Beit Midrash

  • Torah Portion and Tanach
  • Zachor
To dedicate this lesson

"Zakhor" Before Purim

Amalek sought to demonstrate, by attacking the spiritually weak, those whom the Clouds of Glory had cast out, that the secret of Israel's power lay in their observance of the Torah and its commandments, that they possess no intrinsic sanctity.


Rabbi David Chai Hacohen

Adar 1 5768
1. "Zakhor" - Verbal Remembrance
2. Prior to Purim
3. Preparing for War

4. "Blot out the remembrance of Amalek"
5. A Two-Front War
6. Inherent Sanctity, Acquired Sanctity

"Zakhor" - Verbal Remembrance
By reading the "zakhor" Torah portion we are fulfilling a positive Torah commandment, "Remember what Amalek did to you" (Deuteronomy 15:3). The sages explain that this particular commandment is not fulfilled "in the heart" (i.e., via the mental faculty) as are other Torah obligations that call for remembering, like the Exodus and the Sabbath.

When it comes to remembering the actions of Amalek, we are bound by the Torah prohibition, "Do not forget" (Exodus 20:7). This prohibition obligates us to remember the actions of Amalek mentally. Now, since we are obligated to remember mentally, the "zakhor" commandment teaches us that we must also remember verbally, adding speech to thought.

How exactly do we fulfill this verbal obligation? The sages rule that we must read the "zakhor" portion from a kosher Torah scroll, as it is written regarding Amalek's act: "Write this for a memorial in the book" (Exodus 17:14). And because a Torah scroll can only be read if there are ten Jewish males present, the sages have ruled that this reading must take place in the synagogue, on the Sabbath.

The Torah reader must have intention to discharge all those listening as if they were themselves reading, and they too must have intention to fulfill their obligation as if they themselves were reading.

Prior to Purim
Why is the "zakhor" portion read on the Sabbath before Purim? The Talmud (Megillah 30a) explains: In the Scroll of Ester, which deals with Amalek in the form of Haman, it is written, "These days are remembered and practiced" (Ester 9:25), i.e., first remembrance and then practice. The sages therefore instituted that the "zakhor" (remembrance) portion be read just prior to Purim, when war was waged upon Amalek (practice).

Let us offer here a second explanation, one that allows us to clarify another matter related to the "zakhor" commandment.

The names of two personalities in the Book of Ester are mentioned with their family lineage: "Mordecai, son of Yair, son of Shim'i, son of Kish," and "Haman, son of Hamdata the Agagi." By relating these ancestral lines the Book of Ester wishes to teach us an important lesson.

One who examines this matter will find that the relationship between these two ancestries is close indeed. Mordecai is a descendent of Kish, the father of King Saul; Haman, on the other hand, is a descendent of Agag, the Amalekite king whom Saul, out of mercy, refrained from killing. From this mercy Haman was born.

Yet why is Mordecai's ancestry described as stemming from Kish, not Saul? If Scripture's intention is to insinuate that Mordecai's war on Haman was the direct consequence of Saul's unfinished war on Agag, why is Mordecai not presented as a descendent of Saul?

This may be seen as an allusion to the reason Saul did not complete the work himself: Saul's father is mentioned because mercy is the trait of the father, as the verse says, "As a father has mercy on his children" (Psalms 103:13). Saul was overcome with mercy for Agag. Here, the trait of mercy was shown incorrectly toward one whom the Torah commanded to mercilessly destroy. As a result, Saul's sin endangered the entire nation, and were it not for God's intervention, the entire Jewish people would have been annihilated.

Preparing for War
But why did God's anger go out against the entire nation because of the sin of an individual?

A possible explanation is that the Jewish people in fact had a part in this sin, for they witnessed King Saul's mercy upon Agag and refrained from condemning it. Furthermore, the Jewish people participated in Saul's sin by taking sheep and cattle from the plunder. This was forbidden, for God commanded that all trace of Amalek be wiped out: "Wipe out the memory of Amalek from under the Heavens" (Deuteronomy 25:19). In this manner, the war on Amalek would be dedicated to God, a "holy war," with no invested interests.

We find an allusion to this in the Book of Ester, where the Jewish people mend their ways and repent for this sin, as it is written, "And they did not lay their hands on the plunder" (Ester 9:15). In the Purim story, then, the Jews were threatened with complete annihilation, punishment for the mercy they showed toward Amalek in the days of King Saul, in violation of the Torah commandment to "remember what Amalek did to you."

