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Parashath Zachor: Remember What, Exactly? Part 3

March 1, 2015

(part 1, part 2)

The sages identify Haman and his sons with some of the villains mentioned in Ezra who sought to stop the reconstruction of the Temple (Ezra 4:4-6)

Then the people of the land weakened the hands of the people of Judah, and harried them while they were building, and hired counsellors against them, to frustrate their purpose, all the days of Cyrus king of Persia, even until the reign of Darius king of Persia. And in the reign of Ahasuerus, in the beginning of his reign, wrote they an accusation against the inhabitants of Judah and Jerusalem.

They succeeded for a while (ibid., 24):

Then ceased the work of the house of God which is at Jerusalem; and it ceased unto the second year of the reign of Darius king of Persia.

The same Ahasuerus who was so willing to let Haman kill all the Jews was also very happy that the Temple was not to be rebuilt.

The sages and prophets of Ezra’s time realized that this would be the eternal pattern of our enemies’ behavior: seek to destroy the Temple or prevent its construction, and wipe out the Jews. The two go hand in hand. Thus, it did not truly matter if Haman was a real flesh and blood Agagite son of Amalek son of Elifaz, or someone given a pejorative nickname because of his virulent antisemitism, or if the commandment to wipe out Amalek was eternally applicable, because the lesson of preemptively destroying those who would destroy us was one that needed to be publicized annually along with the other necessary, yearly announcements concerning the public’s dues to the Temple. 

Question: Did you say that the old minhag was that women did not consider themselves obligated to hear Zachor?

Answer: Yes.

Question: What about men?

Answer: Men are supposed to go to every Torah reading. The Tosafists believed that unlike other readings, which were ordained by the Rabbis, this one was ordained by the Torah, and that meant that men who normally have no way to hear public Torah reading in their towns for lack of quorums have to go into the larger towns to hear Zachor the week it is read. (Orah Hayim 685:7) However, the traditional, and not explicitly mentioned understanding is that the tri-weekly Torah reading is an obligation incumbent on communities as a group, and no individual has a specific obligation to hear the Torah reading, and even if that reading was commanded by the Torah. The Shulhan Aruch, without taking sides, is just telling them to play it safe because of the doubt. It is interesting to note that the Shulhan Aruch does not have more to say on this topic. It does not mention that one has to be extra m’daqdaeiq in reading this parasha, nor that women have to hear it read, nor of the other usual humroth that have been piled on. Further, the Tosafists who were the first to make the explict claim that the reading of Zachor is ordained by the Torah gave a different halachic consequence altogether (B’rachoth 13a, M’gilla 17b): All other Torah readings may technically be performed in foreign languages, like reading the Septuagint to crowds whose native language is Greek, whereas because Zachor is biblically mandated, it must be read in Hebrew. In any event, you see that when the Tosafists and the Shulhan Aruch made the claim that the Torah mandated the public reading of parashath zachor, they meant that it’s nafqa mina lahalacha, halachic ramifications, are totally different from those most are familiar with. They are also not as extreme.

Question: I found that Tosafos actually says that the reading of parshas zachor is d’oraisa, but how did the Tosafos know that?

Answer: The Bei’ur Hagra to Orah Hayim (ibid.) claims that the following Talmudic passage is the source for the Tosafists’ position (M’gilla, 18a):

“If one reads m’gillath esther by heart, he has not discharged his obligation.” Where does this rule come from? Rava said: We explain the expression for remembrance (z’chira) in one passage from its use in another. It is written here (in Esther 9:28), “And these days shall be nizkarim, remembered, etc.,” and it is written elsewhere [concerning the eternal war with Amalek] (Exodus 17:14) “Write this l’zikkaron, for a memorial, in the book…” Just as there [in Exodus] it was to be in a book, so here [in Esther] it must be in a book. But how do we know that this ‘nizkarim’ implies b’feh, orally? Perhaps it means mere reading with the eyes? — Do not imagine such a thing, since it his been taught [regarding Amalek] (Deuteronomy 25:17): “Remember, [zachor]…” Am I to say, this means only with the mind? [No, because] when the text [continues and] says, “you shall not forget,” the injunction against mental forgetfulness is already given. What then am I to make of “remember”? This must mean, by utterance.

