The Laws of Remembering Amalek

  • Rav David Brofsky

The Laws of Remembering Amalek

By Rav David Brofsky


Parashat Zakhor


The second of the "four parshiyot," Parashat Zakhor, is read on the Shabbat before Purim.  Through this reading, which recounts Amalek’s attack against Benei Yisrael in the wilderness, we fulfill the command of "zekhirat Amalek" – remembering Amalek’s hostilities:


REMEMBER what Amalek did to you along the way as you left Egypt; how he confronted you along the way, and smote the hindmost among you, all that were enfeebled, when you were faint and weary; and he did not fear God.  Therefore, it shall be that when the Lord your God gives you rest from all your enemies around you, in the land which the Lord your God gives you as an inheritance to possess, you shall erase the memory of Amalek from under the heavens; you shall not forget. (Devarim 25:17-19)


The Torah here issues three commandments relevant to Amalek: to REMEMBER, NOT TO FORGOT, and to ERASE the memory of Amalek. 


What is the relationship between the mitzva to remember Amalek, and the mitzva to eradicate Amalek?


On the one hand, one might view the mitzva to remember, and the commandment not to forget Amalek, as part of the larger objective of waging war against this nation.  Indeed, the Rambam (Sefer Ha-mitzvot, mitzvat asei 189; see also Hilkhot Melakhim 5:5) writes:


We are commanded to remember that which Amalek did to us… and that we should repeat this from time to time and our souls should be aroused through its recitation to fight against them and we should encourage the nation to hate them…


On the other hand, one might view the commandment to remember Amalek as conveying and expressing independent, broader religious messages, not necessarily directly related to war.  For example, we might note that the Torah introduces this mitzva immediately following the admonition to refrain from using or even owning false weights:


You shall not have in you bag diverse weights, a large and a small.  You shall not have in your house diverse measures, a large and a small.  You shall have a perfect and just weight; you shall have a perfect and just measure, so that your days upon the land which the Lord your God gives you shall be prolonged.  For all that do such things, even all that act dishonestly, are an abomination unto the Lord your God. (Devarim 25:13-16)


The juxtaposition of these two parshiyot may imply a more universal message, rather than the specific commandment to destroy the nation of Amalek.


            R. Soloveitchik (cited in Harerei Kedem 1:185) suggested that this issue - whether the mitzva to remember Amalek is related to and even dependent upon the mitzva to eradicate them - may affect a number of halakhic questions, including whether women are obligated in the obligation zekhirat Amalek, and which parasha one may read to fulfill the mitzva, as we shall see later. 


How Often to Fulfill the Mitzva of Zekhirat Amalek


Interestingly, the Gemara does not discuss when and how we are to fulfill this mitzva.  Regarding the proper time to fulfill this mitzva, the Sefer Ha-chinukh (603) writes:


Regarding this zekhira, in one's heart and mouth, we don’t know of a set time in the year, or a day… it is sufficient to remember this once a year, or once every two or three years.


R. Yosef Ben Moshe Babad (1801–1874), in his Minchat Chinukh commentary to the Sefer Ha-Chinukh (603), infers from the Chinukh’s comments that one may fulfill this obligation (on the level of mi-deorayta – Torah law), by remembering Amalek once during a person’s lifetime.


The Chatam Sofer (E.H. 1:119) suggests that one should fulfill this mitzva once each year.  He notes the Gemara’s discussion (Berakhot 58b) concerning the berakha of "mechayei ha-meitim," which one recites upon seeing a person one hasn't seen in twelve months.  The Gemara asserts that certain memories are forgotten after twelve months have passed, and the Chatam Sofer thus concludes that perpetuating the memory of Amalek requires recalling the event at least once every year.  He then questions whether during a leap year one should read Parashat Zakhor in the first month of Adar, in order that twelve full months shouldn't pass without remembering Amalek.  He concludes that the Gemara refers not to twelve months, but rather to the experiences of a full yearly cycle, which cause one to forget, and during a leap year, this occurs only after thirteen months. 


Others (see Sefer Chareidim, mitzvat asei 84:21), noting that earlier poskim make no mention of a specific time for this mitzva (Rambam, Sefer Ha-mitzvot, mitzvat asei 189), classify zekhirat Amalek is a mitzva temidit – a mitzva which must be fulfilled each day. Indeed, the Shelah Ha-kadosh recommends reading Parashat Zakhor every day.


In any event, it appears that the Rabbis established the observance of this mitzva annually on Shabbat Zakhor, through the reading of Parashat Zakhor. 


How to Fulfill the Mitzva of Zekhirat Amalek


In addition to the question of when we are to observe this mitzva of remembering, we must also address the question of how we observe this mitzva. The Talmud (Megilla 18a) teaches:


It says, "Zakhor" (Devarim 25:17).  Might this be fulfilled in one's heart? When it says, "you shall not forget" (ibid., verse 19) – “forgetting” refers to the heart! So what do I learn from [the commandment] to remember? With one's mouth. 


