mordechai was the king’s viceroy, the Jews were still in grave danger and in need of divine mercy, to help them overcome and kill their enemies. Therefore, the Jews who could not fight stirred themselves to repentance and fasted that day, as is Israel’s practice in times of trouble. And there is no greater penitence than that achieved by way of fasting, which purifies man’s material side and returns his spirituality to its natural, central place.
In commemoration of this fast, the Jewish people fast on the thirteenth of Adar every year. We still have enemies who want to destroy us and we still need to fast and repent every year anew.
In general, the laws of Ta’anit Esther (the Fast of Esther) are more lenient than those of the other minor fasts, because the other fasts were instituted by the Rabbis, while the Fast of Esther was established in consideration of Jewish custom. In practice, though, there is almost no difference between them.
The laws regarding the prayers and Torah-reading on Ta’anit Esther, for both Shacharit and Minchah, are the same as those of all the minor fasts. The only difference is that we omit Tachanun and Avinu Malkeinu from Minchah (according to Ashkenazim, who usually say Avinu Malkeinu on fast days in both Shacharit and Minchah), seeing that it is the day before Purim (M.B. 131:33). When the thirteenth of Adar coincides with Shabbat, we fast on the Thursday before, and since the fast is not on the eve of Purim, we pray Minchah as on all other fasts.
In Commemoration of the Half-Shekel
People customarily give charity in the month of Adar in commemoration of the half-shekel that the Jews used to donate to the Temple, in Adar, for the purpose of buying communal offerings. The best time to give this charity is immediately before Minchah on Ta’anit Esther, so that the charity can combine with the fast and achieve atonement (M.B.694:4, K.H.C. 25).
Some have a custom to give a coin that equals half of the local currency [e.g., half a dollar, half a pound, etc.], while others give three such coins, corresponding to the three times it says terumah (donation) in Parashat Shekalim (Rema 694:1). The common coin in Israel today is the shekel, so, according to this custom, one should donate three half-shekel coins.
Some are accustomed to giving the equivalent of the original half-shekel, which is approximately ten grams of pure silver (K.H.C. 694:20). All of the customs are valid, and the more charity one gives the more blessing he receives.
Some hold that this custom applies only to men above the age of twenty, because they were obligated in this mitzvah in Temple times (Rema). Others say that boys above the age of thirteen must uphold this custom, as well (Tosafot Yom Tov). A third opinion believes that one should give a donation in commemoration of the half-shekel for young children, too (Eliyah Rabbah, M.B. 694:5). Still others maintain that even women should give the half-shekel donation (K.H.C. 694:27). This is the most prevalent custom today, to donate at least one half-shekel for every member of the house, even an unborn fetus.
One should not use ma’aser kesafim money [one-tenth of one’s earnings set aside for charity] for this donation, for one is not allowed to fulfill an obligatory mitzvah or custom using ma’aser kesafim funds. However, one who has always performed the half-shekel commemoration according to the most stringent view and is now pressed for funds, making it difficult to uphold his custom without relying on ma’aser kesafim, may perform the mitzvah with his own money, according to the more lenient opinion – that is, a half-shekel per male above the age of twenty – and make up the rest with ma’aser kesafim money.
This article is taken from one of Rabbi Melamed’s books on Jewish law and thought, “Peninei Halakha: Z’manim”, which can be found online for free, along with all his books in the “Peninei Halakha” series in Hebrew, and a number of books already translated into French, Russian, Spanish, and English, at:
http://ph.yhb.org.il/en/ In addition, there is a Q&A site at: https://www.facebook.com/HalakhaQA/ We hope, please God, to complete the translations as soon as possible. Anyone who would like to take part in this monumental project can contribute at: https://www.jgive.com/en/external_pages/charity_donate?charity_organization_id=636¤cy=USD