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Amalekites Not From Amalek


Why is Haman considered an Amalekite? A Brisker explanation can provide a different understanding to this question. In Mishneh Torah (Hilchos Melachim 5:4), the Rambam writes that we cannot currently fulfill the commandment to destroy the seven Canaanite nations because “their memory has already been erased”, i.e. they have been mixed in with other nations and cannot be identified. However, regarding the commandment to destroy Amalek (ibid. 5:5), the Rambam does not write that their memory has been erased. Why not? Rav Joseph B. Soloveitchik (Kol Dodi Dofek, ch. 10) quotes his father, Rav Moshe Soloveichik, as explaining that this commandment applies to any nation that acts like Amalek, i.e. tries to destroy the entire Jewish nation. In other words, Amalek is a status, not necessarily a nationality.

The innovative explanation of the status of Amalek in Maimonidean thought that Rav Joseph B. Soloveitchik taught in his father’s name is surprising and controversial. If taken to its logical conclusion, we can declare our enemies to be Amalek, deserving of complete eradication (absent conversion to Judaism). This explanation was sufficiently compelling to merit mention in the Frankel edition of the Rambam’s index of commentaries despite the editor’s general rule of omitting interpretations from Chabad, Rav Soloveitchik and Religious Zionist commentators. Some contemporary thinkers have declared this interpretation homiletical, i.e. not to be taken as halachic guidance. These include Rav Nachum Rabinovitch (Melumdei Milchamah, ch. 3) and Rav Eliezer Melamed (Revivim: Am, Eretz, Tzava, p. 82). But perhaps, without drawing any halachic conclusaion, we can find earlier support for Rav Soloveichik’s interpretation.


As already mentioned, Rav Nachum Rabinovitch disagrees with Rav Soloveitchik’s interpretation. In a responsum, he concludes from his own careful reading of the Rambam’s words that the same exemption from the commandment regarding the seven Canaanite nations also applies to Amalek. However, perhaps Rav Rabinovitch’s critique can be answered. He also notes that Rav Tzvi Yehudah Kook opposed the teaching of R. Soloveitchik’s explanation, presumably due to concern that a student may conclude that Arabs have the status of Amalek and act accordingly.

Indeed, Rav Soloveitchik’s approach suffers from a fundamental weakness. In halachah, statuses of nationality are consistently transmitted by parentage. As Rav Hershel Schachter explains in Rav Soloveitchik’s name (Eretz Ha-Tzvi, ch. 17), Jews are a nation and therefore membership travels through the mother while gentiles form tribes in which identity flows through the father. While we can conceive of a status based on action, what hint do we find in classical sources that the status of Amalek should be different than other tribes?


I suggest that we can find such a hint in the Talmud Yerushalmi (Yevamos 2:6). Esther (3:1, 9:24) describes Haman as being the son of Hamedasa the Aggagite. The Talmud Yerushalmi asks why the text calls him the son of Hamedasa when he was not, and answers that he was comparable to Hamedasa in his enmity toward the Jews. Pnei Moshe (ad loc.) explains that while Haman was descended from Hamedasa, he was really many generations removed. However, other commentaries suggest that the Talmud Yerushalmi meant that Haman was not descended in any literal way from Hamedasa, and hence from Agag the Amalekite. Sheyarei Korban (13a sv. veckhi), Rav Yerucham Fishel Perlow (Sefer Ha-Mitzvos Le-Rasag, p. 262) and Rav Yerachmiel Zelcer (Ner Le-Me’ah on Purim, ch. 12) explain the Talmud Yerushalmi in that way. According to this understanding, Haman was not a descendant of Amalek.

Similarly, some modern commentators sever the lineage between Haman and Amalek. Da’as Mikra (Esther 3:1) quotes some recent commentators who suggest that Agag was the name of a Persian family and others who suggest that the Jews only called Haman an “Agagite” because of his evil ways. While it is often difficult and methodologically improper to reconcile modern biblical commentary with midrashic tradition, perhaps in this case, because of the Talmud Yerushalmi, we can do so without causing damage.

Yet, despite the Talmud Yerushalmi, Purim traditions ranging from the Torah reading to the obliteration of Haman’s name through booing clearly associate Haman with Amalek. The Talmud (Megillah 13a; Maseches Soferim 13:6) explicitly states that Haman descended from Agag the Amalekite. While the Talmud Yerushalmi must disagree with this view, it would be difficult to separate Haman from the Amalek connection so common in rabbinic tradition.

Unless we assume that the Talmud Yerushalmi disputes the link between Haman and Amalek, we can infer from the text an indication that the status of Amalek is not dependent solely on descent. Even though Haman was not the son of Hamedasa, and therefore not a linealogical descendent of Amalek, he is still considered an Amalekite. As Rav Soloveitchik explained as the Rambam’s view, someone like Haman who follows in Amalek’s footsteps acquires the nation’s despised status.