This article is based on a Hebrew lecture given at the Van Leer Institute in Jerusalem on March 20, 2005. Most of the sources are taken from Avi Sagi, Yahadut Bein Dat L’mussar , Tel Aviv, 1998, Chapter 10 and Elliot Horowitz, Zion 64/4 (1999), pp. 425-454, though I have organized the material in an entirely different fashion. I refer to them in parentheses as “Sagi” and “Horowitz”. An earlier version of Sagi’s article appeared in English in the Harvard Theological Review 87/3 (1994), pp. 323-346.
Now that the chaos and frivolity of Purim are behind us, I would like to address a serious question: Are Jews still commanded to blot out the memory of Amalek?
On Purim, we are rightly appalled by the fact that Haman wanted to destroy the Jewish people “young and old, children and women, on a single day” (Esther 3:13). But we seldom notice that we were commanded to do the same thing to Haman’s people, to Amalek! We read from the Torah on Purim morning that God says “I will utterly blot out the memory of Amalek from under heaven” (Exodus 17:14), while on Shabbat Zakhor, the Shabbat before Purim, we read that God commands the Israelites: “you shall blot out the memory of Amalek from under heaven” (Deut. 25:19).
We learn from the Haftarah of Shabbat Zakhor that these verses were understood in a literal sense. The Prophet Samuel orders King Saul in God’s name: “Now go, attack Amalek, and proscribe all that belongs to him. Spare no one, but kill alike men and women, infants and sucklings, oxen and sheep, camels and asses!” (I Samuel 15:3). In other words, we are instructed to commit genocide — to destroy the men, women and cattle of Amalek. This is morally problematic in and of itself; it is doubly problematic after the Holocaust.
II) What was Amalek’s Sin?
During the biblical period, we were attacked by many peoples. What was so awful about Amalek’s attack? Why blot out the memory of Amalek, as opposed to other peoples who have attacked us throughout history? Prof. Avi Sagi has surveyed many of the answers to this question. Here are two explanations, which try to explain the peshat or simple meaning of the Amalek passages.
Rabbi Yitzhak Abravanel (Portugal, Spain, Italy, 15 th century) and Rabbi Yitzhak Arama (Spain, 15 th century) say that Amalek deviated from the norms of war. They attacked a weak, defenseless bunch of slaves on the road, just for the sake of attacking them. They had nothing to gain from the attack since the Israelites had just left Egypt; it would lead neither to improving their reputation as warriors nor to significant spoils. It was an unjust war motivated by hatred (Sagi, pp. 200-202).
Rabbi Avraham Shmuel Sofer (Hungary 1815-1871) emphasized the words “undeterred by fear of God” (Deut. 25:18). If Amalek attacked the Israelites immediately after God redeemed them from Egypt with signs and wonders, it shows that that they had no fear of God. That is why Exodus says that God will be at war with Amalek from generation to generation (Exodus 17:16). It is, so to speak, a war between God and Amalek.
III) Discomfort with the Command to Destroy all of the Amalekites
Despite the biblical commandment to blot out the memory of Amalek, and the biblical precedent of King Saul trying to kill all the Amalekites, a number of rabbinic sources express clear discomfort with this commandment.
In the tractate of Yoma (22b), Rabbi Mani says that King Saul argued with God: If the Torah said (Deut. 21:1-9) that if you find an anonymous dead body between two cities you must bring an eglah arufah , a sacrifice as a form of atonement for that one death, “how much the moreso all of these souls! And if an [Amalekite] sinned, did his animal sin? If adults sinned, did children sin?” In other words, in this midrash Saul argues with God just as Abraham argued with God about the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah (Genesis 18:20-33).
Rabbi Ya’akov Hayyim Sofer (Baghdad and Jerusalem, 1867-1939) also felt discomfort with one of the commandments regarding Amalek. In Kaf Hahayyim to Orah Hayyim 685 (par. 29) he asks why we don’t recite a blessing before we read Parashat Zakhor on the Shabbat before Purim. He replies: “because we do not bless regarding destruction, even the destruction of non-Jews, as we see that God said [to the angels after the Egyptians drowned in the Sea of Reeds]: ‘my handiwork are drowning in the sea and you are singing?!’ (Megillah 10b)”.