That is, the commandment to remember Amalek must be done in a formal spoken manner. With regards to other commandments, there are specific rituals done to explicitly and orally memorialize certain events, like the recitation of qiddush on the Sabbath as a fulfillment of “remembering the Sabbath day to keep it holy.” According to the Vilna Gaon, the Tosafists believed that the way to fulfill the Torah’s command to orally remember Amalek’s crimes was by having a public Torah reading. It was our sages who determined at which time of year this reading should take place, along with other particulars. (See Magen Avraham  to Orah Hayim, ibid.)

Question: So it seems that  Tosafos have a good source for their rule. Why don’t Rambam, the Rosh, and the Rif follow Tosafos’s understanding of the Gemara in Megilla?

Answer: I believe that they hold like Maimonides, who although he codified the rule of the Gemara, that one must orally memorialize Amalek’s heinous deeds, the Torah did not necessitate that it be performed via a public Torah reading, although the sages eventually ordained that it should be. Instead, the way to actively fulfill the commandment to orally remember Amalek was (Positive Commandment 189):

That He commanded us to remember what Amalek did to us by going and harming us, to hate him at all times, to rouse our souls with calls to battle him, and to exhort the people to hate him so that the commandment not be forgotten and that the hatred we have for for him not dissipate with the passage of time.

He then quotes the Talmudic passage from M’gilla above, and then continues:

Do you not see what Samuel, when initiating the fulfillment of this command, did? He first mentioned [Amalek’s] wicked deed, and then commanded [Saul] to kill [Amalek]. This is what the verse (I Samuel 15:2-3) means: “Thus said the Lord of Hosts: I remember that which Amalek did to Israel, how he set himself against him in the way, when he came up out of Egypt. Now go and smite Amalek…”

That is, according to Maimonides, the way one fulfills this commandment is by constantly reminding the people about the Amalek issue and exhorting them to do something about it. This fits in very well with what we wrote earlier about why the Sages saw fit to ordain the public reading of Parashath Zachor as part of a series of readings meant to call attention to to other issues of national and sanctuarial importance.

Or, they might hold like Nahmanides, who, in his commentary to Parashath Zachor, mentions the Gemara and the opinion attributed to the Tosafists, and then dismisses it, instead offering that

the correct interpretation appears to me that the verse states that you are not to forget what Amalek did to us until we blot out his remembrance from under the heavens, and that we are to relate it to our children and descendants, saying to them “thus did the wicked one do to us and therefore we are commanded to blot out his name.” (Chavel translation)

Question: What about reading with all the different havaros?

Answer: A strange idea that many have denounced. In truth, one should always read the Torah and the sh’ma according to an objectively correct havara, one that distinguishes between all 29 Hebrew consonantal sounds and 14 vowel sounds. You could read my book about it.

Question: There was a rav who used to have his shul read parshas zachor like any other maftir. No announcing for everyone to pay attention, no having the baal korei make any changes noticeable changes from the usual, no anouncing that women had to be in shul also. He did not even let them read zeicher again as zecher!

Answer: You see that this rav did not care for the new halachoth. That is, even if he held like the Tosafists or the opinion cited by the Shulhan Aruch, that all men need to find a reading, the actual reading of Zachor is no different from any other Torah reading, which is normally read in our [pronunciation] of Hebrew. Parenthetically, the zeicher/zecher issue is not unique. In this weeks’ (T’tzawweh 5775) parasha for example, there is a dispute as to the vowelization of the word w’niqdash in 29:43. Is it with a qamatz or a patah? As you know, most Ashkenazim still differentiate between the two, and unlike the zeicher/zecher instance, this one actually makes a difference in meaning.  (Two of the stones on the breast plate are also subject to these disputes: some have yashfeh spelled with a tzeirei, others with a segol, and some have yahalom with a patah, and others with a qamatz.) There are many more example of this phenomenon, yet no one reads that verse or phrase twice. We assume that our tradition, however much it may be called into doubt by other traditions, is good enough, and that by adopting an alternate that is in no way superior, we gain nothing. If aint broke, don’t fix it.


From → original, parasha

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