Chag Amalek – The Festival That Wasn’t

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In Memory of Dan Uzan z”l

Is it necessary to recall the similarities between Judaism and Islam (as distinct from Christianity!) in most of the crucial subjects of religion: the book, the law, prophecy, individual and community, religion and state, not to mention the actual belief in one God? Who better than the Jews can attest to the power of creative religious exegesis and the wide openings it can create, especially for a religion that is founded on a book; how it can push one idea to the margins and guide another to the center; how it creates a surprising renascence of forgotten ideas and consigns other sources to utter oblivion. It is none other than Jews who, drawing on their tradition, can teach others that even terms such as “holy war” or “armed jihad” might be relevant at a certain time and place, but become neutralized or spiritualized at a different time and place.

Aviezer Ravitzky, Clinging To The Middle Ground

כי כל העמים בדתותיהן הנימוסיות יעשו יום הנצחון יום מפלת אויבים לחוג חג הנצחון. לא כן בישראל, המה לא ישמחו על מפלת אויביהם, ולא יחוגו בשמחה על זה, וכמו שאמר (משלי כב, יז) “בנפול אויבך אל תשמח… כן בנס פורים לא עשו יום טוב ביום שנתלה המן או ביום שהרגו בשונאיהם, כי זה אין שמחה לפני עמו ישראל. רק היום טוב הוא “בימים אשר נחו מאויביהם

For where other nations and religions may make a day of celebration from the downfall of their enemies, it is not so with Israel. They find no joy in the downfall of their enemies as is written ‘do not rejoice at the downfall of your enemies’ (Mishlei 22:17)… and so too with Purim they did not make a festival on the day on which Haman was hung or the day they killed those who hated them, for this is not joy for His people Israel. Rather the festival was established ‘on the day they rested from their enemies’ (Esther 9:22)

Rav Meir Simcha HaKohen of Dvinsk, Meshech Chochma (commentary Shemot 12:15)

Last month I attended a Fellowship in Copenhagen focusing on European Jewish identity and education. Of the many wonderful individuals I met there, one of them was Dan Uzan, a member of the Copenhagen community who provided security for our fellowship as he did for all communal events in Copenhagen. Although physically huge – 6”9 and bulky – there was a gentleness and soft humour about him that made an impression on all the attendees.  Last week, whilst again performing security duties for a bat-mitzvah, he was shot and killed by a radicalised Danish Muslim, outside the synagogue he always protected. I have wanted to write the following piece for a number of years, but Dan’s murder has spurred me to write it now – in his memory and zechut – when the message of Purim appears so relevant for the situation in which we currently find ourselves.

The story of Amalek – the desert tribe that attacked Israel as they left Egypt – represents a major episode in the Tanakh. Whether it was the immorality of Amalek’s tactics – targeting the weak and defenceless – or the breaking of new theological ground – by being the first to attack the nation that God had taken out of Egypt – Amalek have assumed a status above and beyond other foes of Israel. Thus do we read in Devarim ch.25:

זכור את אשר-עשה לך עמלק בדרך בצאתכם ממצרים..: והיה בהניח יהוה אלהיך לך מכל-איביך מסביב בארץ אשר יהוה-אלהיך נתן לך נחלה לרשתה תמחה את-זכר עמלק מתחת השמים לא תשכח

Remember what Amalek did to you on the way as you left Egypt… And it shall be when Hashem, your God has given you rest from the adversaries around you, in the land which Hashem, your God, has given you as a portion in which to settle, you shall wipe out the  memory of Amalek from under the heavens, do not forget.

I want to now try a thought experiment. As with many significant Biblical events, we would well expect that the memory of Amalek’s attack and the obligation to destroy them, would find expression in the Jewish calendar, just as the Exodus from Egypt is recalled at Pesach, the giving of the Torah at Shavuot, and the destruction of the Temple at Tisha B’Av. What would such a festival – a Chag Amalek – look like?

One option would be for the occasion to be seen as an opportunity to take practical steps to rid the world of Amalek. We would listen to the Torah portion describing the obligation to destroy Amalek and then gather our pitchforks, sharpen our swords and head out to find the nearest Amalekite. If it were to be objected that, for technical reasons, we are no longer able to identify Amalekites (‘for Sanheriv has mixed around the nations’), we could nevertheless identify modern-day equivalents of Amalek deserving of similar treatment, or at least could symbolically re-enact the destruction of the original Amalek in a way not dissimilar perhaps from burning a Guy Fawkes effigy on November 5th.

Another, more muted version, would be to use Chag Amalek as an opportunity to reflect on eternal anti-Semitism, how those who despise Jews and Judaism have arisen in every generation, and to internalise this fact as part of our own identity.  And here we can leave behind the thought experiment, for, indeed, this does seem to be the fundamental character trait of a large swathe of contemporary Jewry. If asked to choose between Auschwitz and Sinai as the event which contributes most to Jewish identity, how many would unquestioningly select the latter? Focus on hatred of Israel makes for great sermons, headlines and political campaigns – and it is a sad fact that, whether or not they recognise it as such, remembering Amalek, is likely the most widely observed Biblical commandment by many Jews today.

Of course, there is such a festival, and it is known as Purim. At first glance, Purim comprises all of the necessary elements for an annual recollection of Amalek. The Shabbat before Purim known as Zakhor – the Shabbat of remembrance – features the Torah portion that focuses on Amalek, setting the scene for the holiday to come. The Purim story itself, recounted in the Megillat Esther, describes the cosmic triumph over Haman, descendant of Agag, king of the Amalekites. Not only is Haman defeated, but a great victory is won against the enemies of Israel throughout the 127 kingdoms.

‘The Jews who were in the king’s provinces gathered themselves together, and stood up for themselves, and had rest from their enemies, and slew of their foes seventy five thousand, but did not lay their hands on the plunder’ (Esther 9:16)

And yet, anyone who has ever experienced Purim knows that such an atmosphere could not be further from the actual nature of the day. In what follows I want to argue that not only does Purim not exhibit the ideas described above, but that by focusing on the small details and nuances of its celebration, we can detect a conscious attempt by the Jewish tradition to direct our focus elsewhere – to present the celebration of Purim and the remembrance of Amalek, as having an altogether different role in their contribution to Jewish religiosity and overall identity.

The Day of Purim Itself

Before we look at the smaller details in which the real interest lies, it is worthwhile to record the general atmosphere of Purim day. After describing the mitzvah of reading the megilla – which of course takes place in more of a carnival atmosphere than that of any other reading throughout the year – the Rambam describes the mitzvoth of Purim day in a way which reflects what most would recognise as the classic celebration of Purim (Hil. Megilla 2:14-17).

מצות יום ארבעה עשר לבני כפרים ועיירות ויום חמשה עשר לבני כרכים להיות יום שמחה ומשתה ומשלוח מנות לריעים ומתנות לאביונים, ומותר בעשיית מלאכה ואע”פ כן אין ראוי לעשות בו מלאכה

It is a mitzva on the fourteenth of Adar… for the day to be one of rejoicing and feasting, of sending of gifts to friends, and gifts to the poor. Labour (malacha) is permitted on this day but is not encouraged.

כיצד חובת סעודה זו שיאכל בשר ויתקן סעודה נאה כפי אשר תמצא ידו, ושותה יין עד  שישתכר וירדם בשכרות. וכן חייב אדם לשלוח שתי מנות של בשר או שני מיני תבשיל או שני מיני אוכלין לחבירו שנאמר +אסתר ט’+ ומשלוח מנות איש לרעהו שתי מנות לאיש אחד, וכל המרבה לשלוח לריעים משובח

How does one fulfill one’s obligation of a festive meal? One should eat meat and prepare a pleasant meal to the extent one is able, and drink wine until inebriation and to fall asleep on account of it. Similarly one is obligated to send two portions of meat, or dishes, or two sorts of food to one’s friend, as is written ‘gifts of food, each man to his friend’,  and anyone who increases in this matter is praiseworthy.

וחייב לחלק לעניים ביום הפורים, אין פחות משני עניים נותן לכל אחד מתנה אחת או מעות או מיני תבשיל או מיני אוכלין שנאמר ומתנות לאביונים שתי מתנות לשני עניים, ואין מדקדקין במעות פורים אלא כל הפושט ידו ליטול נותנין לו, ואין משנין מעות פורים לצדקה אחרת.

And one is obligated to distribute [charity] to the poor on the day of Purim. At the very least, to give two poor people one gift, be it money, cooked dishes, or other foods, as [implied by Esther 9:22] “gifts to the poor” – i.e., two gifts to two poor people.

We should not be discriminating [in selecting the recipients of these Purim gifts]. Instead, one should give to whoever stretches out his hand. Money given to be distributed on Purim should not be used for other charitable purposes.

מוטב לאדם להרבות במתנות אביונים מלהרבות בסעודתו ובשלוח מנות לרעיו, שאין שם שמחה גדולה ומפוארה אלא לשמח לב עניים ויתומים ואלמנות וגרים, שהמשמח לב האמללים האלו דומה לשכינה

It is preferable for a person to be more liberal with his donations to the poor than to be lavish in his preparation of the Purim feast or in sending portions to his friends. For there is no greater and more splendid happiness than to gladden the hearts of the poor, the orphans, the widows, and the converts. One who brings happiness to the hearts of the despondent resembles the Divine Presence, which [Isaiah 57:15] “revives the spirit of the lowly and those with broken hearts.”

Not only is the atmosphere one of merriment without focus on anger or revenge, but the goodwill of the day is channeled specifically to thinking beyond ourselves, and extending help to those in need. To the extent that our enemies are reflected upon, Haman, becomes a comic character – his name inscribed in chalk on children’s feet, his ears eaten and his name booed.

Between Matanot L’Eyvonim and Tzedaka

One of the most interesting aspects of our theory is expressed when we consider the relationship between the mitzvah of matanot l’evyonim (gifts to the poor) on Purim, and the apparently identical mitzvah of tzedaka, charity, applicable throughout the year.

We may ask: is matanot l’ evyonim simply the mitzvah of tzedaka in the context of Purim or does it have an independent identity? When we examine the sources we see that a number of factors distinguish matanot l’ evyonim from tzedaka.

Firstly tzedaka has both the well-known lower limit of a tenth of one’s earnings but also an upper one of a fifth of one’s earnings[1]. Secondly, the mitzvah of tzedaka dictates an order of preference regarding who assistance is given to, most succinctly summed up in the Talmud’s phrase of עניי עירך קודם – the poor of your own city come first. Those in greater proximity (geographically or otherwise) to us have greater claims upon our resources than those who live at a distance[2]. By contrast when it comes to Purim we find that these checks and regulations are absent. The critical line appears in the Talmud Yerushalmi (Megilla 1:4)

אין מדקדקין במצות פורים אלא כל מי שהוא פושט את ידו ליטול נותנין לו

We do not scrutinise the money we give at Purim: rather anyone who extends their hand to take we give to them

On the basis of this we derive that on Purim there is no upper limit to the amounts we dispense, nor any discrimination between potential recipients. Conceptually we can suggest that, throughout the year, the obligation to give  tzedaka comes ‘from the outside’, stemming from the presence of the person in need standing in front of us whose situation needs to be ameliorated. As such, we are entitled to conduct various checks: is this person in fact deserving of our help? Even if they are, are there people to whom we have greater obligations? Have we perhaps already given as much as we need to give to fulfil our own obligation of tzedaka?

Yet on Purim it is not the poor who need to receive. It is us who need to give. Helping others is a spontaneous expression of our own internal joy on the festival, welling up from within. As such it cannot be subject to the checks and balances in place on tzedaka throughout the year. The great 14th century commentator Ritva (Rabbeinu Yom Tov ben Avraham of Seville), drawing on his teachers’ teacher the Ramban, expands on the idea as follows[3]:

פירשו בירושלמי (פ”א ה”ד) שכל הפושט ידו ליטול יתנו לו, לומר שנותנין לכל אדם ואין מדקדקין אם הוא עני וראוי ליתן לו, שאין נתינה זו מדין צדקה גרידתא אלא מדין שמחה שהרי אף לעשירים יש לשלוח מנות, ולפיכך נהגו ליתן מעות פורים לגוים ואפילו עשירים

And the Talmud Yerushalmi (1:4) explains the line of ‘anyone who puts out their hand to receive we give to him’, to mean that we give tzedaka to everybody on Purim and we do not check to see if he is truly a poor person and deserving of the money (as we do throughout the rest of the year), because this giving is not solely due to the law of tzedaka, but from the law of simcha (joy), for see we even send gifts to the rich, and therefore it is customary to give money to non-Jews and the rich on Purim[4].

In the Ritva’s view, matanot l’evyonim and mishloach manot derive from the same source. Giving – to the poor, to the rich, to gentile friends – is an expression of our own internal celebration, which is the central motif of the celebration of Purim as a whole[5].

The Shulchan Aruch quotes the Yerushalmi verbatim and drawing on the Ramban and Ritva adds that giving to non-Jewish causes is also considered to be part of the mitzvah of matanot l’evyonim[6]:

אין מדקדקים במעות פורים אלא כל מי שפושט ידו ליטול נותנים לו; ובמקום שנהגו ליתן אף לאינו ישראל, נותנים.

With the money that is dispensed on Purim we do not check (to see whether the person is truly deserving), rather anybody who puts out his hand to receive money, we give to him. And in places where it is the custom, we give to non-Jews as well.

The point here is not that the Halacha takes into consideration needy gentiles as well as Jews. Jewish thought and practise has always been a balance of universal and particular. Rather it is that precisely at the moment in the calendar when the temptation to foster a hostile attitude to the outside world and to turn inwards would be greatest, the Halakha establishes that the mitzvah of gifts to the poor, applies to the non-Jewish needy as well.

Drinking on Purim and Parshat Zakhor

אמר רבא: מיחייב איניש לבסומי בפוריא עד דלא ידע בין ארור המן לברוך מרדכי

Said Rava: one is obligated to get so drunk on Purim that one can no longer distinguish between cursed is Haman and blessed is Mordechai. (Megilla 7b)

The Talmud famously establishes that on Purim, unlike any other festival of the year, drinking to inebriation is a part of the celebration. Throughout the Talmud there is a clear recognition that wine can play a powerful role in revealing an individual’s true self – נכנס יין יוצא סוד – the wine enters, the secrets of a person emerge[7].

My friend, Rav Boruch Boudilovsky of Borehamwood, once claimed that it may therefore be of significance that the Talmud specifically chooses to describe the state of drunkenness one should get to as being the inability to distinguish between ‘cursed is Haman and blessed is Mordechai’. Rav Boruch suggested that the Talmud’s intention is that whilst on the surface we must indeed remain vigilant and aware of our external enemies, we must not allow Haman to make an impression on our heart. Those who have sought to destroy us must not be allowed to to truly affect our deepest selves.

The final verse of Parshat Zakhor (Devarim 25:19) appears to contain an ambiguity:

תמחה את-זכר עמלק מתחת השמים לא תשכח

Erase the memory of Amalek, do not forget

We must not forget to erase Amalek from our memory… what does that mean? Are we obligated to remember Amalek, or are we obligated to forget Amalek, to make their memory meaningless? One can of course gloss over the difficulty but in light of our above discussion it is fitting to emphasise it: We must remember Amalek, – what they did to us, and our obligation to wipe them out – but at the same time we must forget Amalek – they cannot be central to our lives, they must not define us.

