The Punishment of Amalek in Jewish Tradition: Coping with the Moral Problem

In “The Punishment of Amalek in Jewish Tradition: Coping with the Moral Problem”, Professor Avi Sagi deals with the extensive Jewish literature on this subject. The article appeared in the Harvard Theological Review Vol.87, No.3 (1994) p.323-46. Avi Sagi is associated with Bar Ilan University and the Shalom Hartman Institute, Jerusalem, Israel.

Avi Sagi, Shalom Hartman Institute

A summary follows:

Gustave Dore
Gustave Dore

No less an authoritative text than Talmud Bavli, in Yoma 22b, notes that punishing children for the sins of their parents is wrong. In this gemara, on the basis of a ritual pointing to the sanctity of an individual life in biblical tradition, the Talmud derives a fortiori that inflicting grievous harm on many human beings must certainly be forbidden. Some might point out that there is another place in the Talmud, where the Talmud does seem to obligate Jews to kill Amalekites. Sanhedrin 20b states that the obligation to destroy Amalek os one of the three duties incumbent on Israel after conquering the land of Canaan. However, there are a number of fatal problems for this view:

(A) Not every statement in the Talmud is meant to be taken literally.

(B) Not every statement in the Talmud is codified as law. In fact, most statements in the Talmud are not halakha.

(C) This part of the Talmud contradicts Yoma 22b.

(D) Sanhedrin 20b is further contradicted by another place in the Talmud, Sanhedrin 96b. The Talmud notes that Haman is a descendent of Amalek. (Whether this is a historical fact or not is irrelevant to questions of Jewish law). And contrary to Sanhedrin 20b, it is clear that Jews are not obligated to “cut off the seed of Amalek”. Rather, Sanhedrin 96b, reads “The descendants of Haman studied Torah in Bnei Brak [and they included Rabbi Samuel ben Shilath]! So the Talmud flat out states that we know who some of the Amalekite descendants are, yet we not only not kill them, we accept them as converts, and rabbis! [Some editions of the Talmud have the section in parenthesis about R. Samuel b. Shilath, some do not]
Several nineteenth century Orthodox halakhists assumed that despite the enormous problems that exist with this imperative, one should theoretically consider Exodus 17:14 as a literal commandment to wipe out Amalekites, thus precluding their acceptance as converts. However, in their writings they are troubled by the unethical implications of this, so they creatively pasken that this rule is one that can never be carried out. They relied on a principle dating from Tannaitic times in order to justify their innovation. For instance, Rabbi Hayim Falaggi (1788-1896) wrote that descendants of Amalek were not to be killed. In fact, Amalekites could convert to Judaism, because we can rely on the maxim that in ancient times, Senaherib confused the lineage of many nations. [Eynei Kol Hai, 73, on Sanhedrin 96b]

This approach was also supported by other halakhists. Yosef ben Moshe Babad (1800-1875) explicitly stated that we are not commanded any longer to blot out Amalek, for the same reasons as stated by Rabbi Falaggi. [Minhat Hinukh, 2.213, commandment 604]. Other Orthodox rabbis supported this view as well, for instance Haim Hirschensohn, in Malki ba-Kodesh 1.33, and Avraham Karelitz in his Hazon Ish al ha-Rambam, 842]

Avraham Bornstein (1839-1910), one of the best known Orthodox halakhists of his generation, writes:

I believe they teach that the seven nations have themselves sinner and committed all iniquities and become liable to die. And we would think that this means that repentance will not help…. But Amalek is punished for the sins of their fathers. Yet it is also written [in the Torah] ‘Fathers shall not be put to death for their children, neither shall children be put to death for their fathers.’ “…If they have repented and accepted the seven Noachide commandments, this means that they do not persist in their ancestor’s deeds, and should not be punished for their iniquities.
[Avnei Netzer, part 1: Orah Hayim, 2.508]
The Netzer goes further. He not only states that Jews are forbidden from harming descendants of Amalek, but that even the gentile nations of the world are similarly forbidden from doing so. [Ibid, Unnumbered footnote to 2.508]

