Rabbi David Brofsky
The Mishna (Megilla 29a) enumerates the four Torah sections read during the months of Adar and Nisan:
If Rosh Ḥodesh Adar falls on Shabbat, we read Parashat Shekalim. If it falls during the week, then we read Shekalim on the Shabbat preceding it.…On the second , we read Para Aduma, and on the fourth, “HaḤodesh.”
The Talmud records a debate between R. Ami and R. Yirmiya as to whether these sections are read in place of the regular Torah reading or only as the maftir section added on to the scheduled reading (Megilla 30b). Rambam and the Shulḥan Arukh follow the second view. According to our custom that the maftir is read in addition to the seven aliyot of the parasha, these four sections are read as the maftir on these four Shabbatot.
The second of the “four parashot,” Parashat Zakhor, is read on the Shabbat before Purim. Through this reading, which recounts Amalek’s attack against Benei Yisrael in the wilderness, we fulfill the command of “zekhirat Amalek” – remembering Amalek’s hostility:
Remember what Amalek did to you along the way as you left Egypt; how he confronted you along the way and smote the hindmost among you, all that were enfeebled, when you were faint and weary; and he did not fear God. Therefore, it shall be that when the Lord your God gives you rest from all your enemies around you, in the land which the Lord your God gives you as an inheritance to possess, you shall erase the memory of Amalek from under the heavens; you shall not forget. (Deut. 25:17–19)
The Torah here issues three commandments relevant to Amalek: to remember, not to forget, and to erase the memory of Amalek.
What is the relationship between the mitzva to remember Amalek and the mitzva to eradicate Amalek? On the one hand, one might view the mitzva to remember and the commandment not to forget Amalek as part of the larger objective of waging war against this nation. Rambam writes:
We are commanded to remember that which Amalek did to us…and that we should repeat this from time to time and our souls should be aroused through its recitation to fight against them, and we should encourage the nation to hate them.
On the other hand, one might view the commandment to remember Amalek as conveying and expressing independent, broader religious messages, not necessarily directly related to war. Indeed, the Torah introduces this mitzva immediately following the admonition to refrain from using or even owning false weights:
You shall not have in you bag diverse weights, a large and a small. You shall not have in your house diverse measures, a large and a small. You shall have a perfect and just weight; you shall have a perfect and just measure, so that your days upon the land which the Lord your God gives you shall be prolonged. For all that do such things, even all that act dishonestly, are an abomination unto the Lord your God. (Deut. 25:13–16)
The juxtaposition of these two parashot may imply a more universal message, beyond the specific commandment to destroy the nation of Amalek. We are commanded to remember Amalek not because they attacked the Jewish people, but rather because their behavior typifies immoral conduct, an “abomination” before God.
Rabbi Soloveitchik suggested that the issue of whether the mitzva to remember Amalek is related to, or dependent upon, the mitzva to eradicate it, may affect a number of halakhic questions, including whether women are obligated in the obligation of zekhirat Amalek and which parasha one may read to fulfill the mitzva, as we shall discuss below.
How and When to Fulfill the Mitzva of Remembering Amalek
Interestingly, the Gemara does not discuss when and how we are to fulfill the mitzva of zekhirat Amalek. Regarding the proper time to fulfill this mitzva, the Sefer HaḤinukh writes,
Rabbi Yosef Ben Moshe Babad (1801–1874), in his Minḥat Ḥinukh commentary to the Sefer HaḤinukh, infers from the Ḥinukh’s comments that a person may fulfill the biblical obligation by remembering Amalek once during his lifetime.
Ḥatam Sofer suggests that one should fulfill this mitzva once each year. He notes that in the discussion concerning the berakha of Meḥayei Hameitim, which one recites upon seeing someone whom he has not seen in twelve months, the Gemara asserts that certain memories are forgotten after twelve months have passed (Berakhot 58b). Ḥatam Sofer thus concludes that perpetuating the memory of Amalek requires recalling the event at least once every year. He then questions whether during a leap year one should read Parashat Zakhor in the first month of Adar, so that twelve full months should not pass without remembering Amalek. He concludes that the Gemara refers not to twelve months specifically, but rather to the experiences of a full yearly cycle, which cause one to forget. During a leap year, this occurs only after thirteen months.
Others, noting that earlier posekim make no mention of a specific time for this mitzva, classify zekhirat Amalek as a mitzva temidit – a mitzva that must be fulfilled each day. Indeed, Shela HaKadosh recommends reading Parashat Zakhor every day. In any event, it appears that the Rabbis established the observance of this mitzva annually on Shabbat Zakhor via the reading of Parashat Zakhor.