The festival of Purim is remarkable for what it became when we consider what it could have become. It provides a perfect illustration of Aviezer Ravitzky’s claim that ‘a religion that is founded on a book can push one idea to the margins and guide another to the centre’

At Purim hate and revenge play no role. Instead of righteous anger or reflective sobriety we find joy and generosity. Not only are Amalek and Haman not allowed to dominate our minds and hearts, but uniquely at this time, the mitzva of gifts to the poor is fulfilled by giving to Jew and Gentile alike.

This Purim of 5775 – 2015 is an especially difficult one, where the very real threat of anti-Semitism in Europe and the Middle East is on the minds of Jews the world over. Both in the diaspora and in Israel, community vigilance and political action is more necessary now than at any time in recent memory. But it would be a grave error and a departure from tradition if we were to allow these external threats to dominate our inner lives, to confuse that which is truly essential with that which is truly the essence.

Dan Uzan – the friend I made only six weeks ago – was killed by someone who understood his own religious vision to be the hatred and murder of others. Dan understood such threats very well and dedicated thousands of hours to help protect his community against them. But he did not allow them to take over his personality. In the words of his sister Andrea[8]:

Dan, was a friend of human kind. He believed in and practiced kindness. And he believed in the goodness that is in human kind. My little brother, Dan, loved people. He accepted them as they were. Regardless of gender, age, nationality or colour. Regardless of whether they were strangers or friends. May we all follow his example.


[1] יורה דעה סימן רמט סעיף א הגה: ואל יבזבז אדם יותר מחומש, שלא יצטרך לבריות.

Rama, Yoreh De’ah 249:1: And one should not give more than a fifth of one’s earnings to charity in order not to fall into dependency.

See also Rav Mosheh Feinstein’s Igrot Mosheh, Yoreh Deah 143:1

[2] Bava Metzia 71a

[3] Chiddushei HaRitva, Megilla 7a

 [4] The Ritva goes onto mention the ‘ways of peace’ as motivation for giving to the non-Jewish poor. It may be suggested that in fact the true reason the Halacha countenances giving to gentiles is a much thinner ‘what will they say’ type argument. Yet I find this unconvincing, for if gentile disapproval of the Halacha’s prioritisation of Jewish needs was indeed such a strong factor, there would be many more instances in which the Halacha would look significantly different. The fact that uniquely on Purim charity is extended to gentiles as well, indicates that there is something specific to the nature of Purim that motivates such legislation.

 [5] See also Rav Yehiel Yaakov Weinberg’s Responsa Seridei Eish 1:61 on why no blessing is made on the mitzvah of mishloach manot:

שמשלוח מנות היא להרבות שלום ואהבה וריעות… והנה אף שבכל המצות גדול המצווה ועושה ומברכין וציונו – במשלוח מנות טוב שיתן מרצונו החפשי, מתוך רגש של אהבה לאחיו העברי, ואם הוא נותן רק עפ”י צווי הוא מפחית מידת האהבה.

For the purpose of sending gifts on Purim is to increase peace, love and friendship… for even though with regards to mitzvoth we say ‘greater is the one who is commanded and performs and blesses ‘that we have been commanded’ – with the sending of gifts on Purim it is better to give from one’s own free decision, out of a feeling of love for one’s fellow Jew, and if one were to give on account of the commandment the attribute of love would be lessened.

 [6] Shulchan Aruch, Orach Chayim 694:3

 [7] See for instance the famous midrash of the woman of Sidon in Shir HaShirim Rabba, Ch.1

 [8] At the memorial service for Dan Uzan in the Copenhagen synagogue, February 24th 2015 – Translation by Karoline Henriques

This entry was posted in Chagim, Contemporary, Halakha, Philosophy, Politics, War and Conflict. Bookmark the permalink.

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