The annual reading of Parashas Zachor fulfills the obligation of remembering the deed of Amalek as the Children of Israel traversed from Egypt. The memory of Amalek is a Torah instruction, as the pasuk teaches: “Remember that which Amalek did to you on the way, as you went forth from Egypt” (Devarim 25:17).
In the present article we will focus on the halachic details of the obligation to read Parashas Zachor. Does it involve a Torah or rabbinic obligation? Must the reading be from a Sefer Torah, and with a congregation? What is the proper timing for fulfilling the mitzvah? And are women obligated in hearing the annual reading?
These questions, among others, are discussed below.
A Torah Mitzvah
As noted above from the passage in Devarim, there is a Biblical commandment to remember that which Amalek did to the Jewish People upon leaving Egypt. The Gemara teaches that this recall must be performed verbally. Since the Torah also states that we must “not forget” the deed of Amalek, the instruction to “remember” must refer to a verbal, rather than to mental recall alone (Megillah 18a).
However, this still leaves many open questions concerning the way in which the mitzvah is fulfilled. What is the time frame for the mitzvah: constantly, daily, annually, or once in a lifetime? Does is require the reading of a specific text, or can it be fulfilled with any wording? Can the mitzvah be fulfilled personally, or does it require a communal setting?
The answers to these questions are significant in defining the obligation of reading Parashas Zachor: Is this a Torah obligation? According to Tosafos, the answer is affirmative. The Gemara (Berachos 13a) makes a statement that seems to imply that communal reading from the Torah is a Torah-mandated obligation. Tosafos is bothered by this, for surely reading from the Torah is a rabbinic enactment made by Ezra the Scribe? One answer given by Tosafos is that “this refers to chapters that must be read by Torah injunction, such as Parashah Zachor.”
It seems that according to this approach the fulfillment of remembering Amalek requires specifically a Torah reading. According to some, the Rosh (Berachos 7:20), moreover, implies that not only is the Torah reading Biblically commanded, but that even reading the passage with a minyan is a Torah mandated law (see also Shaar Hatzion 685:5). The Keren Orah (Berachos 5a) explains that the mitzvah of remembering is associated with the mitzvah of waging war against and wiping out the people of Amalek. Just as the obligation to obliterate Amalek falls on the entire congregation, so the mitzvah to recall Amalek falls on the congregation. It must therefore be fulfilled with a minyan.
Citing from Tosafos, the Beis Yosef (Orach Chaim 685) mentions this opinion, and it is likewise cited by the Shulchan Aruch (686:7, in the name of “some say”): “Some say that the readings of Parashas Zachor and Parashas Parah are Torah obligations, and therefore those who dwell in places where there is no minyan must ensure they go to a town where there is a minyan on these Shabbosos” (see also Shulchan Aruch 146:2).
Recalling Amalek by Any Means
According to other opinions, it appears that the Torah obligation of recalling Amalek does not require a Torah reading and can be fulfilled by any means of verbal recall. The Torah reading, rather, fulfills a rabbinic mitzvah, upholding the directive of the Sages who instructed us to fulfill the mitzvah by this specific means.
A similar understanding emerges from the explanation given by the Rambam to the obligation to “remember the day of the Sabbath, to sanctify it.” The Rambam writes (Shabbos 29:5; Sefer Ha-Mitzvos 155; Chinuch 31) that there is no specific liturgy that must be used to fulfill the Torah obligation. Rather, each person can fulfill the mitzvah with his own words. The instruction to fulfill the mitzvah specifically by means of the Kiddush liturgy, is rabbinic in nature.
The Rambam does not elaborate on how the mitzvah of recalling Amalek must be fulfilled (see Sefer Ha-Mitzvos 189; Hilchos Melachim 5:5; Chinuch 603), suggesting that there is likewise no specific wording that must be used on a Torah level, while the reading of Parashas Zachor is rabbinic alone.
The Ramban (Devarim 25, 17) expresses doubt over this matter, and concludes that there is no obligation (on a Torah level) to use the specific wording of the Torah chapter: “The correct way, in my opinion, is that the instruction is not to forget that which Amalek did to us, until we obliterate his name from beneath the heavens. This we must tell our children and our generations, informing them of the wickedness that was done to us, and that therefore we are commanded to obliterate his name.”
Timing of the Mitzvah
Based on Tosafos, it moreover seems that the time frame for fulfilling the mitzvah is once a year.
The Chasam Sofer (Even HaEzer 1:119) elaborates on this idea, explaining that the Torah obligation to recall Amalek once yearly is derived from the laws of aveilus (mourning), where the twelve-month mourning period (over parents) reflects the time it takes for the matter to be forgotten from one’s heart. To ensure that we do not forget the matter of Amalek, we must therefore read the passage of Amalek once yearly. Based on the Torah obligation, the Sages thus enacted the annual reading of Parashas Zachor, by which we fulfill the mitzvah.
Even in a leap year, which includes thirteen months, the Chasam Sofer explains that the annual reading suffices. The reason for this is that human nature of forgetting after a year does not depend solely on the elapsed time, but even on the passage of the seasonal events that pass us by yearly. Only after a complete yearly cycle does the human weakness of forgetting take effect.
Nonetheless, the Maharam Schick (Mitzvos, no. 604) writes that the Chasam Sofer himself ordered his disciples on leap years to have intention to fulfill the mitzvah of remembering Amalek with the Torah reading of Ki Teitzei. This ensures that a twelve-month period will not elapse without a reading of the chapter.
