Common custom, since at least the time of the Mishnah, leads us to read a section of the Torah known as Zachor on the Shabbat before Purim. The section, Devarim 25;17-19, adjures us to remember what Amalek did to us on our way from Egypt, that they happened upon us in the desert, attacked the weakest among us, without any fear of God. As a result, when God gives us rest from all our enemies, we are to wipe out the memory of Amalek from under the heavens, and not to forget.
That led to three mitsvot, two of which the public reading of Zachor strives to fulfill: 1) To remember what Amalek did to us, 2) Not to forget what they did, and 3) To wipe them out. I think a brief review of some salient sources will show how problematic even the first two mitsvot have become in our time.
First, note that the need to read Zachor in shul, from a Torah scroll, with a minyan,stands on shaky ground. That we have to enunciate out memory of what Amalek did is clear from Megillah 18a, among other sources, which notes that had the Torah said only zachor, it might have been enough to do so internally, by remembering it. When the Torah says not to forget, that implies the need for internal memory, leaving zachor to mean that we have to actually say something.
But what? And how often?
In Sefer haMitsvot, positive commandment 189, Rambam says we have to remind ourselves of Amalek bechol et va-et, at all times (he says more, as we’ll see below), which would seem to mean both that we have to do it more often than once a year and that it need not be a formal ceremony. Sefer haChinuch 603 suggests that since the goal of the memory is to arouse a certain emotional reaction in us (more on that in a moment), we only need to articulate the story often enough to keep those emotions alive; he therefore thinks that once every two or three years could suffice.
The view that we have to read it in shul starts from the discussion of Rashi and Tosafot regarding the language in which we can read the Torah. Berachot 13a and Megillah 17b record a debate between Rebbe and Rabanan regarding the recitation of Shema (Rebbe thinks it can only be said in Hebrew, Rabanan think it can be said in any language).
In the course of untangling the verses on the topic, the Gemara wonders what this debate implies about the recitation of the Torah in general, whether it has to be in the original or can be in any language. Tosafot are surprised at the comment, since there aren’t many occasions where we have a Biblical obligation to read pieces of Torah, where a language requirement would be relevant. Tosafot therefore offers several occasions when we are required to read pieces of Torah, on a Biblical level, and says the discussion was whether those have to be read in the original.
Parashat Zachor is one of those, which shows that Tosafot assumed not only that we have to say out loud what it was that Amalek did, but must do it by using the Torah’s words. That is fine as far as it goes, except that we, halachically, go further, because we assume that we have to read that from a Torah scroll with a minyan. I note that all of Tosafot’s other examples of Biblically-mandated readings– what we say when we bring our first fruits, what we say when we finish giving our tithes, what we say at a halitsah ceremony, and what the community leaders say at an eglah arufah ceremony—require neither a Torah scroll nor a minyan (with the possible exception of eglah arufah). Why does it require it here?
Minyan and Zachor
The clearest answer is that it is not clear that it does or, if it does, that might be a Rabbinic addition to the Biblical obligation. Shulchan Aruch Orach Chayyim 685;7 rules that, since some authorities think of Parashat Zachor as a Biblical obligation, Jews who live where there is no minyan need to make sure they spend that Shabbat in a place where there is one, to hear Zachor.
[I always find it interesting that Judaism easily tolerated the reality of people living in a place without a minyan, and didn’t see it as deeply threatening to the Jewishness of those people—they were presumably expected to learn Torah and keep all the mitsvot, even without a regular minyan. It is a sign of how shul-dependent we’ve become that it seems almost unimaginable today.]
A problem with Shulchan Aruch’s ruling is that it has no clear source. Mishnah Berurah notes that Terumat haDeshen cited Rosh as requiring scroll and minyan, but notes that he doesn’t think Rosh meant that, and that even if he did, this part of the obligation could only be Rabbinic, since nothing in the Torah’s requirement of Zachor implies minyan and scroll.
A first oddity of our Zachor practice, then, is how punctiliously we ensure a scroll and a minyan, when we easily could have relied on the majority of authorities who said it was sufficient to say the words out loud every once in a while. But it gets odder.
Women and Zachor
We are today so careful about Zachor that women make extra and often extraordinary efforts to be in shul to hear it. Many shuls will have extra readings of Zachor—after the morning service and before the afternoon service, all to make sure that anyone who missed it has a chance to hear it. Since these same people could also hear it if they could only make it to shul for Parashat Ki Tetsei, it turns out that shuls are making these efforts for people so inflexible about their schedules that they can’t find a way to make it to any shul for any of the in-shul readings of Zachor and also can’t make it to shul for the last few verses of Ki Tetsei. Aside from that, there are two more significant oddities of our efforts to ensure we all, including all women, hear Zachor.
