The Shabbat before Purim is known as Shabbat Zakhor, because the word “zakhor–remember”–is the opening word of the special maftir reading. The Torah commands us explicitly to remember what Amalek did to us on our way out of Egypt, attacking the stragglers as they made their way to freedom. But whereas most mitzvot address some form of behavior, the command “to remember” is addressed to our intellect and emotions. How, exactly, is one to act on this mitzvah?
The rabbis determined that such remembering required active participation. “How do I fulfill ‘remember?’ Verbally (Bavli Megillah 18a). For that reason, the special Torah reading on Shabbat Zakhor was considered one of the only passages that we are obligated to hear read out loud. Based on the teachings of the Tosafot, the 16th-century authority Rabbi Yosef Caro rules in his Shulkhan ‘Arukh (Yoreh De’ah 585:7) that those who live in small communities that lack a minyan must come to a place that has one in order to hear the reading. In a footnote to this ruling, Rabbi Caro’s Ashkenazi counterpart, Rabbi Moshe Isserles, wrote: “And if it is impossible for them to come, they should nevertheless be vigilant to read these verses with the proper melody.”
Another consideration of a mitzvah that addresses memory is the matter of frequency. How often should I be jogging my memory about Amalek? Is once in a lifetime enough? Or should I be cognizant of this element of our history every day? Every hour? What is the saturation point of memory? And at what interval does a memory naturally fade away? Rabbi Isaiah Pick-Berlin (Austro-Hungary, 18th century) affirms that annual commitment to remembering key experiences is natural. It was once believed that people “forget” their deceased loved ones after a year; that’s why we go out of our way to remember them actively, annually, by observing yahrzeit. When we lose a precious object, we hold out hope for recovering it for a year, after which, in a legal sense, we give up, and legally cede its ownership. If the longest we can go without forgetting is a year, it makes perfect sense to have yearly reminders; that’s why we read Maftir Zakhor annually.
But it’s noteworthy that we aren’t commanded to remember Amalek more frequently than once a year. Amalek is the embodiment of unmitigated evil. Should we not be conscious of it at all times? When we learned of the horrific butchery of the Fogel family of Ittamar this past week, our memories of the human capacity for Amalekitish behavior were brought to the fore. Let’s not forget, though, that the command to remember Amalek is accompanied by a command to obliterate them, too. If we were to dwell on this mitzvah, and make it as frequent an obligation as, say, lighting Shabbat candles (weekly) or praying (daily), we might cultivate violent, vengeful behavior. Yes, it is a mitzvah to hear this special Torah reading, and we make special effort to activate memory. I’m glad it’s just once a year.