This is why the sages chose to institute the reading of the "zakhor" portion for all generations at this particular time of year. By reading the "zakhor" portion in the synagogue, we publicize the fact that we have repented for our sin. In other words, the purpose of our remembrance is to proclaim that if we should suddenly have the opportunity to wipe out Amalek, we are ready to do so.

In light of the above, we can point to three distinct objectives involved in the reading of the "zakhor" portion:

a. To fulfill the commandment to remember, "zakhor."

b. To fulfill the commandment "Do not forget," through purposeful intention.

c. To declare our readiness to fulfill the Torah commandment, "Wipe out all memory of Amalek from under the heavens." True, we don't fulfill the commandment in practice, but the sages teach: If a person thinks about performing a commandment but is unable to do so, the Torah views him as if he had fulfilled it.

What we have, then, is a new understanding of the sages' explanation for zakhor's proximity to Purim - that remembrance precedes practice. We learn from Purim, wherein the Jews waged war upon their enemies and took revenge upon Amalek, that we too must be ready to go from remembering to doing. It is not enough to read about these matters; we must be ready to wage war upon the enemies of God should the opportunity offer itself.

"Blot out the remembrance of Amalek"
This explains another matter. The "Terumat Hadeshen," Rabbi Yisrael Isserlin ben Petahiah, one of the great Jewish legal authorities, writes that the commandment to read the "zakhor" portion, because it is a Torah commandment, is more important than the reading of the Book of Ester on Purim, the obligation of which stems from the Prophets and members of the Great Assembly. Therefore, if a person must choose between hearing "zakhor" read on the Sabbath before Purim and hearing the Book of Ester read on Purim itself, he should give preference to "zakhor."

However, the "Magen Avraham," Rabbi Avraham Gombiner, disagrees and writes that it is preferable to hear the Book of Ester read in the synagogue on Purim. This is because on Purim we read from the "beshalach" Torah portion, where it is written, "And Amalek came and waged war on Israel." By doing this we fulfill the commandment of "zakhor" together with the reading of the Book of Ester, and two are better than one.

Two leading Torah authorities close to our own generation, the Mishnah Berurah and the Arukh Hashulchan, disagree with Magen Avraham. They agree with Terumat HaDeshen, who says that one fulfills his obligation to recall Amalek's deeds via the "zakhor" portion alone, not the "beshalach" portion. The Arukh Hashulchan brings support for this position from Rambam in his "Sefer Hamitzvot" (Positive Commandment 189) where Rambam explains that the reason behind the commandment to remember Amalek is that our antagonism toward Amalek not be weakened over the course of time. We must be prepared to wage war upon Amalek without any weakness.

The purpose of remembering Amalek's deeds, then, is to prepare us for waging war on Amalek in the future. In the "beshalach" portion it is written (Deuteronomy 25:19): "Write this for a memorial in the book and repeat it in the ears of Joshua: For I will utterly blot out the remembrance of Amalek from under heaven . . . the Lord will have war with Amalek from generation to generation." In other words God, not Israel, will wage war upon Amalek.

In the "zakhor" portion, though, it is written, "When God gives you rest from all of your enemies around you, blot out the remembrance of Amalek from under heaven, do not forget." This means that the matter of remembrance is bound up with the commandment to wage war upon Amalek.

According to the Rambam, then, one can only fulfill correctly the commandment to remember Amalek's doings by reading "zakhor." The goal of remembering Amalek orally is to prepare us for the real act of destroying him and his offspring.

A Two-Front War
The Chofetz Chaim, in "Mishnah Berurah" brings a different reason for rejecting the position of Magen Avraham." The verse states specifically what one must remember:

"He met you by the way and smote the hindmost of you, all that were enfeebled in your rear, when you were faint and weary; and he feared not God. Therefore, it shall be, when the Lord your God has given you rest from all of your enemies round about, in the land that the Lord your God gives you for an inheritance to possess it, that you shall blot out the remembrance of Amalek from under Heaven; you must not forget" (Deuteronomy 25:17-19).

The Mishnah Berurah does not specify what important matter it is that is missing from the passage in "beshalach." Yet, in light of what we have said thus far, it is possible to explain this matter in the following manner:

The "beshalach" portion relates that Amalek attacked Israel and Moses sent Joshua into the battle. Moses, on the other hand, ascended the mountain and raised his hands toward Heaven. When the Children of Israel saw Moses' hands stretched out to heaven and surrendered their hearts to God, they prevailed in battle, and when Moses lowered his hands, the enemy prevailed. At the end of the war, Joshua subdued the enemy and God announced that He would be at war with Amalek "from generation to generation."

In the "beshalach" portion, then, the entire emphasis is upon the spiritual factor and its bearing upon the war. The battle with Amalek took place in Refidim, and the sages explain that the word "Refidim" insinuates weakness, "For their hold on Torah became weak." Likewise, when they surrendered their hearts to heaven (i.e., when they prayed), they prevailed in battle. What is more, the Torah calls this "God's war," which teaches us that the war was essentially a spiritual one, relating to Torah alone.

In the "zakhor" portion, on the other hand, the war is seen from the perspective of Israel, unrelated to the spiritual element. Here we are commanded to blot out Amalek because of what they did to us, unrelated to God. In other words, it is not God who does the blotting out, but we.

Inherent Sanctity, Acquired Sanctity
It is difficult to understand why the Torah gives preference to the depiction of the war that relates to Israel as opposed to the depiction that relates to God, for God's connection to the war would appear to be the more significant. Let us try to explain this matter based upon ideas expressed by Rabbi A.I. Kook in a letter he wrote to the Ridbaz, Rabbi Yaakov David Willowsky, in 5673 (1913).

There are two ingredients, Rabbi Kook explains, that make up the sanctity of Israel. One is a unique inner quality that God implanted in the heart of Israel when creating them, as it is written: "The nation that I formed for myself, that they might proclaim my glory" (Isaiah 43:21).

This unique inner quality does not depend upon good deeds and Torah study. It is an intrinsic inner bond with God's sanctity, and it exists in the soul of every Jew like the bond between father and son. It is thus written, "You are sons of God your Lord" (Deuteronomy 14:1). Even the gravest of sins cannot blemish this unique quality, as the sages say, "Even if a Jew sins, he remains a Jew" (Sanhedrin 44a). However, God decided that in our world this unique inner quality would remain outwardly indiscernible.

The second ingredient that makes up Israel's holiness depends upon human effort through the study of Torah, the fulfillment of commandments, and the doing of good deeds. This is enunciated by the Torah many times, for example, "If you follow my laws...the land shall yield its produce" (Leviticus 26:3-4).

It is important to understand that the principal reason for God's choosing the Jewish people is the inner quality. If spiritual status was dependent on actions alone, there would be no difference between us and the nations, for they too enjoy free will. We underscore this point every week in the "havdala" ceremony. The difference between Israel and other nations is intrinsic, like, as we say in "havdala," the difference "between sacred and mundane, light and darkness."

Amalek, unable to harm the holy servants of God who enjoyed the protection of the Clouds of Glory, struck at the religiously weak Jews, regarding whom it is written, "Amalek...met you by the way, and struck at your rear, all who were feeble behind you, when you were faint and weary; and he did not fear God. (Deuteronomy 25:18). Amalek sought to demonstrate, by attacking those whom the clouds had cast out, that the secret of Israel's power lay in their observance of commandments, that they possess no intrinsic sanctity.

Therefore, the Torah commands, "Remember what Amalek did to you by the way,..[how he] struck at your rear, all who were feeble behind you." Amalek sought to strike Israel in that place where their sanctity comes through human effort, and therefore, we are commanded to wage war ourselves, not to leave the war to God. If the battle were left in God's hands, it would appear as if the revenge had come through Israel's inner sanctity alone.

The Almighty concerns Himself with Israel's honor, for Israel's honor is His honor. This includes the spiritually weak among them. Israel's inherent sanctity is much greater than the sanctity they acquire through commandments. The sanctity of the Torah and its commandments, which is acquired via human effort, cannot compare to the sanctity God has himself implanted in Israel. This can be compared to the difference between the sanctity of the Sabbath, which stems from the creator, and the sanctity of the festivals, which is wrought through Israel.

Here, then, we have another reason for reading the "zakhor" portion before Purim. The "beshalach" portion does not mention the fact that Amalek attacked the weak.

We might add another important matter that is discernable in the "zakhor" portion but absent from the "beshalach" portion: The commandment to wipe out Amalek applies specifically when we are settled upon the soil of the land of Israel, as it is written, "Therefore it shall be, when the Lord your God has given you rest from all your enemies around, in the land which the Lord your God gives you for an inheritance to possess, that you shall blot out the remembrance of Amalek from under heaven." From here it follows that the great illumination emitted by the Jewish people's unique inner sanctity is manifest principally in the land of Israel.

Only when the nation of Israel is in the land of Israel does it have the power, being holy and lofty and because the forces of good are established and organized, to fulfill its destiny to destroy the evil and impure powers of Amalek.
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