NISHMA UPDATE March 1992
Choice in Destruction
Rabbi Benjamin Hecht, North York, Ontario
In Sefer HaMitzvot, Mitzva Asseh 187, Rambam, when describing the command to destroy the Seven Nations that inhabited Canaan, uses the verb le'harog, to kill. The Chinuch, Mitzva 425, is similar. Yet both authors in describing the mitzva to destroy Amalek apply a different language. The command is to destroy the zerah, the progeny of Amalek and, what seems to be even of greater significance, to eradicate any memory of Amalek from this world. In Mishneh Torah, Hilchot Melachim 5:5, in codifying this law, Maimonides only mentions this latter part although in the Sefer HaMitzvot he mentions the first. What significance is there to this change in language? What is the actual essence of the mitzva?
To answer these questions, at least according to the view of Rambam, it is necessary to look at a most controversial law that Maimonides codifies in Hilchot Melachim 6:1-4. According to Rambam, the Jewish nation's obligation to make peace before going to war applies even to battles with the Seven Nations and Amalek. How does this reconcile with the mitzvot regarding the destruction of these nations? The language of the Kesef Mishna is most revealing. While Ra'avad and others state that this agreement of peace must include the observance of the Seven Noachide Laws on the part of these nations, the Kesef Mishna presents a most interesting reason why - " for if they accept the Seven Noachide Laws they leave the category of the Seven Nations and Amalek and they are like bnei Noach ha'kesharim, righteous non-Jews". In terms of the Seven Nations, the mitzva is now fully understandable. The command is to kill the members of these nations, as Rambam states in Sefer HaMitzvot, they are the root of idolatry. Once someone accepts, however, the Noachide Code, they are no longer a member of these nations that are the root of idolatry and therefore there is no command to kill this individual ( in fact this would be prohibited just as it is prohibited to kill any non-Jew ). How, though, does one understand the mitzva regarding Amalek?
On the surface the answer seems to be simple - the command regarding Amalek should be similar. The language in the Mishneh Torah and Sefer HaMitzvot however must lead to a different conclusion. Regarding the Seven Nations, the command is to kill them. If, however, the Seven Nations do not exist, because of something such as acceptance of the Noachide Code, then this mitzva cannot be performed. Encouraging the members of the Seven Nations to accept the Noachide Code may be praiseworthy and a part of the command to first reach out for peace, but it is not part of this mitzva - the language is clear. Regarding Amalek, however, the command is to destroy its memory, its progeny, its essence - its name. It would seem that any transformation of someone out of the category of Amalek would fulfil this mitzva of destroying this entity. I would argue, though, that the mitzva can only be fulfilled if the member of Amalek converts to become a Jew. While acceptance of the Noachide Code takes someone out of the category of Amalek and, as such, there is no command to destroy this individual, this acceptance would not utterly destroy the Amalek concept from this world. A subsequent rejection of the Seven Noachide Mitzvot, it would seem, could lead to this individual being re-classified as Amalek. Acceptance of the Noachide Code would simply, as in the case of the Seven Nations, mean there is no command to destroy this individual while he is in this state of a kosher Ben Noach. Amalek, however, is not fully destroyed. Becoming a Jew and receiving that classification, however, is irrevocable. As Maimonides writes in Mishneh Torah, Hilchot Issurei Bi'ah 13:17, even if a convert returns to idolatry, this person is still classified as a Jew. Conversion would destroy the Amalek name and as such would seem to be a method to fulfil this mitzva.
The irony in this approach to the command is that attempting to do the mitzva in this way, through gerut, would seem to be a full rectification of the original mistake that led to the creation of Amalek. In T.B. Tractate Sanhedrin 99b, we are told that the creation of Amalek was a punishment in that our Avot, Avraham, Yitzchak and Yaacov, did not accept Timna, the mother of Amalek, as a ger. Is it not a Divine paradox in that we may fulfil a mitzva through the conversion of her children?
The major problem with this approach, however, is the Mechilta, Shemot 17:16, which declares that gerim, converts, from Amalek are not to be accepted. The Mechilta actually seems to imply that even a process of conversion would be inapplicable for David killed the Amalekite convert - a member of Amalek simply cannot convert. Rambam, however, does not codify this law when he discusses those who can or cannot convert in Hilchot Issurei Bi'ah, chapter 12. Maimonides' non-acceptance of the Mechilta is further substantiated in that in Hilchot Sanhedrin 18:6 he refers to the case of the Amalekite convert as an example of the Jewish king's power of summary judgement. The major issue with the Mechilta actually arises from T.B. Tractate Gittin 57b and Tractate Sanhedrin 96b which declares that the descendants of Haman ( who is considered an Amalekite) learned Torah in B'nei Brak. If Amalekites cannot convert, how could Haman's descendants have become Jews? While some commentators reconcile the Mechilta and the Talmud through maintaining the bar on Amalekite conversion, there are others who declare the Mechilta's position not to be universal. See Torah Shelaima, Parshat Beshalach, section 185 and, for greater detail, Sefer Ner L'Meah. It would seem that Maimonides would be classified within the latter. While converting Amalek may not be an option in fulfilling the mitzva to all, it would seem to be a feasible method according to Rambam, and one that many may find more tenable.
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