One of the central customs of the festival of Purim is the reading of the book of Esther. This is done both on Erev Purim and in the morning during the Shacharit prayer service. Anyone who has ever participated in this custom knows that participants are not just hearing the story of Esther being read but they have an active role.
Every time the text approaches Haman’s name participants are expected to make so much noise both with their voices and with special Purim noisemakers called groggers that his name is not even heard over all the raucous. While this is certainly a memorable part of the reading, what’s the source of this custom? Yes, we all dislike Haman but so much so that we can’t even hear his name?
This custom is linked back to the extra Torah reading for Shabbat Zachor. Shabbat Zachor (“Sabbath of Remembrance,”) is the Sabbath that directly precedes the Festival of Purim. The Maftir portion is from the recounting of the Amalekites’ attack on Israel in the wilderness:
Remember what Amalek did to you on the way as you came out of Egypt … you shall blot out the memory of Amalek from under heaven; you shall not forget. (Deuteronomy 25:17-19)
We have a couple of questions to answer. First, what do the Amalekites have to do with Haman? Second, what did the Amalekites do that was so horrible that they deserved to not just be defeated but completely wiped out?
To answer our first question we need to look at Haman’s ancestry in the book of Esther. Haman is introduced and referred to five times as “Haman the Agagite” (Esther 3:1, 10, 8:3, 5, 9:24). The designation “Agagite” links Haman back to “Agag king of the Amalekites” against whom Saul fought in the Haftarah reading for Shabbat Zachor from 1 Samuel 15. Therefore, Haman is a descendant of not only King Agag but is himself an Amalekite.
The commandment in Deuteronomy 25:19 is to “blot out the memory of Amalek from under heaven.” One practical way for us to do that today is to make so much noise during the reading of his name in the Book of Esther that we can’t even hear Haman’s name mentioned. We are then in a sense helping to blot out his memory.
This now brings us to our next question. What did the Amalekites do that was so bad that they deserved to be completely wiped off the face of the earth? Amalek is actually of Abrahamic decent through Esau: “Timna was a concubine of Eliphaz, Esau’s son; she bore Amalek to Eliphaz” (Genesis 36:12). He is said to be one of the “chiefs of Eliphaz in the land of Edom (Genesis 36:16). We read of a detailed account of the battle between Israel and Amalek in Exodus 17 where Aaron and Hur had to hold up Moses’ arms in order that the Jewish people would prevail over the Amalekites. This is the Torah reading for Purim and at the end of this account we read:
And Moses built an altar and called the name of it, The LORD Is My Banner, saying, “A hand upon the throne of the LORD! The LORD will have war with Amalek from generation to generation.” (Exodus 17:15-16)
The defeat of Amalek was not enough. HaShem will continue to wage war with them in every generation. Even Balaam recounts the defeat of the Amalekites in his oracles, deliberating that although they dared to attack Israel, in the end they will be totally annihilated: “Amalek was the first among the nations, but its end is utter destruction” (Numbers 24:20).
To learn about the character of Amalek we need to return to the Maftir reading for Shabbat Zachor 25:
Remember what Amalek did to you on the way as you came out of Egypt, how he attacked you on the way when you were faint and weary, and cut off your tail, those who were lagging behind you, and he did not fear God. Therefore when the LORD your God has given you rest from all your enemies around you, in the land that the LORD your God is giving you for an inheritance to possess, you shall blot out the memory of Amalek from under heaven; you shall not forget. (Deuteronomy 25:17-19)
Amalek first attacked Israel not on the battlefield but ambushed them as they were traveling. Additionally, the Amalekites struck down not the warriors and soldiers but the weak, sick, and elderly who were traveling at the back of the pack. These were not the tactics of an army that sought to win a battle or a war but the merciless strategy of an enemy that desired to see Israel wiped off the face of the earth. God said to Abraham, “I will bless those who bless you, and him who dishonors you I will curse” (Genesis 12:3). The Amalekites “did not fear God” and sought to annihilate God’s people. They were the very opposite of God-fearers from the nations who joined themselves with Israel and worshiped the God of Abraham. Amalek put himself in direct opposition to the Jewish people and cursed the God of Israel. In turn, HaShem will render unto them as they planned to do to his people.
Such is the same with Haman, a descendant of the Amalekites. He did not desire to just break or defeat the Jewish people, but to blot out their memory from the face of the earth. And such is the same with rulers and powers in every generation who come in the spirit of Amalek and seek to destroy the children of Israel, wiping out their memory. Yet, the message of Purim is that God will not stand by idly and watch the destruction of his people. He will continue to fight for them “from generation to generation.” Whether it is through an overt display of his power as in the exodus from Egypt or a more hidden form of help as in the book of Esther, he will defend the Jewish people. In the Passover haggadah we read: “In each and every generation they rise up against us to put an end to us. But the Holy One, blessed is he, rescues us from their hand.” As we celebrate Purim we also eagerly await the day when Messiah will return, establish the kingdom, defeat Israel’s enemies, and wipe out their memory once and for all. May it be soon and in our days. Amen.