Amalek is the paradigm of the enemy of the Jewish people, a nation that attacked us without provocation in the desert. The nation epitomizes the seemingly endless persecution — the pogroms and assaults — we have suffered throughout the ages and continue to suffer, and the defiance of the divine protection which was just evident in the Exodus. In this war that spans the generations, we are commanded to kill every Amalekite — man and woman, child and adult (1 Shmuel 15:3). Does this apply today?
Granted, we are required to offer Amalekites peace before attacking them (Mishneh Torah, Hilchos Melachim 6:1,6) and if they want to become Bnei Noach (Kessef Mishneh, Hilchos Melachim 6:4) or even convert to Judaism they can (Mishneh Torah, Hilchos Issurei Bi’ah 12:17, according to Chida, Pesach Einayim, Sanhedrin 96b). However, otherwise we are commanded to attack them. Does this apply in our times? In practice, it does not because we cannot identify anyone as a descendant of Amalek with any amount of certainty. However, as a theoretical question, we can ask whether we would be obligated to kill someone if we discovered a descendant of the male bloodline of Amalek.
Most Rishonim believe that the mitzvah only applies in the times of Mashiach but I would like to explore an approach that understands the mitzvah differently. In 1 Shmuel 15, the prophet Shmuel relays the divine command to King Shaul to kill the Amalekites living in Israel. Shaul allows King Agag (and the sheep) to live, for which he is rebuked by Shmuel and because of which the kingship was removed from Shaul. Shmuel tells Shaul that he “did wrong in the eyes of G-d.” What specific act of Shaul’s was considered wrong? If anything, his sin was failing to act by refraining from completely destroying Amalek.
In the Chafetz Chaim Al HaTorah (Parashas Zachor, after Terumah), this question is answered in the name of the Chafetz Chaim as follows: The command is to completely destroy Amalek. If you kill some members of the nation but not everyone, you have not fulfilled the mitzvah. The mitzvah is to follow the divine command in this exceptional circumstance, to do what is otherwise forbidden in the strongest terms. Rather than following a divine command, you have committed murder. Killing is justified in rare circumstances, such as self-defense, war, and judicial execution. Destroying Amalek is a justified war only in completion; otherwise, it is unjustified and “wrong in G-d’s eyes.”
If so, this cannot be accomplished by any individual. Even if we could identify Amalekites, which we cannot, we as individuals cannot wage war against them all. So the answer to theoretical question would be no.
Rav Shmuel Greiniman, the editor of Chafetz Chaim Al HaTorah, attributes this explanation to the Chafetz Chaim based on the report of someone he considers reliable. However, Rav Gershon Zaks, the Chafetz Chaim’s grandson, explores his grandfather’s view of this mitzvah based on published sources written by the Chafetz Chaim himself and reaches a different conclusion (Mo’adei HaGershuni, no. 54). Perhaps the Chafetz Chaim offered different approaches at different times. Regardless, Rav Moshe Sternbuch (Mo’adim Uzemanim, vol. 2 no. 162) independently develops this approach.
Rav Sternbuch asks why no later biblical kings, after Shaul, were commanded to destroy Amalek. Some were very righteous and aggressive in enhancing religious standards. Why didn’t they fulfill this biblical commandment? And why weren’t they punished like Shaul for failing to do so? Rav Sternbuch explains that after Shaul’s failed attempt, the remaining Amalekites dispersed and assimilated into other nations. After Shaul, it is impossible to fulfill this mitzvah until Mashiach comes and clarifies, ending this war that lasts through the generations (Shemos 17:16).
Hagahos Maimoniyos (Hilchos Melachim 5:1) quotes the Semag as saying that this mitzvah only applies in the times of Mashiach. Radbaz (Hilchos Melachim 5:5) asks a brief but powerful question on this view. If this mitzvah is reserved for Mashiach, why was Shaul asked to do it and punished for failing to do so? Rav Sternbuch responds that Shaul is as the last person capable of waging this war because Amalek was still identifiable in his time. After Shaul’s failed attempt, Amalek dispersed and even if individual Amalekites are identifiable, the mitzvah cannot be performed unless all can be found, which is impossible.
According to this approach, even those Amalekites who refuse to make peace with us and choose not to become Bnei Noach or Jews, are not subject to this ancient war. And those of us alive today are not expected to engage in this war. When Mashiach comes, this will all be figured out. I pray that the Amalekites will recognize the divine hand in history and become G-d-fearing Bnei Noach as the rest of the world becomes filled with knowledge of God (Isa. 11:9).