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Remembering Amalek Constructively and Meaningfully by Yaakov Bieler

March 1, 2012 by  
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Another context for the struggle between Yaakov and Eisav

According to Rabbinic tradition, the Purim festival marks not only an historical occasion when Jews overcame anti-Semitism[1] and assimilation[2] and asserted their religious and cultural identities,[3] but it also constitutes a manifestation of the eternal struggle between the paradigmatic forces of Yaakov and Eisav. The tug-of-war for spiritual and physical superiority between these key Biblical personalities begins according to the Rabbis in utero (!)  (Beraishit 25:22-23),[4] underlies the “selling” of the birthright (25:29-34),[5] and comes to a head with the misappropriation of a father’s blessing (27:1 ff.).[6]  The competition and outright enmity between Yitzchak and Rivka’s children is understood to persist not only throughout the fraternal twins’ own lifetimes,[7] but well into the future, with their spiritual descendants continuing the struggle down through the ages.[8]

Purim practices as a fulfillment of the Mitzva to obliterate the memory of Amalek.

                Haman, at least figuratively, if not literally,[9]  is assumed to be the descendent of Amalek, who in turn is the progeny of Eisav/Edom (Beraishit 37:1, 12). Therefore by the Jewish people, i.e., Bnai YAAKOV, publicly reading Megillat Esther on Purim, we might not only be fulfilling the general religious principle of Pirsumei Nisa (publicizing Divine miracles) which equally would apply to activities like recounting the details of the Exodus on the first nights of Pesach,[10] lighting the Chanukia on Chanuka,[11] and sitting in the Sukka on Sukkot,[12] but also, at least by inference, the more specific requirement of our need to paradoxically[13] remember Amalek in order to obliterate both his treachery as well as his opposition to HaShem’s Ascendency in the world—see Shemot 17:16.

Fulfilling the Commandment to destroy the memory of Amalek verbally outside the context of Purim.

                However, since the connection between Haman and Amalek is implied rather than clearly stated in the biblical text, no one suggests that reading the Megilla on Purim, which according to Megilla 18a is mandated by the verse in Esther 9:28,[14] is the sufficient means by which to fulfill the obligation of remembering  Amalek, the Mitzva stated in Devarim 25:17. When the Tora instructs us “Zachor Et Asher Asah Lecha Amalek” (Remember what Amalek did to you), interpreters of the Bible try to define how to specifically comply with the Tora’s admonition. The most widely accepted view has led to Jewish tradition institutionalizing the incorporation of the reading of this commandment on the Shabbat preceding the Purim festival.[15]  In his essay on the four special Tora readings that lead up to the Pesach holiday, Shekalim,[16] Zachor, Para,[17] and HaChodesh,[18] R. Shlomo Zevin[19] notes that once the Midrash Halacha, Sifra, on VaYikra 26:3, as well as Megilla 18a, categorically state that the “remembering” that is being commanded in the Tora is a verbal, rather than an exclusively mental activity, some sort of reading or recitation is required. While the listing in the Weekday prayer book immediately after the Shacharit services[20] of six Biblical passages which call upon Jews to remember seminal events during their formative history—1) Devarim 16:3 the Exodus from Egypt;[21] 2) Ibid. 4:9-10 receiving the Tora at Sinai;[22] 3) Ibid. 25:17-19 Amalek’s treachery and brutality;[23] 4) Ibid. 9:7 the sin of the Golden Calf;[24] 5) Ibid. 24:9 Miriam’s speaking badly of Moshe;[25] 6) Shemot 20:8 the holiness of Shabbat[26]—suggest that such remembering should take place at least once daily, additional emphasis has been placed upon remembering Amalek to the point that a special Tora reading is dedicated to this purpose on the Shabbat immediately preceding Purim.

Study as a form of remembering.

                Yet, not all agree that the means by which to fulfill the commandment of Zachor is by reading a special Maftir (additional Tora portion at the end of the regular Parshat HaShavua) in the synagogue. A particularly intriguing view summarized by R. Zevin, is that of RA’aVaD and HaRaSh MiShantz, who in their commentaries to Sifra, state that Zachor is fulfilled by the STUDY of the laws of Megillat Esther and Purim,[27] rather than by reading the Tora passage describing the battle with Amalek, or for that matter, only the contents of the Megilla itself, which can be understood to portray yet another Amalekite attack against the Jews. Their view is reminiscent of the Haggada’s instructions regarding how to respond to the Wise Son, who after asking a rather sophisticated, philosophical question,[28]  is told to go study the laws of Pesach, concluding with how one is not supposed to eat anything at the Seder after the consumption of the Paschal sacrifice.  