Rabbi Moshe Amiel (1883-1946), ruled that we should not understand Amalek as being a particular ethnic group. Rather, he viewed Amalek as the symbol of armed might. In Rabbi Amiel’s view, a permanent war prevails between the sword and the book, and “one can only be built on the ruins of the other”. [Derashot el Ami, 3.132, 3 volume set, Tel-Aviv, 1964]

Rabbi Amiel directly confronts the moral problem that exists from the excessive view, which states that descendants of Amalek must die, which of course is a contradiction to the Torah’s injunction that a child may not be punished for the sins of its parents. Rabbi Amiel concludes that Jews must not harm Amalekites, and writes “the view of Judaism is that the prosecution cannot turn into the defense, evil cannot be extirpated by evil means, terror cannot be eliminated from the world through the use of counter-terror”. [Ibid, 3.132] Rather, Jews wage “war” against Amalek with the book – “Write this for a memorial in a Book” Exodus 17:14. Thus, Rabbi Amiel states that the blotting out of Amalek is not meant as physical destruction.

In Talmud Bavli, Berachot 10a, Beruriah states that it is only the sins of Amalek that must be removed, not Amalekites themselves. No less an Orthodox authority than Rabbi Amiel relies on this as a source for normative halakha. He quotes this to show that the obligation to blot out the memory of Amalek should not be understood literally:

Because it is written [in Psalms 104:35] “let sins be consumed out of the Earth, and not “let the sinners”. And as for Amalek too, the Torah stresses mainly the
“remembrance of Amalek”, when Amalek turns into a memory, a culture, a lofty ideal, a sublime notion….It is this remembrance of Amalek that we are commanded to blot out. [Derashot el Ami, 143]

Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch (1808-1880), the founder of Neo-Orthodoxy, progenitor of Modern and Centrist Orthodoxy, holds a view similar to that of Rabbi Amiel. Hirsch notes that Jews do not kill Amalekites, rather Jews only remove the remembrance and glory that Amalek desired. He elaborates on this in his exegesis of the verse ” ‘I will utterly blot out the remembrance of Amalek’ – not Amalek, but rather its remembrance and glory.” [Commentary on Exodus, 171, Exodus 17:14]

SomeOrthodox authorities claim that no Amalekite can ever convert to Judaism. [For instance, Avraham Danzig, Hayei Adam, Hilkhot Megillah, 155a] They state this as a plain fact, so plain that they see no need to present any proof for their claim. However it is hard to understand why they have done so, as the Mishneh Torah is quite clear on this issue: Amalekites may indeed convert to Judaism. [details below].

Maimonides approach to this subject provides a broad and comprehensive approach. He states that “all heathens, without exception, once they become converts…are regarded as Israelites in every respect…and they may enter the congregation of the Lord immediately…excepting the four nations”.

[Mishneh Torah, Laws concerning forbidden intercourse 12.17, in “The Code of Maimonides”, volume 5, The Book of Holiness, Yale Judaica Series]

However, this in only a general guideline: Maimonides then cites the Tannaitic principle of commingled nations, and rules that members of even the four nations may enter the congregation of the Lord, i.e. become Jews. [Ibid. 12.15] When specifically considering Amalekites, he notes that neither their conversion nor inclusion in the community poses any problem. Maimonides approach regarding 2 Samuel 1:13-16 and the slaying of the Amalekite stranger differs from that adopted in the Mekhilta (a midrash collection):

It is a scriptural decree that the court shall not put a man to death or flog him on his own admission [of guilt]. This is done only on the evidence of two witnesses. It is true that Joshua condemned Achan to death on the latter’s admission, and that David ordered the execution of the Amalekite stranger on the latter’s admission. But those were emergency cases, or the death sentences pronounced in those instances were prescribed by the state law.
[The Book of Judges, Laws concerning Sanhedrin 18.6]
Maimonides thus assumes that the only grounds for slaying the stranger were the fact that it was either an immediate emergency, or a penalty prescribed by state law, and not that he was an Amalekite. Whereas the Mekhilta assumes that slaying the Amalekite stranger complies with the biblical injunction to destroy Amalek, Maimonides assumed this killing, unless justified in terms of another legitimate principle, would be unacceptable.

