Dear Jew in the City-
I was raised to boo Haman and celebrate our victory, but all these people were killed including women and children. What do I do with that?
Thanks for your question but I’m not clear on what you’re asking. From context, it would seem that you’re asking about the casualties in the book of Esther, so let’s address that first.
When Haman first organized the pogrom, King Ahasuerus granted him authority “to destroy, kill and cause to perish all the Jews, both young and old, little children and women, on one day, on the thirteenth day of the twelfth month, which is the month of Adar, and their spoils to be taken as plunder” (Esther 3:13). When Haman was revealed to not actually have the king’s best interest at heart, Ahasuerus granted the Jews the right “to assemble and to protect themselves, to destroy, to slay, and to cause to perish the entire host of every people and province that oppress them, small children and women, and to take their spoils for plunder” (Esther 8:11).
You will note that the Jews were strictly fighting a defensive war. While the other citizens of the Persian empire had license to kill Jews at their whim in order to take the Jews’ property, the Jews were only permitted “to assemble and to protect themselves” by doing what others sought to do to them.
So what did they do? We are told that on the first day, “in Shushan the capital, the Jews slew and destroyed five hundred men” (Esther 9:6). On the second day – “Shushan Purim” – “they slew in Shushan three hundred men” (9:15). Both of these verses stress that the Jews killed men – i.e., combatants – and not collateral victims.
Esther 9:16 gives the casualties for the entire 127 provinces of the empire as 75,000 and doesn’t specify men but nowhere in the megillah does it indicate that they killed women or children. The megillah does stress several times (chapter 9, verses 10, 15 and 16) that they Jews didn’t lay hands on the spoils, which they were entitled to do. Since they didn’t touch the spoils, it is apparent that they were sincerely fighting a defensive battle – all they were interested in was survival. It would certainly suggest that they were careful about not involving non-combatants. At least, that’s the logical conclusion to draw without any evidence to the contrary.
Now, the reason your question is unclear is because your subject line was “Amalek” and, Haman notwithstanding, the Purim story was not a battle against Amalek per se. If you are talking about the general commandment to eradicate Amalek, that’s another story altogether.
Allow me to quote myself, from my book The Taryag Companion, because (a) it’s easier to quote myself than to write something new and (b) shameless self-promotion:
We are commanded to eradicate the nation of Amalek, wiping any vestige of them from the face of the Earth. The reason, as discussed in the previous mitzvah, is because of the cowardly attack that the Amalekites made against God when He took the Jews out of Egypt. Apparently, God knows that certain traits are ingrained within the descendants of Amalek. Nevertheless, many people find this to be a very troubling mitzvah. As historic victims of inquisitions and pogroms, they ask, don’t we find it inconsistent to justify genocide?
We can understand this mitzvah better if we realize that the Amalekites had the opportunity to turn their backs on the ways of their nation and be spared their fate. (This is very different from the way in which Jews were treated in, say, the Holocaust.) As with other nations, Amalek had the opportunity to accept the seven universal (Noachide) laws and submit to Israel’s rule. Not only that, they could convert. The Talmud in Gittin (57b) famously tells us that Haman had descendants who taught Torah in B’nei Brak. (Many authorities believe this to include the renowned sage Rabbi Akiva, who was known to be from B’nei Brak and who was descended from converts.)
This brief explanation may not satisfy contemporary sensibilities but that’s okay; most of human history did not share modern sensibilities and for us this is strictly an academic exercise with no practical application to worry about. It may take some doing for us to come to grips with this mitzvah but the first step is to recognize that it’s not what we initially imagined it to be. With further study, we can hopefully better understand what it actually entailed and why God required it of our ancestors.
Rabbi Jack Abramowitz
JITC Educational Correspondent