Rabbi Eliezer MelamedThe writer is Head of Yeshivat Har Bracha and a prolific author on Jewish Law, whose works include the series on Jewish law "Pininei Halacha" and a popular weekly column "Revivim" in the Besheva newspaper. His books "The Laws of Prayer" "The Laws of Passover" and "Nation, Land, Army" are presently being translated into English. Other articles by Rabbi Melamed can be viewed at: www.yhb.org.il/1
The Mitzvah to Annihilate Amalek
There are those who question why the Torah commands to cruelly destroy an entire people. Is this not similar to the actions of the Nazis? On the other hand, others ask: Since Amalek as a nation no longer exists, should we learn from the commandment to wipe out Amalek a lesson for our times, and possibly even apply it to the wicked in every generation? Let us study the mitzvah, and consequently the answers to these questions will become clear.
The Historical Account
Apparently, Amalek was a tribe that did not engage in agriculture and industry, but rather, trained its’ youth to conduct surprise attacks against villages and convoys – to kill those they encountered, plunder their belongings, and sell the men, women and children who remained as slaves. It was difficult to wage war against them because they did not have a permanent base, and would suddenly and unexpectedly appear at enormously distant locations, with large attacking forces.
And so, 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. Instead of realizing the greatness of the miracle of the exodus from Egypt, or having mercy on the newly-released slaves, the Amalekites saw before them easy prey, and taking advantage of Israel’s weakness, began attacking the stragglers in the rear, in order to capitalize from their sale as slaves, and plunder their possessions.
Even after Yehoshua, on behalf of Moshe Rabbeinu, fought and weakened them, it was clear this would not be the last battle; rather, every time Amalek would perceive signs of weakness, they would attack, kill, loot, and sit in wait for the next assault.
The Three Mitzvot Related to the Annihilation of Amalek
As a result, we were commanded three mitzvot in the Torah: 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.).
In order to annihilate Amalek, a large army was needed to encircle all the widespread areas from which they operated, locate them, block their escape routes, encounter them face-to-face, and destroy them. To do this, the Jewish nation would first have to establish themselves in the land, be free of fear of attacks from surrounding enemies, and allocate large forces for long periods of time to conduct war against Amalek. Regarding this, our Sages said: “Three commandments were given to Israel when they entered the land; 1) to appoint a king; 2) to cut off the seed of Amalek; 3) and only after this, would they be able to fulfill the third mitzvah – to build the Holy Temple” (Sanhedrin 20b).
The History of Annihilating Amalek
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, God 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.
Our Sages 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 (Megillah 13a).
The Moral Logic of the Mitzvah to Annihilate Amalek
The moral logic of the mitzvah is clear: ‘middah keneged middah’(retributive justice). Just as Amalek had done to all the cities they looted, the same should be done to them. In truth, Amalek generally did not kill all the inhabitants of the cities they conquered; however, that was only because they hoped to capitalize from their sale as slaves. But when they found no buyers – they killed them.
Retributive justice is also essential in order to create a deterrent. For indeed, one who concedes to his enemies and fails to avenge them appropriately, encourages them to continue fighting. The great empires punished their foes severely, thus creating a deterrent that maintained their rule for centuries.
Amalek: The Root of Evil in the World
In total contrast to Amalek, Israel’s very essence is connected to the revelation of God’s word and tikkun olam (repairing the world). The idealistic, faith-based message that God 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 – climaxing in the dreadful Holocaust. All this was started by Amalek immediately after we left Egypt, in order to prevent us from receiving the Torah, and repairing the world. Therefore, Amalek is the nation that embodies the root of evil in the world, 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). Our Sages said: “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” (Rashi, ibid.).
Amalekites May Repent
Although the Torah commanded to wipe-out the seed of Amalek, if an Amalek decides to undertake to keep the Seven Noahide laws, he is no longer judged as an Amalekite. Not only that, the Torah commanded that before we go to war against Amalek we offer them peace, i.e., to accept the Seven Noahide laws, to be subordinate to Israel, and to pay taxes. If they accept the offer – we do not wage war against them. If they refuse – we must go to war against them, until their complete destruction (Rambam, Laws of Kings, 6:1-4, Kesef Mishneh).
Thus, unlike the Nazi policy in which a person with even the slightest trace of Jewish origin was murdered, according to Jewish law Amalekites can save themselves by way of dismissing their heritage, and accepting the moral principles in the Seven Noahide laws. This right is reserved for all individuals, all families, and even all nations as a whole.
Accordingly, the ideal way to fulfill the mitzvah of wiping-out Amalek is for them to repent. Otherwise, there is an alternative way which is also l’chatchila (ideal) – to annihilate them in war.
In practice, the mitzvah has been fulfilled bediavad (in a less-than-ideal manner): over the years, the descendants of Amalek were scattered and assimilated among the nations, their trace of origin was lost, and the judgement of Amalek was annulled without their having repented. In practice, there is currently no way to annihilate them because they have assimilated amongst the nations; yet, their evil influence persists to a certain extent, and the only remaining way to amend the situation is for the entire world to repent, or for the onset of a major war, such as the war of Gog and Magog (Armageddon), in which all the wicked will perish.
The Descendants of Haman Learned Torah in B’nei Brak
Our Sages said that the descendants of Haman, who was an Amalekite, learned Torah in B’nei Brak (Gittin 57b; Sanhedrin 96b). This statement was made as praise for converts and the Torah, for it is inconceivable that the Sage’s intent was to insult those converts who learned Torah in B’nei Brak, because in addition to the prohibition of causing any Jew sorrow – including converts – there is an additional prohibition against upsetting a convert. In addition to the mitzvah of ‘love thy neighbor as thyself’ which is directed towards all Jews, there is also an additional mitzvah to love the convert.
May an Amalekite Convert to Judaism?
The poskim (Jewish law arbiters) differed on the question: can an Amalekite convert to Judaism? According to the Rambam (Maimonides), an Amalekite may convert (Hilchot Isurei Be’ah 12:17). According to this opinion, the descendants of Haman converted, and learned Torah in B’nei Brak.
On the other hand, some authorities say that it is forbidden to accept an Amalekite as a convert. This is the opinion of Rabbi Eliezer in the Mekhilta (end of Parshat ‘BeShalach’), namely, that God swore on His throne that if an Amalekite came to convert, He would not accept him. Regarding the Sages statement that the descendants of Haman learned Torah in B’nei Brak, according to this opinion, it occurred out of error, for the Beit Din was unaware that the person coming to convert was from the seed of Amalek, and thus accepted him, and after having already been accepted, they did not reject him (Yeshuot Malko). It is also possible that initially an Amalekite assimilated among another nation, and after his judgement of being an Amalekite was annulled, he converted, and his descendants were those teachers of Torah in B’nei Brak (Chida). Or, they were descendants of an Amalekite from the sons of Haman who raped a Jewish woman, her son being Jewish, and he begot those Torah teachers from B’nei Brak (see, Peninei Halakha: Z’manim 14:8, footnote 10).
Lessons for Our Times
After Amalek’s trace of origin was lost there is no Beit Din that possesses the legal authority to apply the law of Amalek from the Torah – a severe and dreadful law – on any tribe, or other family. However, from the moral and rational aspect of the mitzvah, it is essential to learn that punishment for the wicked who chose evil should be measure-for-measure, both morally, and also to deter them in order to save the world.
This article appears in the ‘Besheva’ newspaper, and was translated from Hebrew. Other interesting, informative, and thought-provoking articles by Rabbi Melamed can be found at: