INSIGHT

5767 - #20

WAR WITH AMALEK

Sefer HaChinuch, Mitzvah 603, in presenting the command to remember what the nation of Amalek did to our ancestors soon after the Exodus, states that this mitzvah only applies to men, and not to women, as it is for men to wage war.1 He, as such, continues, in Mitzvah 604, to state that the actual command to destroy Amalek also only applies to men and not to women.2 Many commentators are bothered by his words for a variety of reasons. The very idea that women are exempt from a milchemet mitzvah, a required war, is challenged by the statement of the mishna in T.B. Sotah 44b which declares that even a bride must leave her chuppah in response to the call of a milchemet mitzvah. This would seem to indicate that women are obligated in the commands associated with required wars. Indeed Sefer HaChinuch, Mitzvah 425 himself declares that women are obligated in the command to destroy members of the Seven Nations that occupied Israel before Yehoshua’s conquest of the land. There would seem to be a difficulty in understanding the very principle that the Chinuch is introducing and then there would also seem to be a difficulty in understanding his application of this very principle. Haga’ot Mishneh L’Melech to Sefer HaChinuch, Mitzvah 604 is so bothered by this problem that he seems to simply declare that, in response to the exemption of women in regard to Amalek, one must note the Chinuch’s own words in regard to the Seven Nations. Indeed, why would there be any distinction in the command to destroy the Seven Nations and the command to destroy Amalek?    

            This perception, that the principles underlying these two commands must be similar, leads the commentators to ask various other questions on the Chinuch as he presents other distinctions in these two mitzvot. Minchat Chinuch, Mitzvah 425, 603 and 604 further queries why the Chinuch specifically states that the obligation upon an individual to kill members of the Seven Nations is limited by the restriction of sakanot nefashot, danger to life. To the Minchat Chinuch, going to war inherently means placing one’s life in danger; a command to go to war inherently must override the limitation of sakanot nefashot. How could the Chinuch, as such, apply this limitation to the command to destroy members of the Seven Nations? An extension of this question is that the Chinuch does not make a similar statement in regard to the command to destroy Amalek. The answer to this question may actually define the major distinction in these two mitzvot that would seem to be at the root of the Chinuch’s presentation.  

             In regard to the mitzvah to destroy Amalek, the Chinuch writes that this is a command on the tzibbur, the community. He makes no such declaration in regard to the Seven Nations. This is most significant for, it would seem, according to the Chinuch, the base mitzvah, in regard to Amalek, is for Israel to wage war against this nation. The Chinuch does extend this mitzvah to the individual but, it would seem, only as an extension of the broader, communal war obligation. In regard to the Seven Nations, it could be argued, that the Chinuch actually sees the nature of this command in the opposite manner. In this case, the base obligation is actually on the individual to destroy members of the Seven Nations. An extension of this command is that the individual can accomplish this obligation through war against these nations. In the case of Amalek, the base mitzvah is communal war between these two distinct societies, which then can be extended to the individual. In the case of the Seven Nations, the base mitzvah is the obligation on the individual to kill members of the Seven Nations, which then can be extended to allow for a communal war. Such a distinction can actually answer all the questions on the Chinuch and explain the various differences, he presents, in the commandments for the laws applying to war are different than the laws applying to individual cases of killing.4 In the case of Amalek, it is always a case of war. In the case of the Seven Nations, while the command can be extended to war, the basic case is not one of war. In the case of the Seven Nations, it is a matter of the individual. In the case of Amalek, it is a matter of the nation.

          This idea presents a most interesting insight into the command to remember and destroy Amalek. If the command was upon the individual and to be applied, basically, to individuals, we would perceive the battle as personal, reflecting our individual and personal desire to eradicate evil from this world. This is indeed the case with the Seven Nations, specifically in regard to idolatry. Our commitment to destroy the Seven Nations reflects ultimately a personal and individual commitment that we must make to remove idolatry from this world. This commitment can be fulfilled through communal war but it is ultimately a personal and individual commitment. The case of Amalek is different. It is not a personal and individual commitment; it is a communal commitment of klal Yisrael, collective Israel, to do battle with the nation of Amalek and remove its teachings from this world. This is not just idolatry. Amalek is the denier; it challenges the very attempt to find meaning in life.5 The battle against this perspective must emerge from the collective for it is only within the dynamics of community and nationhood that one can find a meaning to the breadth of the life experience. It is Israel that must stand up against Amalek and declare that life and this world have meaning. It is the duty of the tzibbur to wage war against Amalek from generation to generation.

. 4.

 

Rabbi Benjamin Hecht e-mail

Footnotes

1 In support of the Chinuch’s assertion, reference can be made to T.B. Kiddushin 2b and T.B. Yevamot 65b.     

2 The Chinuch must be understood as further inferring that the command to remember is, in fact, inherently tied to the command to destroy and that exemption from the latter yields an exemption in the other. This assertion is, in itself, subject to questioning. See, further, Sdei Chemed, Ma’arechet Zayin 13.

3 His support for this assertion, from T.B. Sanhedrin 20b, is important for this source only mentions the mitzvah to destroy Amalek and not the mitzvah to destroy the Seven Nations.

4 See, further, Rabbi J. David Bleich, Contemporary Halakhic Problems, Vol. II, Miscellaneous Questions, War and Non-Jews and Rabbi J. David Bleich, Contemporary Halakhic Problems, Vol. III, Preemptive War in Jewish Law.

4 See, further, Rabbi Pinchus Stolper, Purim in a New Light, an adaptation of Rav Yitzchak Hutner’s Pachad Yitzchak on Purim. This general idea, though, is found in many commentators.

Nishma, 2007.


 


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2006 NISHMA