                Keeping in mind that many differences can be pointed out between the Purim and Pesach holidays,[29] it is curious to note how the interpretations of the commentators on the Sifra as well as the composers of the Pesach Haggada, suggest that Tora study rather than a recitation of a Biblical text, ought to be the response to the historical events that we are commemorating during these two festivals of redemption.[30]  In both instances, in Egypt as well as in Persia, the Jewish people faced an enemy who was bent upon genocide. And in both cases, the Jews were saved from the plots that were designed to destroy them.  Perhaps it should be inferred from these two independent calls to engage in Tora study, that to simply read an account of historical events, to reenact them, or even engage in philosophical speculation as to the meaning of various rituals and practices associated with them, do not fully capture the implications of these events for long-term Jewish survival. Even if we were saved from some dire fate in the distant past, it is appropriate to assume that the redemption experienced by our ancestors is either legitimized or delegitimized on the basis of how we are living our lives today.  Whereas remembering and reading historical accounts focus primarily upon the past, learning and fulfilling Halachic commandments and traditions are very much functions of present and future, reflecting our realization that if we have survived the attacks of Pharoah and Amalek, it was in order to live lives committed to Tora and Mitzvot. [31] [32]  To the extent that attacks against the Jewish people are also attacks against HaShem Who has thrown in His lot with us, our overcoming these threats are justified if our commitment to Halacha, namely the Ways of HaShem, is similarly reconfirmed both theoretically and in practice. If anything, Shabbat 88a suggests that based upon Esther 9:27, the Jews may have become committed to Tora and Mitzvot even more deeply after their redemption in Persia, than when they stated, (Shemot 24:7) “Na’aseh VeNishma” (We will do and we will hear) at Sinai.  


Even as we listen carefully to the Tora reading on Shabbat Zachor, let us also make sure that serious and devoted Tora study is also part and parcel of our living refutation of the Amalek’s of the past, present and future.

[1] When Haman proposes to Achashveirosh that the Jews in the Persian Empire should be annihilated, he says a number of unflattering things about the Jews: Esther 3:8 “And Haman said unto king Ahasuerus: ‘There is a certain people scattered abroad and dispersed among the peoples in all the provinces of thy kingdom; and their laws are diverse from those of every people; neither keep they the king’s laws; therefore it profiteth not the king to suffer them.” Various Midrashim have used Haman’s screed to reflect anti-Semitic calumnies that have been raised through the ages.  See Joshua Berman, “Aggadah and Anti-Semitism: The Midrashim to Esther 3:8” in Judaism, Vol. 150, 38:2, Spring 1989, pp. 185-96 for a survey of these charges.

[2] Megilla 12a faults the Jews for participating in Achashveirosh’s party either in terms of consuming food and drink or engaging in idolatry. Such actions would certainly represent the degree to which they had become integrated into Persian society. The fact that Esther was able to hide her ethnic identity merely by withholding the information when asked, also suggests that there were no outward indications that she was Jewish. In contrast to such activities, Mordechai’s public refusal to bow to Haman (Esther 3:2) stood out as a statement of an unyielding Jewish identity to the degree that it reputedly led—perhaps Haman was looking for an excuse to exterminate the Jews—to  Haman’s campaign to make the empire “Judenrein.” 

[3] A powerful statement is made in the Talmud to the effect that the experience in Persia led the Jews to confirm their religious commitments more wholeheartedly than what had transpired at Mt. Sinai:

Shabbat 88a

“And they stood under the mount: R. Abdimi b. Hama b. Hasa said: This teaches that the Holy One, blessed be He, Overturned the mountain upon them like an [inverted] cask, and Said to them,’If ye accept the Torah, ’tis well; if not, there shall be your burial.’

R. Aha b. Jacob observed: This furnishes a strong protest against the Torah (since those who are in violation could claim that it had never been willingly accepted, but rather under duress, and “Ones, Rachmana Patrei [actions undertaken under duress, the individual is considered exempt from the Judgment of Heaven]).

Said Raba, Yet even so, they re-accepted it in the days of Ahasuerus, for it is written, (Esther 9:27) “[The Jews] confirmed, and took upon them [etc.]:” [i.e.,] they confirmed what they had accepted long before.

[4]And the children struggled together within her; and she said: ‘If it be so, wherefore do I live?’ And she went to inquire of the LORD. And the LORD Said unto her: Two nations are in thy womb, and two peoples shall be separated from thy bowels; and the one people shall be stronger than the other people; and the elder shall serve the younger.” 

RaShI on Beraishit 25:22.

 …And our Rabbis interpreted the text “ויתרוצצו” based upon the root “running”. When she (Rivka) would pass the doorway of the Yeshiva of Shem and Ever, Yaakov would run and try to come out; when she would pass the doorway of idolatry, Eisav would try to come out.

Another interpretation: They were fighting with one another and struggling regarding the inheritances of This World and the World To Come.  

