Rabbi Eliezer Melamed
Rabbi Eliezer MelamedCourtesy

Our enemies constantly declare that they want to destroy us in the cruelest way possible, yet many of us have not internalized this. This is how we accepted the Oslo Accords, the withdrawal from Gush Katif, the agreements to release murderers in exchange for hostages – the most horrific of which was the release of Gilad Shalit in exchange for 1,027 terrorists. If we understood that we are dealing with enemies who truly want to destroy the State of Israel, we would strive for complete victory in which the enemy surrenders unconditionally, and only then, begin to consider the day after.

-What is the reasoning behind the Torah’s command to mercilessly eradicate Amalek, including women and children?

-Is there an obligation to kill an abandoned infant who is found to be of Amalekite descent?

-If it is definitively proven today that a person belonging to a certain people is actually of Amalekite descent, is there an obligation to kill him despite his not identifying as an Amalekite?

After the Amalekite nation became extinct and its memory was lost, why do we still have a mitzvah to read the portion about Amalek every year in Parshat Zachor?

1. The Reasoning behind Eradicating Amalek

Amalek was the bitterest enemy of Israel and humanity, as Amalek was a people who did not engage in agriculture or industry, but rather trained their youth to suddenly attack villages and caravans – to kill those in their way, plunder their property, and sell the remaining men, women and children into slavery. They were difficult to fight since they had no permanent dwelling. They wandered in the deserts, attacking a settlement every few months, murdering, looting and selling the captives into slavery.

It was impossible to predict where they would attack, as they roamed over hundreds of kilometers, threatening all settlements on the desert frontier. To defend against them required stationing a large guard force in every nearby town, which was impractical. So the Amalekites succeeded in killing and plundering during their attacks, until most frontier residents congregated in crowded areas, leaving vast food-producing lands desolate out of fear.

After the Israelites left Egyptian slavery, when they were tired and weary, the Amalekites began attacking them. Instead of seeing the magnitude of the miracle, or having mercy on the slaves who had just been freed, the Amalekites saw before them an opportunity to plunder booty and capture people to sell into slavery, and they began to prey on the stragglers behind the camp.

Even after Joshua, on the order of Moshe Rabbeinu, fought against them and drove them away, it was clear this would not be the last battle – as they roamed Israel’s borders, they would attack at any sign of weakness.

The Three Commandments Regarding Eradicating Amalek

We were therefore commanded three mitzvot:

1) A positive commandment to remember what Amalek did to us.

2) A negative commandment not to forget.

3) A positive commandment to erase Amalek’s descendants from the world (Deut. 25:17-19).

To eradicate Amalek required a large army to surround their vast area of activity, find them, block escape routes, engage in face-to-face battle, and destroy them. For this, the people of Israel needed to be established in its Land, and able to allocate large forces for an extended operation, as well as additional forces to guard the home front. This is why our Sages said (Sanhedrin 20b) that upon entering the Land, Israel was commanded three things: 1) to appoint a king. 2) Eradicate Amalek’s descendants. 3) And only then, build the Temple.

The Moral Logic behind the Mitzvah

From this, we can understand the moral logic behind the mitzvah – just as Amalek did to the cities they plundered, so too should be done to them. Indeed, they usually did not kill all the inhabitants of conquered cities, but that was only because they hoped to profit from selling them into slavery. If they found no buyers, they would kill them.

This measure was also necessary as a deterrent. One who pardons enemies and does not avenge them in kind, emboldens those enemies to fight against them. The great empires severely punished those who opposed them, thus creating a deterrence that sustained their rule for centuries.

Amalek – The Root of Evil in the World

On a deeper level, Amalek represents the root of evil in the world. Since the Exodus from Egypt until today, the greatest wicked have arisen specifically against the Jewish people. Just as the destiny of the Jewish people is to rectify the world, so do the world’s evils awaken to fight against it. Therefore, eradicating Amalek is eradicating the root of evil from the world.

2. Amalekites Can Repent

Although the Torah commanded eradicating Amalek’s descendants, any Amalekite who accepts the Seven Noahide Laws, exempts himself from this ruling. Some poskim (Jewish law arbiters) say we even accept converts from Amalek (Rambam, Laws of Forbidden Relations 12:17). Our Sages relate that descendants of Haman converted, and taught Torah in Bnei Brak. Others say we do not accept converts from them, but if they joined another nation after their origin was forgotten, we accept converts from them (Chida, see Peninei Halakha: Zemanim 14:8:10).

Not only that, but the Torah commanded that before going to war with Amalek, we must offer them peace – meaning, that they accept upon themselves the Seven Noahide Laws and the sovereignty of Israel. If they accept – we do not fight them. If not – we fight until they are annihilated (Rambam, Laws of Kings 6:1-4).

