The tribe of Amalek has become for the Jewish tradition the symbol of all that is considered demonic. The Torah prescribes that the tribe be both annihilated, on the one hand, and remembered for its dastardly acts, on the other. Yet when it comes to spelling out what exactly those acts were and why they occurred, the accounts in the Torah are laconic and surprisingly lacking details.
There are two accounts of the acts of Amalek in the Torah, one in the book of Shemot (the end of Parashat Beshallach) which we read as the special Torah reading on Purim morning and the other in the book of Devarim (the end of Parashat Ki Tetzei) which we read as the special Torah reading for Shabbat Zachor. In addition there is an episode in the book of Samuel involving Israel’s first king, Saul, the prophet Samuel and the tribe of Amalek.
In the rabbinic treatment of these passages, I intend to show you three approaches (among others) to the question of what made the Amalekites different from other enemies, but more on that later. Presently, I want to examine the two sources from the Torah and two compare them to note the differences in their approaches.
Sources From the Torah
Questions and Comments
- Describe what goes on in verses 8-13. Who is involved in the action?
- Who will “blot out” Amalek according to verses 14-16?
- Can you discern a particularly unusual sin on the part of Amalek?
- Take a look at verse 16. Does this offer an answer to the previous question?
Questions and Comments
- How does this passage differ from the passage in Shemot?
- What is Amalek’s sin according to this passage?
- Who has the responsibility for blotting out Amalek according to this passage?
A. Our first selection comes from a midrashic collection called the “Mechilta deRabbi Yishmael”. This is a midrash from the period of the Mishnah on the book of Exodus. That makes it one of the earliest rabbinic midrashim on the book of Exodus.
This passage will include a midrash on the opening words of the passage from Exodus, in particular, the first two words: ” ויבא עמלק ” – “Then came Amalek”. Since these words do not specify for what purpose Amalek came, it gives the sages an opportunity to fill in this gap. It will be your responsibility in this lesson to catalogue the different approaches to this question.
1. מכילתא דרבי ישמעאל בשלח – מסכתא דעמלק פרשה א
1. ויבא עמלק,
2. ר’ יהושע ור’ אלעזר חסמא אומר המקרא הזה רשום כאן ומפורש על ידי איוב שנ’ היגאה גומא בלא ביצה ישגא אחו בלי מים (איוב ח יא) וכי איפשר לגומא זה להתגדל בלא ביצה ובלא מים הישגא אחו בלי מים וכי איפשר לאחו זה לחיות בלי מים כך אי איפשר לישראל בלא תורה ולפי שפירשו מדברי תורה לכך בא עליהם השונא שאין השונא בא אלא על החטא ועל העבירה לכך נאמר ויבא עמלק
3. רבי אלעזר המודעי אומר ויבא עמלק לפי שהיה עמלק נכנס תחת כנפי ענן וגונב נפשות מישראל והורגן שנ’ אשר קרך בדרך וגו’ (דברים כה יח).
4. אחרים אומרים ולא ירא אלהים אלו ישראל שלא היו בידם מצות.
5. רבי אליעזר אומר ויבא עמלק שבא בגלוי פנים לפי שכל הביאות שבא לא בא אלא במטמוניות שנאמר אשר קרך בדרך וגו’ אבל ביאה זו לא בא אלא בגילוי פנים לכך נאמר ויבא עמלק שבא בגלוי פנים.
6. רבי יוסי בן חלפתא אומר ויבא עמלק שבא בעצה מלמד שכנס כל אומות העולם ואמר להם בואו וסייעוני על ישראל אמרו לו לא נוכל לעמוד כנגדן פרעה שעמד כנגדן טבעו המקום הוא וחילו בים סוף שנ’ וניער פרעה וחילו בים סוף (תהלים קלו טו) והיאך אנו נוכל לעמוד כנגדן אמר להם בואו ואתן לכם עצה מה תעשו אם הם ינצחוני ברחו לכם ואם לאו בואו וסייעוני על ישראל לכך נאמר ויבא עמלק שבא בעצה.
