The Quest To Annihilate Amalek


“You shall blot out the remembrance of Amalek from under Heaven; do not forget!” [Deuteronomy 25:19].

Each year on Shabbat Zachor, the Shabbat preceding Purim, we read from a selection in Deuteronomy about the need to remember the vicious attack on the most vulnerable of the Israelites by the nation of Amalek. However, there is another record of the battle that appears elsewhere in the Torah, containing additional elements of the incident.

That account is in Exodus, the section read on Purim morning prior to the Megillah: “And then came Amalek and fought with Israel in Refidim. … And God said to Moses, ‘…I will blot out (‘emche’) the remembrance of Amalek from under heaven!’” [Ex. 17:8-16]. It is important to note that this section appears in its historical context, following the Exodus and prior to the giving of the Torah.

This is not so in Deuteronomy, where the reference to Amalek appears without warning and is out of historical context. “Remember what Amalek did to you on the way, when you were coming out of Egypt; how he met you by the way and smote your hindmost: all that were feeble in the rear, when you were faint and weary; and [Amalek] did not fear God. Therefore it shall be, when the Lord your God has given you rest from all your surrounding enemies, in the land that the Lord your God gives you for an inheritance to possess it, you shall blot out (‘timche’) the remembrance of Amalek from under Heaven; do not forget!” [Deut. 25:17-19].

A number of questions arise from these passages. First, the account in Deuteronomy provides many more details about the attack, greatly enriching our understanding of the account in Exodus. Why separate the dissemination of details into two sections?

Second, since the commandment is to blot out the memory of Amalek, what do its two different verb forms signify? In Exodus, God informs Moses, “I will blot out (‘emche’) the memory of Amalek,” whereas in Deuteronomy, Moses tells the people, “You shall blot out (‘timche’) the memory of Amalek.” Who is to actually do the job?

Finally, why is there a need for a special Shabbat dedicated to remembering Amalek’s genocide attempt, when only several days later, we will celebrate Purim, which records the destruction of Amalek’s infamous descendant, Haman?

To answer these questions, we turn to Maimonides’ Laws of Kings, where he codifies the commandment regarding the destruction of the seven indigenous nations in the land of Canaan. He concludes that this directive is no longer feasible, as “their identity and memory have been lost,” due to a policy of mass population transfer ordered by King Sancherib of Assyria, which “mixed the nations” that he conquered [Brachot 28a]. However, in the following paragraph, as Maimonides codifies the mandate to destroy Amalek, he omits mention of its identity having been lost [Laws of Kings 5:4-5].

On this basis of this critical difference, my revered mentor, Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik, cited his grandfather, Rav Chaim of Brisk, who distinguished between the physical nation of Amalek and the ideology of Amalek. The physical nation of Amalek once lived near Canaan (and which has since been rendered indistinguishable by Sancherib’s population transfer), while Amalek’s ideological goal is to destroy Israel and our unique message of compassionate righteousness and moral justice for the world.

Indeed, the ideology of Amalek exists in every generation, with many different identities, from Sparta-Rome, to the Ottoman Empire, to Nazi Germany, to ISIS and to modern-day Iran. They each believed that to the powerful victor belongs the spoils; they each maintain that might makes right.

With this in mind, our two passages can be better understood. The verses in Exodus describe the nation of Amalek attacking the Israelites with the aim of nothing less than total genocide. Even as we took up arms in self-defense, the Almighty promises that He will finish the job for us (“I will blot out Amalek”).

But Amalek is not merely a specific nation at a specific moment of Jewish history. It is an ideology, Amalek-ism, if you will: the denial and destruction of the Israelite mission.

From this perspective, the passage in Deuteronomy that we read on the Shabbat before Purim deals with the larger issue of Amalek-ism, not simply with the ancient nation of Amalek. It is no wonder, then, that this command to destroy Amalek is not within the historical context of the Exodus from Egypt. Rather, it is in the context of commandments, the means by which we are distinct and through which we will ultimately become a light unto all the nations, when everyone will accept at least the moral commands of our holy Torah.

Therefore, it is specifically on the Shabbat — a taste of the idyllic World to Come — before Purim when we bested Haman of Amalek, that we are commanded to “blot out” not only Amalek but Amalek-ism, by eventually converting all nations to the acceptance of Jewish morality, at the very least!

Rabbi Shlomo Riskin is the chancellor of Ohr Torah Stone and chief rabbi of Efrat.

Candlelighting, Readings:

Shabbat Candles: 5:22 p.m.

Torah: Ex. 27:20-30:10; Deut. 25:17-19

Haftarah: I Samuel 15:2-34

Havdalah: 6:22 p.m.