By contrast with this opinion, the wording of the Rambam implies that there is no specific timing for the fulfillment of the mitzvah, as he writes: “To remember that which Amalek did to us… and to mention it at all times.” In Hilchos Melachim (5:5) he also writes that the mitzvah is “constant”: “It is a positive command to constantly remember their evil deeds and ambush, to arouse hatred for them.”
Based on the Rambam, we need to constantly remember Amalek and their evil deeds, and it seems that the verbal obligation will apply to the degree required to ensure constant memory.
The Sefer Hachinuch (Mitzvah 603) has a doubt how often one needs to remember “perhaps once a year, or once in two or three years” and says certainly one must remember the wickedness of Amalek once in his lifetime. Therefore, “If a person never mentioned it with his mouth once in his entire life, then he has transgressed”
Note the Shelah writes that there is a great mitzvah to say this passage every day to fulfill the mitzvah to “remember” (Torah Shebiksav, Parshas Ki Seitzei).
Fulfilling the Mitzvah with Other Readings
The Magen Avraham (685:1) writes that one fulfills his requirement with the reading of Purim morning, which is taken from Parshas Beshalach and recounts the war against Amalek. According to this ruling, the mitzvah is fulfilled with alternative readings concerning Amalek, and not specifically with Parashas Zachor.
Yet, both the Mishnah Berurah (686:16) and the Aruch Hashulchan question this ruling, explaining that part of the mitzvah is to remember to wage war and take revenge against Amalek, an obligation exclusively delineated in Parshas Zachor (of Devarim). The connection between remembering and destroying is implied by the Rambam, who writes that remembering Amalek is necessary “to awaken the spirits with our words to fight him, and to inspire the nation to hate him, so that we will not forget the mitzvah and we will not weaken.”
According to the Magen Avraham, it seems that it is sufficient to mention Amalek and its evil, which will automatically lead us to hate the nation and seek its destruction.
Using a Kosher Sefer Torah
On account of the obligation to read Parashas Zachor by means of a Torah reading, the Peri Megadim (M.Z. 143:1) rules as simple that a kosher Sefer Torah must be used for the reading.
However, Shut Shoel U-Meishiv (III, vol. 1, no. 390) writes that if necessary one can use a not completely kosher Sefer Torah, since the entire obligation to read Parshas Zochor from a Sefer Torah is because “matters that are written may not be recited by heart.” Therefore, the principle mitzvah of recalling Amalek is fulfilled even without a kosher Sefer Torah.
This ruling is also given by Shut Maharam Schick (Yoreh De’ah, end of book).
Shut Minchas Elazar (Vol. 2, no. 1) elaborates on an actual case in which two sections of a Sefer Torah came apart before the reading of Parashas Zachor. To ensure that the Sefer Torah should not be disqualified, the congregants tied the section together—even though it was Shabbos—by means of an anivah (a slip knot) made by two people. Their logic was that one may violate a rabbinic prohibition in order to fulfill a Torah obligation.
The Minchas Elazar writes that the congregants erred in so doing, for the Torah command to hear Parashas Zachor can even be fulfilled without a qualified Sefer Torah. There was therefore no Biblical need to fix the Sefer Torah before reading Parashas Zachor.
A similar ruling is also given by Rav Shlomo Zalman Auerbach zt”l (Shulchan Shlomo 685), who explains that if a flaw is found in the Sefer Torah after Parashas Zachor was already read, there is no need to read the chapter again.
Are Women Obligated?
The Chinuch (loc. cit.) writes that the mitzvah to remember Amalek only applies to men, because they are the ones who are commanded to fight Amalek. This ruling is derived from the connection, as noted above, between the mitzvah of remembering Amalek, and the mitzvah of wiping it out.
The Minchas Chinuch questions this on several counts, noting that there is no apparent basis for the connection between recalling Amalek and destroying it, and adding that we find that even women are obligated in a milchemes mitzvah (a Torah-mandated war), thereby including them in the obligation of destroying Amalek. He therefore rules that women are biblically commanded to remember Amalek.
However, several authorities testify that the ancient custom was that women do not go to shul to hear the reading of Parashas Zachor, as noted by Shut Toras Chesed (37). Kovetz Kol Torah (Nissan 5763) likewise cites from Rav Moshe Feinstein that there is no custom for women to go to hear the reading, and Rav Chaim Kanievsky has stated in the name of the Chazon Ish that there is no obligation for women to hear the reading (cited in Taama Di-Kra).
Concerning the observation of the Minchas Chinuch that even women are obligated in fighting a Torah mandated war, it should be noted that the Radvaz (Melachim 7:4) suggests that this does not mean that women actually fight in combat since that does not jive with the the posuk “the honor of woman is to remain private”, but rather that they participate in the general war effort by supporting the war effort.
In a similar light, Rav Moshe Shternbuch (Moadim U-Zmanim 2:168) writes women are not obligated in reading Parshas Zachor with the tzibur, can rely on their own reading from a chumash to fulfill the mitzvah.
Yet, a number of authorities do obligate woman in hearing Parashas Zachor, as the Minchas Chinuch writes. The Binyan Tzion (2:8) relates that Rav Nosson Adler was very stringent in ensuring that everyone in his household, both men and women, would go to shul and hear the reading.
The Avnei Nezer (509) also questions the ruling of the Chinuch, and the Minchas Yitzchak (9:68) writes that “the majority of Poskim” rule that even women are obligated. In Jerusalem, many women attend the reading of Parashas Zachor, perhaps on account of the Maharil Diskin, who was among the leading scholars of Jerusalem, and who advocated women hearing the reading. Even for those who wish to be stringent, it is noteworthy that Rav Moshe Feinstein was opposed to making a special reading of Parshas Zachor for women only (cited in Moadei Yeshurun).