Clearly, then, the obligation to remember refers to not simply mental recollection, but rather a verbal recitation.


The Gemara does not specify whether one must read Parashat Zakhor from a proper sefer Torah, or merely recite the words.  Both the Rambam (Hilkhot Melakhim 5:5) and the Chinukh (603) make no mention of reading the text specifically from a Torah.  The Ramban (Devarim 25:17) also implies that one does not need to read the parasha from a text, but rather to "relate the story to our children..."  However, some Rishonim (see Tosafot, Megilla 17b s.v. kol and Berakhot 13a s.v be-lashon) rule that even on the level of Torah obligation, one must read Parashat Zakhor from a proper Torah scroll. 


The view requiring a Torah scroll for this mitzva does not necessarily require that the reading be conducted in the presence of a minyan.  The Rosh (Berakhot 7:20), however, describes Parashat Zakhor as a rare case in which a minyan is required on the level of Torah obligation.  (Usually, when a minyan is required, it is to fulfill an obligation enacted by the Sages.)  Rabbi Yisrael ben Petachyah Isserlein (1390-1460), in his Terumat Ha-deshen (108), rules (based upon the Rosh) that people in towns without a minyan should travel to communities with a minyan for Shabbat Zakhor.  He adds that the presence of a minyan is likely more central to the reading of Parashat Zakhor than to the reading of the Megilla!


The Magen Avraham (685) attempts to justify the practice of those who do not hear Parashat Zakhor in a minyan.  He explains that even if one must hear the reading from a sefer Torah and in the presence of a minyan, one need not fulfill this mitzva specifically on the Shabbat before Purim.  Therefore, it is preferable for one to travel to a place with a minyan for Purim, to hear the reading of the Megilla and the Torah reading which tells the story of Amalek (Shemot 17:8-16).  This way, one fulfills both the mitzva of Megilla reading and the obligation to remember Amalek’s hostilities. 


The Mishna Berura (685:16), however, disagrees with the Magen Avraham, claiming that one cannot fulfill the obligation of zekhirat Amalek through the reading of the story in Sefer Shemot, as the commandment to destroy Amalek does not appear in that parasha. 


            R. Soloveitchik (op. cit.) explained that this debate may depend upon whether the relationship between the commandment to remember Amalek relates to the mitzva to destroy them.  If we acknowledge a link between these two obligations, then we would likely require reading the section in Devarim, which speaks of destroying Amalek. If, however, we view these two obligations as separate requirements, then even the section in Sefer Shemot would likely suffice for fulfilling this mitzva. 


            Similarly, R. Yitzchak of Karlin (1784-1852), in his Keren Ora commentary on the Talmud (Berakhot 3a s.v. ve-idi), explains that those who require the presence of a minyan view the mitzva to destroy Amalek as an obligation incumbent upon the community, rather than individuals. He also contends that a mitzva which must be fulfilled publicly, such as zekhirat Amalek, cannot be required on a daily basis.  Hence, the Rabbis instituted that this section be read annually, rather than every day. 


            The Shulchan Arukh (685:7) summarizes this discussion as follows:


Some say that Parashat Zakhor and Parashat Para are Biblical obligations, and therefore, those who live in small villages who do not have a minyan should travel to a place with a minyan for these Shabbatot in order to hear these parshiyot, which constitute a Torah obligation.


The Rema adds:


One who is unable [to travel to a town with a minyan] should nevertheless read the parasha with its proper tune and notes.


The Acharonim note that both the reader and listener must have the proper intention to fulfill the mitzva.  The Taz (3) claims that this applies even to the berakhot recited before the reading, and that one who does not hear the berakhot does not fulfill the obligation. This raises the interesting question of the extent to which the Rabbis defined the mitzva of zekhirat Amalek as the reading (or listening to) the portion from the Torah with its blessings.  The Taz apparently believes that the mitzva must be fulfilled within the formal context of keriat ha-Torah, which of course includes the blessings preceding and concluding the portion.


The Acharonim also discuss whether we may apply to zekhirat Amalek the principle of shomei'a ke-oneh, which allows the listener to be considered as though he personally recited the given text.  If we do apply shomei’a ke-oneh in this context, then one should listen silently to the ba’al keria’s reading, without reading along.  The Munkatsher Rebbe (R. Chayim Elazar Spira, 1871–1937), in his Minchat Elazar (2:1), suggested that one might need actually to enunciate the words of Parashat Zakhor in order to fulfill the obligation, while other Acharonim, including the Peri Chadash (O.C. 67:1) and the Netziv (Meishiv Davar O:C 47), maintain that one should simply listen to the ba’al keria.  (See R. Ovadya Yosef’s discussion in Yechaveh Da'at 3:53.)