In addition to the question of when we are to observe this mitzva of remembering, we must also address the question of how we observe this mitzva. The Talmud teaches:
It says, “Zakhor.” Might this be fulfilled in one’s heart? When it says, “you shall not forget,” “forgetting” refers to the heart! So what do I learn from to remember? With one’s mouth. (Megilla 18a)
Clearly, the obligation to remember does not refer simply to mental recollection, but rather a verbal recitation.
The Gemara does not specify whether one must read Parashat Zakhor from a proper sefer Torah or merely recite the words. Neither Rambam nor the Ḥinukh mention a requirement to read the text specifically from a Torah. Ramban (Deut. 25:17) also implies that one does not need to read the parasha from a text, but rather to “relate the story to our children.” However, some Rishonim rule that even on the level of Torah obligation, one must read Parashat Zakhor from a proper Torah scroll.
The view requiring a Torah scroll for this mitzva does not necessarily require that the reading be conducted in the presence of a minyan. Rosh (Berakhot 7:20), however, describes Parashat Zakhor as a rare case in which a minyan is required on the level of Torah obligation. Rabbi Yisrael ben Petaḥya Isserlein (1390–1460) rules in his Terumat HaDeshen (based upon Rosh) that people in towns without a minyan should travel to communities with a minyan for Shabbat Zakhor. He adds that the presence of a minyan is likely more central to the reading of Parashat Zakhor than to the reading of the Megilla!
Magen Avraham attempts to justify the practice of those who do not hear Parashat Zakhor in a minyan. He explains that even if one must hear the reading from a sefer Torah and in the presence of a minyan, one need not fulfill this mitzva specifically on the Shabbat before Purim. Therefore, it is preferable for one to travel to a place with a minyan for Purim and to hear the reading of the Megilla and the Purim morning Torah reading, which tells the story of Amalek (Ex. 17:8–16). This way, one fulfills both the mitzva of Megilla reading and the obligation to remember Amalek’s hostility.
The Mishna Berura, however, disagrees with the Magen Avraham, claiming that one cannot fulfill the obligation of zekhirat Amalek through the reading of the story in Sefer Exodus, as the commandment to destroy Amalek does not appear in that parasha.
Rabbi Soloveitchik explained that this debate may depend upon whether the relationship between the commandment to remember Amalek relates to the mitzva to destroy them. If we acknowledge a link between these two obligations, then we would likely require reading the section in Deuteronomy that speaks of destroying Amalek. If, however, we view these two obligations as separate requirements, then even the section in the Book of Exodus would likely suffice for fulfilling this mitzva.
Similarly, Rabbi Yitzḥak of Karlin (1784–1852) explains in his commentary on the Talmud, the Keren Ora, that those who require the presence of a minyan view the mitzva to destroy Amalek as an obligation incumbent upon the community, rather than individuals. He also contends that a mitzva that must be fulfilled publicly, such as zekhirat Amalek, cannot be required on a daily basis. Hence, the Rabbis instituted that this section be read annually, rather than every day. The Shulḥan Arukh summarizes as follows:
Some say that Parashat Zakhor and Parashat Para are biblical obligations, and therefore those who live in small villages who do not have a minyan should travel to a place with a minyan for these Shabbatot in order to hear these parashot, which constitute a Torah obligation.
The Aḥaronim note that both the reader and listener must have the proper intention to fulfill the mitzva. Taz claims that this applies even to the berakhot recited before the reading, and that one who does not hear the berakhot does not fulfill the obligation. This raises the interesting question of the extent to which the Rabbis defined the mitzva of zekhirat Amalek as the reading (or listening to) the portion from the Torah with its blessings. Taz apparently maintains that the mitzva must be fulfilled within the formal context of keriat haTorah, which of course includes the blessings preceding and concluding the portion.
The Aḥaronim also discuss whether we may apply the principle of shomei’a ke’oneh to zekhirat Amalek. This concept allows the listener to be considered as though he personally recited the given text. If we do apply shomei’a ke’oneh in this context, then one should listen silently to the baal koreh’s reading without reading along. The Munkatcher Rebbe (Rabbi Chayim Elazar Shapira, 1871–1937) suggests in his Minḥat Elazar that one might need to actually enunciate the words of Parashat Zakhor in order to fulfill the obligation, while other Aḥaronim, including Peri Ḥadash and Netziv, maintain that one should simply listen to the baal koreh.