Thus, the ideal way to fulfill the mitzvah to eradicate Amalek is through their repentance. If not, there is another way le’chatchilah (ideal), which is to eradicate them through war. In practice, the mitzvah was fulfilled in a be’di’aved (ex post facto) way: over the years, their descendants dispersed and assimilated among the nations, and their Amalekite ancestry was forgotten, absolving them from the law of Amalek without repenting.

Must the Mitzvah be fulfilled on an Abandoned Infant?

From this, we can answer question 2): During wartime, the mitzvah was to not spare any soul, as morality demanded measure-for-measure, and to create deterrence, as was customary in those days. However, not during wartime, if an abandoned Amalekite infant is found, since he can be educated in the Noahide laws, he should not be killed.

3. One Whose Amalekite Descent is Revealed, but Identity is Different

Since we have learned that if an Amalekite accepts the Noahide laws he is exempt from the ruling, it follows that even if he changes his nationality and joins another nation, he is exempt from the Amalekite ruling. All the more so when his origins are forgotten, and he identifies from birth as belonging to another nation. In other words, the law of Amalek applies to one who ethnically and ideologically identifies as an Amalekite, not merely biological descent.

4. The Significance for Our Times

According to our Sages’ tradition, Amalek has become extinct from the world, so today there is no nation or individual subject to the Amalekite ruling.

But we are still commanded to remember the mitzvah and not forget it, because of the moral idea behind it.

This mitzvah may be especially important for Jews, who are naturally merciful and kind. Many Torah commandments educate us in this way, to the point that our nature would be to pardon Amalek, as long as they committed not to attack. Therefore, the Torah commanded us to remember Amalek’s deeds and eradicate them. Through this, we will remember that there is evil in the world, and when we must wage war, do so uncompromisingly until complete victory, as is customary in every generation. Only then can we rectify the world.

The Concept Was Fulfilled Because We Forgot Amalek

This year, we received a very painful reminder of this. Our enemies constantly declare their desire to destroy us in the cruelest possible way, yet many have failed to internalize this. This is how we accepted the Oslo Accords, the withdrawal from Gush Katif, the agreements to release murderers in exchange for hostages – the most horrific of which was the release of Gilad Shalit for 1,027 terrorists.

If we understood that we are dealing with enemies who truly want to destroy the State of Israel, we would strive for complete victory in which the enemy surrenders unconditionally, and only then consider the day after. But as long as we fail to understand this, many delude themselves into thinking that compromises can be found that will satisfy them.

Of course, war against the enemy must be conducted according to international law (as I explained in another article), but international law does not preclude total victory – it only prevents harm to uninvolved civilians that is not absolutely necessary.

We hope that by fulfilling the mitzvah of Zachor, from now on whenever there is an opportunity to strike the enemy, we will do so even if it consequently harms family members with them, as is permitted by international law.

Apparently, had we acted this way, we would have won victories, while also causing much less harm to “uninvolved” civilians.

We hope that by fulfilling the mitzvah of Zachor, we can revert to the Halakhic principle of not redeeming a captive for more than his value – i.e. one captive, in exchange for one captive. Had we acted this way in the past, most of the anguish experienced by families of captives would have been avoided. If we do not remember this, there is a serious concern that there will be more families of bereaved and captives in the future.

We hope that by fulfilling the mitzvah of Zachor, we can strengthen ourselves to continue the war until complete victory over the enemy, after which there will be no authority seeking to undermine Israel, whether it is called Hamas, or the Palestinian Authority.

Should We Rejoice on Purim This Year?

Even mourners are obligated to rejoice on Purim, all the more so, the Jewish people must rejoice, and through this, with God’s help, we will be strengthened to defeat our enemies. Admittedly, we should forgo acts of frivolity that are not a mitzvah obligation.

The Laws of Mourning 30 Days for Relatives, 12 Months for Parents

It is customary not to send mourners’ mishloach manot (meal portions), but the mourner must send portions even during the seven-day shiva period (Shulchan Arukh and Rema 695:6). Where it is not customary to greet mourners, portions are not sent to him during his mourning period (Rema 695:6, Mishnah Berurah 20-21).

When one spouse is a mourner, it is permissible to send portions to the other spouse.

The mourner is obligated to participate in the Purim seudot (festive meals) as is his regular custom, including music, if that is the custom. However, for large evening parties with musical instruments, since these are not included in the mitzvah obligation, it is preferable not to attend. One who regularly attends such parties and wishes to do so during his year of mourning, may do so.

This article appears in the ‘Besheva’ newspaper and was translated from Hebrew.