IV) Allegorical Interpretations
Indeed, Prof. Sagi believes that this discomfort was one of the motives which led to allegorical interpretations of the commandment to destroy Amalek. For example, the Re’aya Mehemna section of the Zohar says that Amalek is Samael or Satan, while in Barcelona (ca. 1300) there were commentators who said that Amalek means Yetzer Hara or the evil inclination. This latter interpretation was also popular in hassidic literature (Sagi, pp. 206-216; Horowitz pp. 444-445). In other words, we are commanded to blot out Satan or Yetzer Hara , not a physical people called Amalek.
V) Limitation or Elimination of the Mitzvah
The discomfort described above may have led a number of important commentators to limit the commandment of blotting out Amalek to very specific times or circumstances.
Rabbi Yosef Kara (France, 11th century) says that Exodus 17:16 which mentions a “hand upon the throne of the Lord” means that we are only instructed to wage war against Amalek “when a King sits on the throne of God – that is the Kingdom of Israel” (Horowitz, p. 445). Rabbi Eliezer of Metz, a pupil of Rabbenu Tam (France, ca. 1200) says in his Sefer Yere’im that the commandment to blot out the memory of Amalek “is incumbent on the king and not on the rest of the Jewish people” (Horowitz, pp. 445-446). Rabbi Moshe of Coucy (France, d. 1236) says in his Sefer Mitzvot Gadol that “this mitzvah is only practiced in the days of the King Messiah after the conquest of the land” (Horowitz, p. 447).
In other words, the commandment to blot out the memory of Amalek only applies to the future king of Israel in the days of the Messiah and cannot and should not be fulfilled by the Jews in their day.
Indeed, the commandment to blot out Amalek is omitted entirely by two of the most important codifiers of Jewish law — Rabbi Ya’akov ben Asher in his Tur (Spain, ca. 1340) and Rabbi Yosef Karo in his Shulhan Arukh (Safed, 1556) (Horowitz, p. 449).
VI) In Our Day, Amalek no Longer Exists
A number of important rabbis eliminated the obligation to destroy Amalek by explaining that, in our day, Amalek no longer exists. Rabbi Abraham, the son of Maimonides (Egypt, ca. 1200) says in his Torah commentary that Amalek was wiped out in the days of King Saul (Horowitz, p. 431). Rabbi Yosef Babad says in his Minhat Hinukh (Lemberg, 1869) that “today we are not commanded to do this.’because Sanheriv already arose and mixed up the world’ “. The latter is a reference to Mishnah Yadayim (4:4), which says that it is now permissible to marry the Amonites and the Moabites because Sanheriv came and mixed up the nations. Rabbi Babad is saying that the same holds true for Amalek; we are not commanded to destroy them because we simply don’t know who they are (Horowitz, p. 449).
Rabbi Avraham Bornstein says in his responsa Avnei Nezer (Sochachov, d. 1910) that “now there are no Amaleks in the world” (Horowitz, p. 450). Finally, Rabbi Hayyim Hirschenson wrote in his responsa Malki Bakodesh (Part I, p. 32) in 1919 that the mitzvah to destroy Amalek no longer exists because they were destroyed by King David and King Hezekiah and then Sanheriv arose and mixed up the nations.
VII) Amalek Exists and We are Still Commanded to Blot them Out
Nonetheless, there were many important rabbis who ruled that Amalek still exists and that we are still commanded to remember their deed and to destroy them. This was the opinion of Maimonides in his Sefer Hamitzvot (Positive Commandments 188-189) and in his Mishneh Torah (Laws of Kings 5:4-5). Though he mentions there the tradition about Sanheriv mixing up the nations, he clearly does not apply it to Amalek i.e. they still exist and they must be remembered and blotted out. This was also the opinion of Rabbi Pinhass Halevi of Barcelona in his Sefer Hahinukh (13 th century). He says that “every Jewish male has the obligation to kill them and to destroy them from the world if they have the power to do so, in every place at every time, if perhaps he finds one of their descendants” (Horowitz, p. 449).
VIII) Attempts to Identify Amalek with a Specific People
It is clear that many rabbis agreed with the Rambam and Sefer Hahinukh that Amalek still exists and they proceeded to identify Amalek with a specific people. Prof. Elliot Horowitz has compiled a veritable catalogue of these identifications, including the following:
1. Amalek = Esau = Edom = Rome = the Christians. Prof. Horowitz finds hints of this opinion in rabbinic literature (pp. 439 ff.) though I am not convinced. In any case, Nahmanides (Spain, 13th century) and other medieval rabbis did make this identification (Horowitz, p. 441-443).