Proper Pronunciation


Another issue raised by the Acharonim involves the proper pronunciation of the central word of the Zakhor reading: zekher (“the memory” of Amalek).  The Radak (R. David Kimchi, 1160-1235), in his Sefer Ha-shorashim, records that he saw two versions of this word: in one version it was punctuated with a segol, yielding “zekher,” whereas in the other it was punctuated with a tzeirei, and thus pronounced “zeikher.”  In later editions of the Sefer Ha-shorashim, the phrase, "and the [Halakha is not] like him" appears, referring to the "zeikher" reading, thus implying that "zekher" is the correct reading.  Based upon this text, siddurim and Chumashim from the 17th to 19th centuries were amended to read “zekher.”


Interestingly, there is a historical debate as to which of these two pronunciations was accepted by the Vilna Gaon.  The work Ma’aseh Rav (a collection of customs and practices of the Gaon, published in 1832 by R. Yissachar Ber) records that the Gaon would say "zekher" while reading Parashat Zakhor.  However, R. Chayim Volozhin (1749-1821), a student of the Vilna Gaon, writes in his approbation to the Ma'aseh Rav that he heard the Gaon say "zeikher."


This confusion led to the custom to read both versions of the word, and this is the ruling of the Mishna Berura (18).  Indeed, in many communities today the ba’al keria first reads the phrase one way and then immediately repeats it with the second pronunciation.  Others prefer to finish the verse, and then repeat the entire verse with the second version. 


Recently, two scholarly studies have been published regarding this question.  Both R. Mordechai Breuer ("Mikraot She-ein Lahem Hekhrea," Megadim 10) and Prof. J. Penkower ("Minhag U-mesora – Zekher Amalek Be-chamesh o Shesh Nekodot" in Bar Ilan University’s Iyunei Mikra u-Parshanut, vol. 4) conclude that the proper reading is "zeikher," and that early texts support this conclusion.


This debate demonstrates the precision which the poskim demand for the reading of Parashat Zakhor.  Some authorities go so far as to insist that one should hear the parasha read in one's own pronunciation.  In other words, one who reads Hebrew with an Ashkenazic pronunciation (which affects the pronunciation of the kamatz/komotz vowel and the letter tav/sav) should hear the parasha read in this fashion.  Some even insist the one hear the portion read from a Sefer Torah written according to one's tradition. (See R. Tzvi Pesach Frank’s Mikra'ei Kodesh – Purim 7; Minchat Yitzchak 3:9 and 4:47:3; Yabia Omer 6:11; Halikhot Shlomo 18:1.) 


Are Women Obligated?


Finally, the poskim debate the question of whether women are obligated to hear Parashat Zakhor.  Some (Marcheshet 22:3; Avnei Neizer O.C. 509) suggest zekhirat Amalek constitutes a mitzvat asei she-ha-zeman gerama (a time-bound obligation), from which women are generally exempt, though most other Acharonim reject his argument. 


The Sefer Ha-Chinukh (603) argues that since women generally don’t participate in battle, they are exempt from the commandments relating to Amalek.  The Minchat Chinukh, however, raises two objections to this contention.  First, he argues that, as mentioned in the Talmud (Sota 44b), women do, in fact, participate in obligatory wars (milchamot mitzva).  Second, the mitzva to remember Amalek is not necessarily linked to the mitzva to wage war against Amalek.  As discussed earlier, R. Soloveitchik suggested that this issue would depend upon the relationship between the commandment to remember Amalek and the mitzva to destroy Amalek.


Rabbi Yitzchak Yaakov Weiss (1902-1989), former head of the rabbinical court of the Eida Charedit in Jerusalem and author of the multivolume Minchat Yitzchak, follows the view of R. Natan Adler (the teacher of R. Moshe Sofer) who held that women are indeed obligated, and that their mitzva should be fulfilled through the public Torah reading.  Therefore, it is customary for women to hear the reading of Parashat Zakhor, and many communities arrange readings later in the day to accommodate those who cannot attend synagogue services on the morning of Shabbat Zakhor (Minchat Yitzchak 9:68).


R. Shneur Zalman Fradkin of Lublin (1830-1902), a student of the Tzemach Tzedek and a well-known Chabad posek, presents a third view on this issue.  In his work Torat Chesed (O.C. 37), he writes that women are indeed obligated to fulfill the Torah obligation of zekhirat Amalek, which is not a time-bound mitzva, but they are exempt from the Rabbinic obligation to hear Parashat Zakhor.  They may therefore fulfill the obligation of zekhirat Amalek by reading the parasha to themselves, without hearing the formal Torah reading.  On this basis, R. Shneur Zalman explains why it was unheard of in his community for women to attend the Zakhor reading.  R. Aaron Felder, in his Mo’adei Yeshurun (Hilkhot Purim 1, 3, note 9), records that R. Moshe Feinstein likewise held that women may fulfill their obligation by reading the parasha from a printed Chumash.