With Purim nearly upon us, it’s time once again for the reading of the four special parshiyot. We’re actually in the middle, having already covered sheqalim last week, but this week we get the spectacular fun of zachor (Devarim 25:17-19). Invariably, this reading generates much discussion as to how this passage should be read (including the practice of repeaing the last verse – a discussion for another time), and the extreme importance of being in shul to hear zachor being read.
Most of these discussions are based on the preception that the reading of parashat zachor is biblically mandated. This assumption has bothered me for some time, as well as the cavalier attitude with which it is presented. Despite the lack of textual evidence or logical consistency, few people question the nature of keriat parashat zachor. As luck would have it, my new upgraded Bar Ilan CD just came in and it’s all all revved up for a test spin.
The source for reading parashat zachor is M. Megillah 3:4 which lists all of the four special parshiyot as well as when they’re read. Despite the fact that formalized Torah reading was instituted by Ezra HaSofer1 (B. Berachot 22b, B. Megillah 31b, B. Ketubot 3a, B. Bava Qamma 82a), most authorities consider the reading of parashat zachor to be a biblical requirement.
The confusion is the result of an imprecise application of the bibilical obligation to remember Amalek. The passage of zachor commands us to “remember what Amalek did” in attacking the Jewish people immediately after the Exodus from Egypt (see Shemot 17:8-16). According to Rabbinic law,2 the act of remembering is done through speech (B. Megillah 18a).3 For example, we fulfill the commandment to “Remember the Shabbat” (Shemot 20:7) through the recitation of kiddush (B. Pesachim 106a) as opposed to a formalized Torah service.
In the act of reading zachor, we are necessarilly saying the passage, thus fulfilling the obiligation to remember.4 However, it does not logically follow that a formal reading is the only way to observe the commandment of remembering Amalek. According to Rabbinic law, one ought to be able to fulfill the mitzvah of zechirat amalek simply by reading the passages out loud from a humash or a siddur.
When did reading zachor first get its status as a biblical obligation? Some attribute the source to Tosafot found in Berachot 13a and Megillah 17b which say that the reading of zachor is biblical. While in our context this is generally taken to mean that we have a biblical obligation to read zachor, I do not belive this is a correct reading of the Tosafot. In addition to zachor, Tosafot consider other passages to be of biblical nature including eglah arufa (Devarim 21:7), halitza (Devarim 25:9), and bikkurim (Devarim 26:5). None of these instances constitutes a traditional “reading” in the sense of taking out a Torah scroll, but rather during certain events and actions, the Torah mandates that a script be recited. This “reading” is biblical in the sense that there is a specific text which must be spoken – simliar to keriat shema – as opposed to reading a regular Torah portion.
The earliest source I have found advocating a bibilical requirement for reading zachor with a minyan is the Rosh (1250-1327) (Berachot 7:20). Unfortunately, Rosh does not provide any source for this assumption. Rabbi Israel ben Petachyah Isserlein, better known as the Terumat Hadeshen (d. 1460) is most emphatic in accepting this position of the Rosh, and adds a few other who subscribe to this opinion, but he offers no further rationale (TD 108).
In addition to the lack of textual support for claiming the reading of zachor is biblical, there is also a problem of inconsistency. If zechira must be done through the process of reading, then logically it ought to apply to the other required rememberances including Shabbat, Miriam (Devarim 24:9), and the Golden Calf (Devarim 9:7).5 Even if the Rabbis mandated a special reading of zachor – by which we fulfill a biblical obligation – this does not mean that the reading itself becomes a biblical obligation as well.
1. With the obvious exception of hakhel – Devarim 31:12
2. For a bibilical equating of remembrance and speech, see Yirmiyahu 31:19.
3. And as my father pointed out in an old Beitz Yitzchak article, the word “zakkarum” in akkadian means to “mention.”
4. The Encyclopedia Talmudit 12:219 n. 90 seems to imply that R. Amram Gaon believed that the reading of zachor is a commandment seprate to reciting it. However, a quick check of R. Amram himself showes that he actually says that reading fulfills the obligation to mention.
5. It’s funny how no one takes the call to “remember the days of the world” (Devarim 32:7) as a serious exhortation, but that’s another discussion.