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Remembering Amalek: Halachos of Parashas Zachor

This week, in addition to the reading of the weekly parashah, we read the annual reading of Parashas Zachor. In so doing, we fulfill the Torah obligation of remembering that which Amalek did to us on the way from Egypt, as the pasuk teaches: “Remember that which Amalek did to you on the way, as you went forth from Egypt” (Devarim 25:17).

In this week’s article we will focus on the halachic details of this obligation. Does the reading of Parashas Zachor involve a Torah or rabbinic obligation? Must the reading be from a Sefer Torah, and with a congregation? Are women obligated in hearing the annual reading?

We will deal with these questions, and others, by investigating the mitzvah from its primary sources.

A Torah Mitzvah

As noted above, there is a Biblical commandment to remember (mentally and verbally) what Amalek did to the Jewish People upon leaving Egypt. Does this mean that there is a Torah obligation to read the Torah reading of Parashas Zachor?

According to Tosafos, the answer is affirmative. Dwelling on a teaching in the Gemara (Berachos 13a) which appears to imply that there is a Torah-mandated Torah reading, Tosafos explains: “One can answer that this refers to chapters that must be read by Torah injunction, such as Parashah Zachor.”

Thus, according to Tosafos it appears that the fulfillment of remembering Amalek requires a reading from the Torah. Citing from Tosafos, the Beis Yosef (Orach Chaim 685) mentions this opinion, and it is likewise cited by the Shulchan Aruch (686:7; see also 146:2).

The Rosh (Berachos 7:20), moreover, implies that not only is the Torah reading Biblically commanded, but that even reading the chapter with a minyan (a congregation of ten men) is a Torah mandated law (see also Shaar Hatzion 685:5).

This assertion requires analysis: Since the Torah makes no mention of an obligation to read the chapter with a quorum of ten men, how can this detail be included in the Torah injunction?

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, and therefore be fulfilled amid a quorum of ten men.

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 of rabbinic 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 (on a rabbinic level, we are obligated in reading Parashas Zachor—in fulfilling the Torah obligation.

The Ramban (Ki Teitzei) expresses doubt over this matter, and concludes that “the correct way in my opinion” is 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.”

The Shulchan Aruch (685:7) quotes the opinion (in the name of “some say”) that the Torah reading of Parashas Zachor is a Torah obligation: “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 Shabbasos” (see also Shulchan Aruch 146:2).

Fulfilling the Mitzvah with Other Readings

The wording of the Rambam suggests a close connection between the mitzvah of remembering Amalek, and this mitzvah of wiping out the evil nation: “We are instructed to remember that which Amalek did to us […] and 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.”

The mitzvah, according to the Rambam, is to remember the evil that Amalek did to us, and therefore to awaken ourselves to hate Amalek and to destroy it. The Rambam likewise writes that the mitzvah is to remember Amalek until we obliterate it from beneath the heavens.

This connection will possibly help us in understanding the dispute between the Magen Avraham and the Mishnah Berurah concerning fulfilling the mitzvah by means of with other Torah 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.

Yet, both the Mishnah Berurah (686:16) and the Aruch Hashulchan take issue with this ruling, explaining that part of the mitzvah to remember is also to wage war and take revenge against Amalek, an obligation exclusively delineated in Parshas Zachor (of Devarim). The connection between remembering and destroying, as implied by the Rambam, is the foundation for this opinion.

According to the Magen Avraham, we can explain that although the mitzvos of remembering and obliterating are closely related, this does not mean that in fulfilling the mitzvah of remembering we must make actual mention of wiping out Amalek. It suffices, according to the Magen Avraham, 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 there is no need to use a kosher Sefer Torah, and explains that the entire obligation (for regular Torah readings) of reading from a kosher 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).

The Minchas Elazar writes that the congregants erred in so doing, for Parashas Zachor can even be read from a chumash, and the more so from a disqualified Sefer Torah. There was therefore no 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.

The Time of the Mitzvah

The Chasam Sofer (Even Ha-Ezer 1:119) elaborates on the timing of reading Parashas Zachor, explaining that the principle Torah obligation is to recall Amalek and its wicked deeds once yearly.

This halachah is derived from the laws of aveilus (mourning), where we find that 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.” This is likewise implied by the Rambam’s wording in the Laws of Kings (5:5): “It is incumbent on us to always remember his evil deeds and his ambush.”

We are thus obligated to mention the deeds of Amalek from time to time, ensuring that it should not be forgotten from our hearts.

A similar understanding emerges from the wording of the Chinuch, who writes that we must recall Amalek “once a year, or two, or three.” The general principle is that we must remember the matter of Amalek always, requiring periodical reminders, so that we should not forget the matter.

Are Women Obligated?

The Chinuch (loc. cit.) writes that the mitzvah to remember Amalek is only applicable 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 (Nisan 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, the Radvaz (Melachim 7:4) explains that this does not mean that women actually fight in combat, but rather that they participate in the general war effort by ensuring the soldiers’ provisions, and other tasks. Since women don’t participate in the actual physical destruction of Amalek, the reasoning of the Chinuch will stand.

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) and 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. He does not clarify which poskim constitute this “majority”.

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).

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  1. I see the psak of the Yalkut Yosef is not included.

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