2. Many medieval and modern Jews thought the Armenians were Amalek, though the reason for this identification is not at all clear (Horowitz, pp. 431, 450-451).
3. In a battle poem, Rabbi Shmuel Hanagid (Spain, 1038), a medieval Jewish general, calls his enemy Zohir “Agag”, i.e. the Amalekite king put to death by King Saul, and his soldiers “Amalek, Edom, and the sons of Keturah” (Horowitz, pp. 437-439).
4. In 1898, Rabbi Yosef Hayyim Sonnenfeld (1849-1932) refused to go out to greet Kaiser Wilhelm II when he visited Palestine, even though this meant forgoing the opportunity to recite the blessing upon seeing a king. (This was the trip during which Herzl met the Kaiser.) He said that he has a tradition from the Gaon of Vilna that the Germans are the descendants of Amalek (Horowitz, p. 428). This is an amazing story since it took place decades before the Holocaust.
5. Not surprisingly, many rabbis and scholars identified the Nazis with Amalek beginning in the 1930s. Among them were the historian Simon Dubnow who was later killed by the Nazis, the anti-Nazi artist Arthur Szyk, and the Holocaust historian Raul Hilberg (Horowitz, pp. 426, 427, 452-454).
6. Rabbi Joseph Dov Soloveitchik (d. 1993), Rabbi Irving Greenberg, and Rabbi Yitzhak Arieli say that anyone who hates the Jewish people is from the seed of Amalek. Thus, Rabbi Soloveitchik identifies the Nazis, the Soviets, Nasser and the Mufti as descendants of Amalek (Horowitz, pp. 429-430; Sagi, p. 208; Rabbi Yitz Greenberg, The Jewish Way , New York, 1988, pp. 232-234).
7. Sadly enough, some Jews and rabbis have identified other Jews as Amalek. Rabbi Elhanan Bunem Wasserman (1875-1941), a leading European anti-Zionist rabbi, said that Jews who are mumarim l’hakhiss , those who oppose Jewish law in a spirit of defiance, are of the seed of Amalek (Horowitz, p. 428). Rabbi Yisrael Meir Hacohen, the Hafetz Hayyim (1838-1933), said that the Jewish communists in Russia are from the seed of Amalek (ibid.). And some Jews in Israel today have said that “all the leftists, from Meretz” are Amalek (Horowitz, p. 454).
8. Finally, various Christians have referred to themselves as “Israel” and to their enemies as “Amalek”! In the seventh century, the Byzantine chronicler Theophanes called the Muslims who conquered Eretz Yisrael “Amalek”. In 1095, Pope Urban II told the Crusaders at Clermont that he was Moses, they were the Israelites and the Muslims were Amalek. Furthemore, Martin Luther (d. 1546) and his pupil Johann Brenz claimed that the Jews who fought against Jesus were Amalek. Finally, in 1689, the Puritan preacher Cotton Mather preached a sermon to Christian soldiers who were fighting against the Indians. He urged his flock to fight against “Amalek who afflict Israel [=the Puritans] in the desert” (Horowitz, pp. 429-230).
IX) Symbolic Methods of Blotting out Amalek
In the middle ages, Jews were frequently powerless. Even if they believed that Amalek still existed and even if they identified Amalek with certain specific peoples, they did not have the power to do anything about it. Therefore, it is not surprising that Jews found symbolic methods of blotting out Amalek.
1. Early liturgical works such as Mahzor Vitry and Sefer Hapardess (France, ca. 1100) interpreted the Kaddish to mean that we must blot out Amalek. Thus, the Jews who were aware of these interpretations blotted out Amalek repeatedly every day! (Horowitz, pp. 443-444)
2. We make noise on Purim whenever Haman’s name is mentioned. This custom began ca. 1200. Rabbi Avraham of Lunel reports in his Sefer Hamanhig that in France and Provence the children take smooth stones and write Haman on them and when the reader mentions his name they knock one stone against another in order to erase his name, as the midrash says “blot out the memory of Amalek even from the trees and the stones”. This custom was quoted by Sefer Abudraham (Spain, ca. 1340) from whence it entered Rabbi Moshe Isserles’s glosses to the Shulhan Arukh (Cracow, ca. 1570) (Sefer Hamanhig , ed. Refael, Jerusalem, 1978, pp. 242-243; Sefer Abudraham Hashalem , Jerusalem, 1959, p. 209; Shulhan Arukh Orah Hayyim 690:17 in the Rema. For the history of “beating Haman”, see Yom Tov Lewinski, Keitzad Hiku et Haman Bitfutzot Yisrael , Tel Aviv, 1947 and Daniel Sperber, Keitzad Makim et Haman , Ramat Gan, 2002).