[5] “And Jacob sod pottage; and Esau came in from the field, and he was faint. And Esau said to Jacob: ‘Let me swallow, I pray thee, some of this red, red pottage; for I am faint.’ Therefore was his name called Edom. And Jacob said: ‘Sell me first thy birthright.’ And Esau said: ‘Behold, I am at the point to die; and what profit shall the birthright do to me?’ And Jacob said: ‘Swear to me first’; and he swore unto him; and he sold his birthright unto Jacob. And Jacob gave Esau bread and pottage of lentils; and he did eat and drink, and rose up, and went his way. So Esau despised his birthright.”  

[6] While it is difficult to justify Rivka and Yaakov’s plot to obtain what they thought was the special blessing that had originated with Avraham which appeared to them was being given by Yitzchak to Eisav, a close reading of the story reflects how misguided the entire enterprise actually was. Even when Yaakov and Eisav had already received their individual blessings, Yitzchak bestows upon Yaakov a second blessing which clearly appears to be Avraham’s blessing:

Beraishit 28:1-4

And Isaac called Jacob, and blessed him, and charged him, and said unto him: ‘Thou shalt not take a wife of the daughters of Canaan. Arise, go to Paddan-aram, to the house of Bethuel thy mother’s father; and take thee a wife from thence of the daughters of Laban thy mother’s brother. And God Almighty Bless thee, and Make thee fruitful, and Multiply thee, that thou mayest be a congregation of peoples; and give thee the blessing of Abraham, to thee, and to thy seed with thee; that thou mayest inherit the land of thy sojournings, which God Gave unto Abraham.’ 

[7] This is starkly demonstrated in the “cold peace” established between Yaakov and Eisav when they meet after several decades—Beraishit 32:4-33:17.

[8] Such was the prophetic prediction that Rivka received in Beraishit 25:23. The pronouncement has and continues to manifest itself in the struggles between Rome, its contributions to Western civilization on the one hand,  and the state of the Jews and Judaism on the other.  See, for e.g., Avoda Zora 2a-3b.

[9] Nowhere in TaNaCh is Haman’s actual lineage listed. Therefore, in contrast to the original Amalek who is clearly identified as the grandson of Eisav (Beraishit 36:12), to claim that Haman genetically belongs to the Amalekites is a harder case to make. Esther 3:1 records his identity as Haman ben Hamdata HaAggagi. Agag happens to be the name of the Amalekite king (Shmuel I 15:8) who, after Shaul fails to kill him when he defeats the Amalekites, is dispatched by Shmuel (v. 32-33). However, it is not conclusive even from this incident that Aggagi = Amaleki. Nevertheless, the practice to commemorate Amalek’s attack upon the Jews on the Shabbat prior to Purim with the reading of Devarim 25:17-9, as well as the Tora passages that are read on Purim morning prior to the reading of Megillat Esther Shemot 17:8-16 leave little to the imagination regarding at least the spiritual association, if not the actual genealogical connection, made between Amalek and Haman. RaMA on Shulchan Aruch, Orach Chayim, 690:17 associates the practice to drown out mention of Haman as well as writing Haman’s name on the soles of one’s shoes and then rubbing the name out by stamping one’s feet, as possible fulfillments of the commandment to obliterate Amalek’s name in Shemot 17:15.

[10] As evidenced by the final paragraph in the Pesach Hagada before the first portion of Hallel is recited:

 Therefore we are obligated to give thanks and to praise and to extol and to glorify and to raise up and to aggrandize and to beautify and to declare triumphant to He Who Performed for us and our forefathers all of these miracles and Took us out from servitude to freedom, and from subjugation to redemption, and from desolation to happiness, from mourning to celebration, and from darkness to a great light, and we will say before Him, “Hallelu-ka”.

[11] The second blessing that precedes the lighting of the Menora is unambiguous in this regard: Blessed are You, Lord our God, King of the Universe, Who Performed miracles for our ancestors in those days, at this time. 

[12] VaYikra 23:43 “That your generations may know that I Made the children of Israel to dwell in booths, when I Brought them out of the land of Egypt: I am the LORD your God.”

[13] It is curious that the more direct manner by which to obliterate the memory of Amalek, i.e., simply don’t discuss him in any context, is replaced by reading and remembering the history of Amalek on numerous occasions throughout the year—Parashiot BeShalach, Ki Tetze, I Melachim 15, Parashat Zachor and Purim. To think that making noise during the mention of Haman’s name when it is read as part of Megillat Esther, serves as the only means for fulfilling the Mitzva to obliterate Amalek’s name appears ironic and paradoxical.

[14] “And that these days should be remembered and kept throughout every generation, every family, every province, and every city; and that these days of Purim should not fail from among the Jews, nor the memorial of them perish from their seed.”