How then did Maimonides understand the injunction to blot out the memory of Amalek? He took a different and severely restricted view of this phrase. An analysis of several other of his rulings allows us to understand the extent of his restrictions. Maimonides writes “No war is declared against any nation before peace offers are made to it. This obtains both in an optional war and a war for a religious cause, as it is said: ‘When you draw near to a city to fight against it, then proclaim peace unto it’. (Deut.20:10) If the inhabitants make peace and accept the seven [Noachide] commandments enjoined upon the descendants of Noah, none of them is slain, but they become tributary.
[Mishneh Torah, The Book of Judges, Laws concerning Kings and Wars 6.1]

Before declaring an optional war – one not commanded by the Torah – as well as before declaring a war for a religious cause, such as “the war against the seven nations, and against Amalek”, a peace offer must be made [Ibid. 5.1] This peace offer should propose to renounce war if the enemy agrees to three conditions (1) to accept the Noachide commandments (2) pay tribute, and (3) submit to servitude. [Ibid. 6.1]

The requirement that a peace offer be made even prior to waging a war for a religious cause would appear to deviate from the biblical command to blot out the memory of Amalek. Deuteronomy 20:10, which Maimonides quoted, concerns only optional wars, as it is made clear further on: “Thus shalt thou do to all the cities which are very far off from thee, which are not of the cities of these nations. But of the cities of these peoples, which the Lord thy God gives thee for an inheritance, thou shalt save alive nothing that breathes” (Deut. 20:15,16). The Sifre commentary on this explicitly states “When you draw nigh unto a city – Scripture speaks here of a non-obligatory war”.

In fact, Maimonides could well have noted even more biblical support. Among other examples, Deut. 2:24-26 suggests that a declaration of war must be preceded by a peace offer, and Moses offers peace and doesn’t slay Sihon King of the Amorites, although Sihon is a king of a nation condemned to destruction. In accordance with such biblical examples, Talmud Yerushalmi notes that before embarking on the conquest of the land of Canaan, Joshua offered the Canaanite nations three options: to make peace, leave the land, or go to war. [Yerushalmi Shevi’it 6.5; also see Nachmanides commentary on the Torah to Deut. 20:10]

All these biblical and Talmudic sources can be relied upon to support the lenient view, but these apparently only refer to the Canaanite nations. Maimonides understanding of the situation was innovative: Maimonides explicitly includes Amalek in the lenient policy, equating them with the seven nations.

“In a war waged against the seven nations, or against Amalek, if they refuse to accept the terms of peace, none of them is spared, as it is said ‘But of the cities of these peoples…you shall save nothing alive that breathes’. So too with respect to Amalek, it is said ‘blot out the remembrance of Amalek’ “. [Laws concerning Kings and Wars 6.4]

Relying in rabbinic exegesis which made the destruction of the seven nations contingent upon their behavior, Maimonides concluded that the command to blot out Amalek should also be considered contingent, and restricted to specific circumstances in which Amalek refused to accept a peace offer.

Why does Maimonides do all this? Because he understood that Judaism and Torah stand for the highest expression on ethics, as he writes “There is no vengeance in the commandments of the Torah, but compassion, mercy and peace in the world.” [Laws concerning the Sabbath 2.3]

As Avi Sagy notes: “Maimonides moral interpretation is in accordance with the spirit of the Torah and its fundamental premises regarding human justice, premises that should come into play in our behavior toward all human beings. It is on this basis that Maimonides radically restricted the ruling to destroy Amalek, “seeing neither obligation (nor merit) in eradicating or harming this nation without a moral justification

[Gerald J. Blidstein, Ekronot Mediniyim be-Mishnat ha-Rambam (Ramat Gan, Bar Ilan Univ. Press, 1983), p.223]

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