7. רבי יהודה הנשיא אומר חמשה עממים פסע עמלק ובא ונלחם עם ישראל שנ’ עמלק יושב בארץ הנגב החתי והחוי והיבוסי והאמורי יושב בהר (במדבר יג כט) לפי שהיה לפנים מכולן.
8. רבי נתן אומר לא בא עמלק אלא מהררי שעיר ארבע מאות פרסה פסע עמלק ובא ונלחם עם ישראל.
9. אחרים אומרים יבא עמלק כפוי טובה ויפרע מן העם כפויי טובה.
Mechilta deRabbi Yishmael Tractate Amalek Chapter 1 (Ex. 17.8-13)
1. Then Came Amalek.
2. R. Joshua and R. Eleazar Hisma say: This verse is to be taken in an allegorical sense and explained in connection with the passage in Job where it is said: “Can the rush shoot up without mire? Can the reed-grass grow without water” (Job 8.11). Is it possible for the rush to grow without mire and without water, or is it possible for the reed-grass to exist without wa ter? So also is it impossible for Israel to exist unless they busy themselves with the words of the Torah. And because they separated themselves from the Torah the enemy came upon them. For the enemy comes only because of sin and transgression. In this sense it is said: “Then came Amalek.”
3. R. Eleazar of Modim says: Then Came Amalek. Because Amalek would come in under the very wings of the cloud and steal people of Israel and kill them, as it is said: “How he met thee by the way . . . and he feared not God” (Deut. 25.18).
4. Others say: “And he feared not God,” refers to Israel who had no meritorious deeds.
5. R. Eliezer says: Then Came Amalek. He came with defiance. Because all other times that he came, he came secretly, as it is said: “How he met thee by the way,” etc. This coming, however, was not so, but was with defiance. In this sense it is said: “Then came Amalek”—he came with defiance.
6. R. Jose b. Halafta says: Then Came Amalek. He came with a plan. Amalek had assembled all the nations and said to them: Come and help me against Israel. But they said to him: We will not be able to stand against them. Pharaoh could not stand against them, for God drowned him in the Red Sea, as it is said: “And He overthrew Pharaoh and his host in the Red Sea” (Ps. 136.15). How shall we be able to stand against them? Then he said to them: You come and act according to this plan which I give you: If they defeat me, you flee; if not, then you come and help me against Israel. In this sense it is said: “Then came Amalek”—he came with a plan.
7. R. Judah the prince says: Amalek had to make his way through five nations to come and wage war against Israel. For it is said: “Amalek dwelleth in the land of the South” (Num. 13.29) —he was in the interior beyond all of them.
8. R. Nathan says: Amalek came only from the mountains of Seir. He crossed four hundred parasangs to come and wage war against Israel.
9. Others say: Let Amalek the ungrateful come and punish the people who were ungrateful.
Comments and Questions
1. As I said before, it is for you task is to catalogue the different approaches in this passage to the question of Amalek’s accountability.
B . Our second set of selections comes from a later collection of midrashim – Pesikta deRav Kahana, from the period of the Talmud in Eretz Yisrael. These midrashim are primarily based on the passage from Devarim (source 2) but also involve the passage from Shemot.
(טו) פסקא ג אות טו (טו) ר' יהושע בן לוי בשם ר' אלכסנדרי כתוב אחד או' תמחה את זכר עמלק (דברים כה יט) וכת' אחד או' כי מחה אמחה את זכר עמלק (שמות יז יד) הא כיצד יתקיימו שני כתובים עד שלא פשט ידו בכסא תמחה עמלק ומשפשט ידו בכסא כי מחה אמחה את זכר עמלק ובשר ודם איפשר לפשוט ידיו בכסאו של הקב"ה אלא על ידי שהיה עומד להחריב את ירושלם דכת' בה בעת ההיא יקראו לירושלם כסא י"י (ירמיה ג יז) לפיכך כי מחה אמחה את זכר עמלק מתחת השמים (שמות שם
(15) R’ Yehoshua ben Levi said in the name of R’ Alexandri: one verse says “…you shall obliterate the remembrance of Amalek…” (Deuteronomy 25:19) and another verse says “…I will surely obliterate the remembrance of Amalek…” (Exodus 17:14) How will both of these verses be fulfilled? Before he has reached out his hand against the throne ‘you shall obliterate Amalek.’ Once he has reached out his hand against the throne ‘I will surely obliterate the remembrance of Amalek.’ And is it possible for flesh and blood to raise his hand against the throne of the Holy One?! Rather, since he was about to destroy Jerusalem, as it is written “At that time, they will call Jerusalem the Throne of the Lord…” (Jeremiah 3:17) therefore “…I will surely obliterate the remembrance of Amalek from beneath the heavens.”
