The Amalekites, descendants of Amalek, were an ancient biblical nation living near the land of Canaan. They were the first nation to attack the Jewish people after the Exodus from Egypt, and they are seen as the archetypal enemy of the Jews. The nation of Amalek is long gone, but they live on as the internal enemies that we each battle on a daily basis.

Who Was Amalek

Eliphaz, son of Esau (the patriarch Jacob’s brother and sworn enemy), and his concubine Timna had a child named Amalek.1 Amalek grew up in Esau’s household, imbibing Esau’s pathological hatred of Jacob’s descendants along the way. His offspring became the nation of Amalek, and they lived to the south of the Land of Israel, in what is now known as the Negev Desert.2

Read about the significance of Amalek’s genealogy here: A Lesson from Timna

The Amalekites Attack

After the Jewish people crossed the Red Sea, they encamped in Rephidim, a barren location in the Sinai Desert. The people thirsted for water, and G‑d provided a miraculous well of water to accompany them on their journeys.

While the Jews were still at Rephidim, recuperating from their escape from Egypt,3 the nation of Amalek launched a vicious surprise attack on them—though the Jews had no designs on Amalekite territory and were not even headed in that direction.

Moses commanded his disciple Joshua to take an elite troop of soldiers into battle the next day. Moses himself ascended a nearby mountain to pray for G‑d’s salvation.4

The Jews defeated Amalek in battle, killing their strongest warriors while allowing the others to return home.5

Following the battle, G‑d commanded Moses to record the story of Amalek’s treacherous attack for posterity, and to enjoin Moses’ future successor, Joshua, to remember the attack as well. G‑d promised to completely wipe out the memory of Amalek from the earth, and to wage an eternal war with Amalek in every generation. G‑d swore that His name and throne would not be complete until Amalek was destroyed.6

Forty years later, as the Jews stood poised to enter the Land of Israel, Moses reminded the Jews of the command to combat Amalek.7

Read more about Amalek’s attack here: Amalek’s Attack

The King of Arad

In the fortieth year of the Jews’ wandering in the desert, Aaron, the high priest, passed on. The protective clouds of glory that surrounded the Jewish camp disappeared, as they were present only in Aaron’s merit. Seeing the exposed encampment, the Canaanite king of Arad launched a savage attack against the Jews.

The sages explain that the king of Arad and his army were actually Amalekites who had merely disguised themselves as Canaanites before entering battle. They wanted to confuse the Jews about their attackers’ identity. While the Jews would pray to G‑d for salvation from Canaanites, the Amalekites would be free to do whatever they pleased.

The plan backfired. The Jews were victorious, and went on to enter the Land of Israel unimpeded by the Amalekites.8

Read more about the attack here: Aaron and Miriam

To Remember and Destroy

The Torah lists two mitzvahs regarding Amalek:

  1. To obliterate the nation of Amalek (timcheh et zecher Amalek).
  2. To never forget the evil deeds Amalek did (zechor al tishkach).9

To Wipe Out Amalek

The mitzvah to destroy Amalek implies that no trace of Amalek’s existence could be left.10 “Nothing,” explain the sages, “could serve as a reminder of Amalek’s name—not even an animal about which it could be said, ‘This animal belonged to Amalek.’”11

The first Jewish king, Saul, was commanded by the prophet Samuel to finally wipe out Amalek. Saul was victorious against the Amalekites, but spared the choicest of their flocks and the Amalekite king, Agag.

When Samuel found out about Saul’s disobedience, Saul lost his right to kingship. Samuel then killed Agag himself.12

However, before he was killed, Agag sired a child who would keep Amalek’s lineage alive. Some 500 years later, one of this child’s descendants was Haman the Agagite, of Purim fame.13

Read about destroying Amalek’s property: How to Lose Your Memory

Read about Saul’s war with Amalek: War With Amalek

Killing an entire nation is harsh stuff. Read how to make sense of it all here:
Does Torah Promote Genocide?
Torah and Genocide FAQ

To Remember—Parshat Zachor

The Torah commands us to always remember what Amalek did. The sages understand from this that once a year we must read the verses of the Torah where Moses reminds the Jews of Amalek’s actions.

Indeed, each year on the Shabbat before the holiday of Purim we read the section of the Torah in Deuteronomy recounting Amalek’s action. On Purim the Jews were saved from the evil designs of the wicked Haman, a descendant of the Amalekite king Agag—a perfect time to celebrate the destruction of Amalek.14

Read more about Parshat Zachor here:
The Chassidic Dimension
Zachor Haftarah Companion

The First in Line

Amalek represents the worst form of evil. The prophet Balaam refers to Amalek in the following passage: “Amalek was the first of the nations, and his fate shall be everlasting destruction.”15

The sages compare Amalek’s attack to a bathtub of boiling water, too hot for any living creature to handle. A fool came along and jumped in; though he scalded himself, the water’s heat seemed less intense to onlookers. So too, the Jews seemed invincible after their exodus from mighty Egypt. Amalek was the first to attack them; though the Jews were victorious, their aura of security was shattered.16

Amalek Today

The command to destroy Amalek cannot be fulfilled today, since the identity of Amalek has been lost over the millennia. However, the command to “remember Amalek” still holds true in the spiritual realms.

Read: Wipe Out Amalek, Today?

The Scoffer

Chassidic philosophy explains that Amalek represents the pinnacle of evil, the ability to “know G‑d and intentionally rebel.” Most evil can be combated by arguments of reason; not so Amalek. He cynically scoffs at every reason to do good, sowing doubt and confusion.

Irrational doubt neutralizes the most convincing arguments or inspiring experiences. Amalek is the constant doubter, brazenly rushing to any sign of passion for holiness and cooling things down.

In fact, the numerical value of the Hebrew letters of Amalek (עמלק) is 240—the same as the value of the Hebrew word for “doubt” (ספק).

The only response to Amalek is to be supra-rationally good, calling forth the essential connection to G‑d that is hidden in the essence of our souls, and rooted in the essence of G‑d. This connection is above logic or feelings, and Amalek cannot oppose it—and so loses his brazen power, allowing the individual to grow and develop.

When we do good despite our self-doubts or feelings of hypocrisy, we shatter the very citadel of evil, completing G‑d’s name and revealing His rulership to all.

Read more here:
Amalek—Nemesis of G‑dliness
The Everlasting Battle
Battles with Amalek