First, it is not clear women need to hear Zachor. Rambam makes clear that the obligation of remembering what Amalek did to us is connected to the obligation to wage war against Amalek should occasion arise. Sefer haChinuch 603 assumes that this means the obligation to remember Amalek is restricted to men, since they are the ones who wage war. If we follow his view, it would mean that women need not hear Zachor at all, and all this effort could be put to better use on mitsvot that actually apply to them.
Of course, Sefer haChinuch’s view is a little strange, as Minchat Chinuch notes. The war against Amalek is one of the three types of milchemet mitzvah, of obligatory war, and we generally assume women are required to join such wars, just as much as men. The traditional phrasing is kallah me-chupatah, a bride from her wedding canopy, meaning that women have to be involved. In fact, Sefer haChinuch himself includes women as much as men in Mitsvah 425, the obligation to wipe out the seven nations of Canaan. So, as a first question, we have to wonder whether women are included in Zachor; if we assume they are, that means they are obligated in the war against Amalek as well. This brings us to a more difficult question about the reading of Zachor, whether we are accomplishing what we were meant to.
In the Sefer haMitsvot I mentioned above, Rambam notes that the articulation of what Amalek did to us is in order to arouse our hearts to be ready to fight Amalek, to the death, and to instill in us sufficient hatred that we not approach the battle anything other than wholeheartedly (he repeats this formulation in the Mishneh Torah, Laws of Kings 5;5).
As far as I know, there is no debate about this. There is debate about when we’d be required to kill Amalek—Rambam seems to see it as a communal obligation, one we only have to fulfill once we have a king (but before we build the Temple!), whereas Sefer haChinuch assumes individual Jews who encounter members of Amalek are required to kill them when possible.
There are ways to circumvent the obligation, such as by noting that we don’t know who Amalek is, and also by realizing that members of Amalek can avoid death by converting to Judaism (according to Ravad), or by accepting the Noahide commandments (Rambam). But none of that changes the need to remember what they did in such a way that it sustains sufficient anti-Amalek emotion to be prepared to carry out God’s decree that we wipe unrepentant Amalekites off the face of the earth.
The next step in this presentation would be to review what It was that Amalek did, as part of helping readers strengthen or revive the required emotions of hatred. However, with Purim on Sunday this year, I am only giving this shiur in my local shul on Shabbat morning, and need to save some elements for those who are kind enough to come hear me every Shabbat. For readers far away, I can recommend spending time this Shabbat, as part of fulfilling the obligation of Zachor, ensuring that we remember what they did, in a way that helps us see why such people need to be completely wiped off the face of the Earth. In our times, this is quite a challenge, and I wish you success in grappling with this. Before we part, allow me to add one more complication.
The Rav’s Expansive View of Amalek
Many people know that Rabbi Soloveitchik, zt”l, had a family tradition that Amalek is not only a genetic category, it is also a metaphorical one—in this view, any people who set themselves against the Jews and Judaism become Amalek. For a long time, I assumed this had to be a homiletical claim, but I have heard from students of the Rav that he seemed to mean it halachically. In his time, that meant Nazis and Communists; in our time, it likely would mean Hamas and Hezbollah, and quite possibly the Taliban, Ahmadinejad, and even Saddam Hussein’s Iraq.
That sounds good– we like it when the Torah comes out strongly against something we’re also strongly against, but it also means that we’d be required, halachically, to arouse in ourselves a hatred of them so virulent that we’d be ready to wage total war against them—all of them, men, women, and children, at least until the survivors were ready to renounce their previous views and accept our way of seeing the world. That’s not so easy, and it’s why I doubt that many of us are fulfilling the mitzvah of Zachor as the Torah laid it out for us.
It’s easy to listen to the Torah being read and say we’ve fulfilled a mitzvah, but in actuality this mitzvah, maybe more than most, requires an emotional response from us, creating a readiness to engage in what most of the modern world might see as senseless violence. In my experience, few Jews today are ready for that.
What makes this so striking is that, at the end of the Megillah, it is clear that the Jews celebrate not their salvation from being destroyed, but their having had the opportunity to do some destroying of their own. As we listen to Zachor this week, I hope we find our way to the fulfillment of the mitzvah to its fullest extent; just as we make sure to hear it from a Torah with a minyan, I hope we inculcate in ourselves all the rest of the best fulfillments of the mitzvah.