Shabbat Zakhor: Celebrating Halakhic Creativity

The Shabbat before Purim is called Shabbat Zakhor.  Right after the regular Torah reading on Shabbat morning, a special portion is recited in which we read about a mitzvah, the commandment to Remember Amalek, and by listening to it, it counts as fulfilling it. In an even more interesting turn of halakhic events, most rabbinic authorities don’t even think that the related mitzvah, to Wipe out the Nation of Amalek, can or should be fulfilled anymore. This, in spite of the the fact that it is found explicitly in the Torah (Deut. 25:19). The change in this halakha, from a straight-forward biblical commandment, to a nuanced, thoughtful, people-centered granting of permission to not fulfill it, did not happen spontaneously or organically. The change, or more correctly, the complex process of change, was a result of creative rabbinic choices and actions to make it happen.

Rabbinic creativity is not restricted to circumventing potentially problematic, genocidal mitzvot.  If I lived in Israel, I could still be enjoying the fruits that starting growing last year, the Shmitta year, if I relied on the rabbinically-organized Heter Mekhira.  And in a few weeks, I will be packing up my pasta, crackers and scotch and putting them in my basement, when they will no longer count as my hametz, once I make a contract with my rabbi to make it so.² These are all halakhic changes that rely on a process of rabbinic ingenuity and creativity, enacted by adherence to strict halakhic process while respecting the real-life issues affected by these laws.

Shabbat Zakhor is often a time to think about the nature of evil, revenge, and even the potential conflict between personal morality (Genocide is bad) and Divine Law (Kill all of the Amalek nation). These are all important ideas on which to reflect, but there is another concept related to the mitzvah to Wipe out the Nation of Amalek that is also interesting and hopefully relevant. The rabbinic work-around, the halakhic creativity, that allows us to live our lives without the angst that we would have to kill an Amalekite were we to see one, is a monumental comfort for those of us who feel we could never do it anyway. It is a huge change from the original biblical law, a change/process that began almost 2,000 years ago when Rabbi Joshua in the Mishna (Yadayim 4:4) asserted that certain biblical nations were no longer 100% identifiable and therefore people who appeared to be their descendants could no longer be discriminated against as if they were. Consequently, if we can no longer identify Amalekites 100% (DNA testing notwithstanding), we can no longer halakhically fulfil the commandment to kill one that is suspected to be one.  If we are told by rabbinic authorities that we can no longer fulfil this halakha, then I would argue that we have in fact changed the nature of the halakha, at least as it was originally presented and/or intended.

Is this a change in the original halakha that was orchestrated by rabbis? Absolutely! Did the previous sentence actually contain the words ‘change’ and ‘halakha’ and ‘rabbis’? Absolutely!

For some of us, it is difficult to get the image and voice of Tevye out of our heads as he screams, TRADITION!, with his arms and eyes directed towards heaven, as the quintessential description of Judaism.  Additionally, in our denominationally based Jewish communities, when we are (unfortunately) often more obsessed with the differences that divide us than with what unites us, a key difference is often the assertion that while some groups allow for change, others are more authentic as they are the “legitimate” guardians of tradition and therefore are opposed to change.

Shabbat Zakhor, the Shabbat of Remembrance, can and should remind us of the evil of Amalek, but perhaps it can also serve as a reminder that the process of halakhic change has always been present in Rabbinic Judaism. The method of creative rabbinic change enacted on behalf of us all, who are troubled by this commandment, can serve as a reminder that rabbis can adapt and even change halakha.

I would like to see Shabbat Zakhor as an annual “Shabbat Celebrating Halakhic Creativity.” Hearing about the traditional method of on-going change in traditional, halakhic Judaism, in divrei Torah from the pulpit and around our tables, could (re)acclimatize ourselves to the idea of change within traditional halakha.  Shabbat Zakhor, or Shabbat Celebrating Halakhic Creativity, could serve as a calendarized remembrance of this creative aspect of halakha, that could give our leaders courage to continue in this method. Additionally, it could give those of us who are naturally resistant to the idea of change the strength to embrace change when trusted halakhic authorities celebrate it as the right thing.

Next Shabbat Zakhor is a little less than a year away (a little less than a 12 month ‘normal’ calendar year, based on the fact that 5776 is a Leap Year — due to the complex system of calendarization that is another example of rabbinic innovation). Until then, I look forward to members of our rabbinic leadership continuing in their tradition of halakhic creativity to affect positive change to help us all embrace our Judaism to the fullest extent possible.

If you are inspired to celebrate it, Shabbat Celebrating Halakhic Creativity 5777 will be on the the 13th of Adar, March 11 2017.


1. Heter Mekhira is the rabbinic mechanism that allows one to eat produce grown in the Land of Israel in the Shmitta year, by selling the land to a non-Jew for the time in question.   Not surprisingly, this issue is much more complicated than described here and there are multiple rabbinic opinions concerning it.

2. Mekhirat Hametz is the rabbinic mechanism in which one grants permission (via legally binding contract) to a rabbi to act on one’s behalf to sell one’s hametz (leavened food) during Pesach (and then returned it to the original owner after the holiday). The hametz stays in the original owner’s house, but its legal ownership is transferred.  Not surprisingly, this issue is much more complicated than described here and there are multiple rabbinic opinions concerning it.

About the Author
Dr. Anna Urowitz-Freudenstein teaches Jewish Ethics, Jewish History and Tanach at the Community Hebrew Academy of Toronto, where she is also Head of the Department of Jewish Thought. She has a MA in Ancient Judaism and a PhD in Midrash.
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