3. There is a common custom among soferim (scribes) first attested in 1705. When a scribe wanted to test his quill, he would write Amalek or Haman or Zeresh (Haman’s wife) and cross it out in order to fulfill the mitzvah of blotting out the memory of Amalek (Horowitz, p. 451).
4. Finally, when Sefardic Jews read Parashat Zakhor on the Shabbat before Purim and get to the verse “blot out the memory of Amalek. do not forget” (Deut. 25:19), they stamp their feet in order to blot out Amalek (Lewinski, p. 7. I myself have witnessed this custom at a Sefardic synagogue in Jerusalem).
X) Two Positive Lessons we can Learn from the Story of Amalek
Personally, I identify with the discomfort expressed in Yoma and in Kaf Hahayyim regarding the commandment to destroy an entire people, despite the gravity of their original deed. I agree with the many rabbis throughout history who eliminated this mitzvah from their codices or who said that there are no longer any Amalekites in the world. We have seen in paragraph VIII above just how dangerous it is to identify your current enemy with Amalek. The identification changes from country to country and from place to place, it is used by one Jew against another, and it is even used by Christians against us!
Though it would seem from all of the above that the story of Amalek is entirely negative in nature, I would like to conclude with two positive, ethical lessons which we can learn from the Amalek passages in Exodus and Deutoronomy.
In Pesikta d’rav Kahana (3:4, ed. Mandelbaum, pp. 42-43), there is another explanation of the Amalek story. Rabbi Banai explained Proverbs 11:1-2 to mean that if you use unjust weights and measures, a non-Jewish nation will wage war against your generation:
Said Rabbi Levi: Moses hinted at this in the Torah as well. “You shall not have in your pouch alternate weights, larger and smaller” (Deut. 25:13). If you do, a non-Jewish nation will come to wage war against your generation… and what does it say next? “Remember what Amalek did to you” (v. 17).
According to this midrash, Amalek’s attack was a punishment for unethical behavior. Thus, the message of the story is not hatred but repentance . In order to prevent another Amalek, we must behave ethically.
Finally, we shall cite the explanation of Prof. Nehama Leibowitz. What was the dreadful sin of Amalek, as opposed to other peoples who fought with Israel? Because only of him is it written: ” undeterred by fear of God “. This expression appears only four times in the Bible. In Genesis 20:11, Abraham explains to Avimelech why he lied about Sarah’s identity: “I thought: surely there is no fear of God in this place “. In Genesis 42:18, Joseph says to his brothers after accusing them of spying: “Do this and you shall live, for I am a God-fearing man “. In Exodus 1:17, the midwives refuse to murder the male infants: ” And the midwives feared God and did not do as the king of Egypt told them”. And in our portion it says: ” undeterred by fear of God , he cut down all the stragglers” (Deut. 25:18). In all of these verses, the litmus test for “fear of God” is the attitude to the weak and the stranger. Amalek is the archetype of the Godless, who attack the weak because they are weak, who cut down the stragglers in every generation (Studies in Devarim , Hebrew edition, Jerusalem, 1994, pp. 234-235).
In our day, this is perhaps the most important message of the Amalek story — not hatred of Amalek but aversion to their actions. In the State of Israel, there are many strangers and stragglers — new immigrants, foreign workers, as well as innocent Arabs and Palestinians. Some Jews learn from the story of Amalek that we should hate certain groups. We must emphasize the opposite message. We must protect “the stragglers” so that we may say of the State of Israel: “surely there is fear of God in this place”.
Prof. David Golinkin is the President of the Schechter Institute of Jewish Studies in Jerusalem. Feel free to reprint this article in its entirety. If you wish to abbreviate the article, please contact Rabbi Golinkin at:firstname.lastname@example.org.
The opinions expressed here are the author’s and in no way reflect an official policy of the Schechter Institute.