[15] See Shulchan Aruch, Orach Chayim 685:7. The fact that the Halacha is prefaced by R. Yosef Karo’s qualifying “Yesh Omrim…” (there are those who say…), while not exempting those who punctiliously wish to be in compliance with the Halachic tradition and will take this as a Tora-mandated obligation, nevertheless pointedly indicates that there are other views regarding how to carry out this Mitzva.

[16] Shemot 30:11-16.

[17] BaMidbar 19:1-22.

[18] Shemot 12:1-20.

[19] HaMoadim BeHalacha, Avraham Tzioni, Tel Aviv, 5726, p. 191.

[20] E.g., ArtScroll p. 176.

[21] “Thou shalt eat no leavened bread with it; seven days shalt thou eat unleavened bread therewith, even the bread of affliction; for in haste didst thou come forth out of the land of Egypt; that thou mayest remember the day when thou camest forth out of the land of Egypt all the days of thy life.”

[22] “Only take heed to thyself, and keep thy soul diligently, lest thou forget the things which thine eyes saw, and lest they depart from thy heart all the days of thy life; but make them known unto thy children and thy children’s children; the day that thou stoodest before the LORD thy God in Horeb, when the LORD said unto me: ‘Assemble Me the people, and I will Make them hear My words that they may learn to fear Me all the days that they live upon the earth, and that they may teach their children.’”

[23]Remember what Amalek did unto thee by the way as ye came forth out of Egypt; how he met thee by the way, and smote the hindmost of thee, all that were enfeebled in thy rear, when thou wast faint and weary; and he feared not God. Therefore it shall be, when the LORD thy God hath Given thee rest from all thine enemies round about, in the land which the LORD thy God Giveth thee for an inheritance to possess it, that thou shalt blot out the remembrance of Amalek from under heaven; thou shalt not forget.”  

[24]Remember, forget thou not, how thou didst make the LORD thy God Wroth in the wilderness; from the day that thou didst go forth out of the land of Egypt, until ye came unto this place, ye have been rebellious against the LORD. “

[25]Remember what the LORD thy God Did unto Miriam, by the way as ye came forth out of Egypt.”

[26]Remember the sabbath day, to keep it holy.”

[27] In several places in the Talmud, e.g., Megilla 29b, we are instructed to study and discuss the laws of Pesach thirty days before the holiday. An alternate view maintains that two weeks should be devoted to such pursuits. Whether or not Pesach is unique in this regard due to the myriad laws and complications that are associated with it, a parallel to the idea that time should be spent studying the Tora associated with Purim in the interests of reflecting upon, among other things, the wiping out of Amalek.

[28] Devarim 6:20 “…What are these testimonies and statutes and laws that the Lord our God Has Commanded You?” generally understood to be a request for being told the “Ta’amei HaMitzvot” (the reasons for the commandments) of at least the practices being carried out at the Pesach Seder, if not a more far-reaching discussion of Mitzvot in general that has been precipitated by the rituals of the Seder.

[29]               Pesach                                                                  Purim

          1)     MiD’Orayta                                                         MiD’Rabbanan.

          2)     God explicitly, involved in Chumash.             God not mentioned in Megillat Esther.

          3)     Issur Melacha on Yom Tov.                              No Issur Melacha.

                                4)     Overt miracles.                                                            Hidden miracles.

                                5)     Mitzvot Sippur Yetziat Mitzrayim, Matza,                Mishloach Manot, Matanot

         Avoiding Maror, Arba Kosot.                                    LeEvyonim, Kriyat HaMegilla.

6)     Dressing up at Seder as if ready to leave.              Costumes.

7)     Relatively limited groups at the Seder.                   BeRov Am Hadrat Melech. 


[30] The common theme of redemption that is shared by Purim and Pesach is reflected in the Talmudic discussion concerning when a leap year occurs and there are two Adar’s in which one is Purim to be observed, i.e., the 14th of Adar Rishon or the 14th of Adar Sheini? Megilla 6b succinctly answers “Mesamech Geula LeGeula Adif” (juxtaposing one redemption [Purim] next to another one [Pesach] is to be preferred).

[31] See, e.g., commentaries on Shemot 13:8, particularly RaShI’s interpretation. 

[32] This concept is sharply symbolized by God’s Response to Moshe upon being asked for a sign that the Exodus will succeed. In Shemot 3:12, Moshe is told by God, “…And this will be to you the sign that I Have Sent you: when you take the people out of Egypt, you will serve God on this mountain.” Tradition claims that the site of the burning bush where Moshe received the prophecy to engage in the redemption was Mt. Sinai—see RaShI—upon  which the Jews will eventually receive the Tora. Consequently, the indication that the Exodus is meaningful is the ultimate receiving and consequent fulfillment of Tora directives and values.

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