Comments and Questions
1. This midrash does something fascinating. It compares and contrasts the passage in Shemot with the passage in Devarim and tries to reconcile them by giving the conflicting verses separate meaning. In the process, this midrash gives us a whole new perspective on Amalek’s sin. Describe it.
ר' לוי בשם ר' חונא בר' חנינא כל זמן שזרעו של עמלק קיים בעולם לא השם שלם ולא הכסא שלם אבד זרעו של עמל' מן העולם השם שלם והכסא שלם ומה טעמא האויב תמו חרבות לנצח וערים נטשת אבד זכרם המה (תהלים ט ז) מה כת' בתריה וי"י לעולם ישב כונן למשפט כסאו (שם ח) חסילה פרשתא
R. Levi said in the name of R. Hama bar R. Hanina: The name of the Lord will not be complete, and the throne of the Lord will not be whole as long as Amalek’s seed endures in the world; but when Amalek’s seed perishes from the world, the Name will be complete and the throne will be whole. And the proof? The verse The destructions of the enemy are come to a perpetual end, and their cities Thou didst uproot, their very memorial is perished (Ps. 9:7). What does the text at once go on to say? The Lord is enthroned; He hath prepared His throne for judgment (Ps. 9:8)
Comments and Questions
1 This midrash is theologically on the same wave length as the previous one but sees in Amalek a cosmic threat. What is that threat and how can it be rectified?
I have a general comment or two before we get to the material at hand. A common phenomenon has come to my attention. We human beings have a common tendency to make associations and generalizations. This ability goes hand in hand with new discoveries and intelligence in general. However, sometimes it is a drawback when it does not allow us to read something simply for what it says. Sometimes we are interested in what a particular text says. In such a case, we must be very careful about imposing other ideas onto the text and or assuming all texts are saying the same thing or synthesizing all of the ideas we may have and reading that into a text.
This often happens in a religious tradition. People think that Judaism speaks with a single voice or “the rabbis say” and so forth. The facts are that the Jewish tradition is not monolithic. The rabbis did not speak in one voice and midrashim are often saying different things one from another. Each one must be examined on its own merit.
This is a great introduction to a conclusion on the subject of Amalek where I presented a plethora of diverse sources expressing different messages. There were however tends among these sources. The sages seemed intent on trying to explain what made Amalek different from other enemies, trying to figure out why they were singled out for different treatment.
I presented sources where seem to point out four different trends among others.
- The Amalekites were a unique enemy who were uniquely evil in that they attacked Israel in unusual ways or they attacked without having a rational reason or their hatred was excessive.
- The Amalekites were God’s enemy who overthrow God or God’s people.
- The Amalekites were an answer to some personality flaw in the Jewish people.
- The Amalekites were punishment for sins or behavioral flaws in the Jewish people.
What is common to all of the midrashic explanations allows us to make a claim about rabbinic interpretation. We see here a process of reading into and reading out of the text in order to explain the reality of the sages. All of the explanations cited above speak to the interrelations of the rabbi, their clientele and the world that they live in. They are using the Biblical texts and their explanations to preach messages to their audience.
This is important for us to note because it tells us that their midrashim often say more about the rabbis that composed them than it does about the plain meaning of the Biblical text. We must be aware of this and be able to distinguish between the explanations and the text itself. This is precious for us because its gives us more ideas in our repertoire.