Another issue raised by the Aḥaronim involves the proper pronunciation of the central word of the Zakhor reading: “zekher” (“the memory” of Amalek). Radak (Rabbi David Kimchi, 1160–1235) records in his Sefer HaShorashim that he saw two versions of this word: in one version, it was punctuated with a segol, yielding “zekher,” whereas in the other, it was punctuated with a tzeirei, and thus pronounced “zeikher.” In later editions of the Sefer HaShorashim, the phrase, “and the like him” appears regarding the “zeikher” reading, thus implying that “zekher” is the correct reading. Based upon this text, Siddurim and Ḥumashim from the seventeenth to nineteenth centuries were amended to read “zekher.”
There is an interesting historical debate regarding which of these two pronunciations was accepted by the Vilna Gaon. The work Maase Rav (a collection of customs and practices of the Gaon published in 1832 by Rabbi Yissachar Ber) records that the Gaon would say “zekher” while reading Parashat Zakhor. However, Rabbi Chayim of Volozhin (1749–1821), a student of the Vilna Gaon, writes in his approbation to the Maase Rav that he heard the Gaon say “zeikher.”
This confusion led to the custom to read both versions of the word, as the Mishna Berura rules. Indeed, in many communities today, the baal koreh first reads the phrase one way and then immediately repeats it with the second pronunciation. Others prefer to finish the verse and then repeat the entire verse with the second version.
This debate demonstrates the precision the posekim demand for the reading of Parashat Zakhor. Some authorities go so far as to insist that one should hear the parasha read in one’s own pronunciation. In other words, one who reads Hebrew with an Ashkenazic pronunciation (affecting the pronunciation of the “kamatz”/“komotz” vowel and the letter “tav/sav”) should hear the parasha read in that fashion. Some even insist that one hear the portion read from a sefer Torah written according to one’s tradition.
Women and Parashat Zakhor
Finally, the posekim debate the question of whether women are obligated to hear Parashat Zakhor. Some suggest that zekhirat Amalek constitutes a mitzvat asei shehazeman gerama (a time-bound obligation), from which women are generally exempt, but most other Aḥaronim reject this argument.
The Sefer HaḤinukh argues that since women generally do not participate in battle, they are exempt from the commandments relating to Amalek. The Minḥat Ḥinukh, however, raises two objections to this contention. First, he argues that the Talmud states that women do, in fact, participate in obligatory wars (milḥamot mitzva) (Sota 44b). Second, the mitzva to remember Amalek is not necessarily linked to the mitzva to wage war against Amalek. Indeed, as discussed earlier, Rabbi Soloveitchik suggested that this is one of the issues that would depend upon the relationship between the commandment to remember Amalek and the mitzva to destroy Amalek.
Rabbi Yitzḥak Yaakov Weiss (1902–1989), former head of the rabbinical court of the Eida Ḥaredit in Jerusalem and author of the multivolume Minḥat Yitzḥak, follows the view of Rabbi Natan Adler (the teacher of Rabbi Moshe Sofer), who held that women are, indeed, obligated and that their mitzva should be fulfilled through the public Torah reading. It is customary for women to hear the reading of Parashat Zakhor, and many communities arrange readings later in the day to accommodate those who cannot attend synagogue services on the morning of Shabbat Zakhor.
Rabbi Shneur Zalman Fradkin of Lublin (1830–1902), a student of the Tzemaḥ Tzedek and a well-known Habad posek, presents a third view on this issue. In his work Torat Ḥesed, he writes that women are, indeed, obligated to fulfill the Torah obligation of zekhirat Amalek, which is not a time-bound mitzva, but they are exempt from the rabbinic obligation to hear Parashat Zakhor. They may therefore fulfill the obligation of zekhirat Amalek by reading the parasha to themselves, without hearing the formal Torah reading. On this basis, Rabbi Shneur Zalman explains why it was unheard of in his community for women to attend the Zakhor reading. Rabbi Aaron Felder, in his Mo’adei Yeshurun, records that Rabbi Moshe Feinstein likewise held that women may fulfill their obligation by reading the parasha from a printed Ḥumash.
Two scholarly studies have recently been published regarding this question. Both Rabbi Mordechai Breuer (“Mikra’ot Sheyesh Lahem Hekhrea,” Megadim 10) and Y. Pankover (Minhag UMesora: Zekher Amalek BeḤamesh O Shesh Nekudot,” in Bar Ilan University’s Iyunei Mikra Uparshanut 4) conclude that the proper reading is “zeikher” and that early texts support this conclusion.