Rashi (in parshas Chukas perek 21 pasuk 1) says that Amalek attacked the Jews, and that the pasuk calls them Canaanites because the Amaleikim had learned the Canaanite language (so the Jews would pray to Hashem to defeat the Canaanites, who weren't fighting them).

However, the Jews saw that while the language was Canaanite, the clothing was Amaleiki. Therefore, they prayed "Hashem save us from whichever nation this is."

I have two questions:

  1. Why did they change their language without changing their clothes. If anything, changing uniforms is easier than learning a new language.
  2. Canaanites are dark skinned (they are descendants of Cham) while amalekim are light (descendants of Eisav). Isn't that a giveaway?
  • For #1, it seems that they would have done both if they could have; maybe they couldn't get clothing mass-produced for the whole army.
    – b a
    Jun 28 '12 at 19:10
  • Why are you quick to say Kenaanim were black and Amaleqim were white? Israelites were of mixed complections, varying from tribe to tribe in general, as there are differences today. Still, you may find an Ashkenazi darker than a Sefaradi or even a Temani. All Jews usually look semitic, regardless of their eda. I assume it might have been similar back then with Amaleqim and probably even the Kenaanim. And also, the Kenaanim no longer exist and have been absorbed by us.
    – Aman
    Jun 28 '12 at 21:15
  • 1
    @Aman, and whaddaya mean "the Kena`anim... have been absorbed by us"?
    – msh210
    Jun 28 '12 at 22:41
  • An eved Kenaani becomes a Jew when he's freed.
    – Aman
    Jun 29 '12 at 12:20
  • 1
    This may answer the question: revach.net/parshas-hashavua/quick-vort/…
    – b a
    Jun 29 '12 at 22:24

The Maskil LeDavid on this Rashi asks the same thing. If changing clothes is easier, than why didn't the Amalekim do it?

He gives an answer that he admits is a stretch. He says that it is possible that they didn't change their clothes because they had some kind of witchcraft in their clothes, and didn't want to give that up. [My note - Rashi in Shemot 17:9 says that the Amalekim were sorcerers and implies that they use witchcraft in battle.]

Then the Maskil LeDavid questions Rashi statement entirely. He asks where Rashi knows that they didn't change their clothes. The Yalkut Shimoni (764) that is the source for this statement says that they changed both their clothes and their language. This directly contradicts Rashi's statement.

The Maskil LeDavid then wonders why none of the commentaries on Rashi address this. and concludes that this requires more study.

After bringing this Maskil LeDavid, The Chumash Shai LeMorah says that in the first printed edition of Rashi, the version was as follows:

They saw that their clothes and language were like Canaanites, but they were not similar to Canaanites..."

This incidentally, answers your second question. If they dressed and talked like Canaanites, how were they not similar to Canaanites? Their skin color was different.

Alternatively, sometimes when the Torah says Canaanites it means that specific nation, and other times it refers to the 7 nations in general (see for example, the Ibn Ezra on the verse, although he disagrees that it was Amalek). If we say that here Canaanite refers to the 7 nations in general, and not the Canaanite nation specifically, then the question falls off. (Although then you could question how the Jews realized something was up). Some research would be needed to see if we can answer that here.


This is addressed directly in the link to Rashi you provide:

[Midrash Aggadah , Yalkut Shimoni from Midrash Yelammedenu . Note that in these sources, the Amalekites changed their dress as well, and that version is found also in the Reggio edition of Rashi . The Yemenite manuscript, however, conforms with our reading. See Chavel fn. 87, Yosef Hallel , Leket Bahir fn. ד. See also Num. Rabbah 19:20.]

However, assuming that this is the correct reading, then obtaining and outfitting an entire army with Canaanite clothing is quite expansive, and might not be doable on short time. Meanwhile, being citizens of greater Mesopotamia, they might already know enough Canaanite to get by, and can make certain they are overheard.

But all this is a kasha on a medrash. I suspect that if the clothing/language divide is authentic, then that detail is derived from a close reading of the pesukim. And I don't know that it is useful or productive to ask questions of this sort. Even if this midrash was intended literally and is historical, we cannot necessarily know the answer. It is a kasha on a maaseh. And any answers we produce might be random and untrue.

The goal / background of the midrash, by the way, is to address the issue that it seems that this section was added by Yehoshua, describing the actual conquest inside Eretz Yisrael. (See Ibn Ezra for a rejection, or just see this post for details,. and perhaps here as well.) The Canaanite king of Arad, and the conquest of Chormah, is described in sefer Yehoshua. By making these Canaanites (with some Scriptural justification), we explain why these are describes as Canaanites. This avenue of exploration is, IMHO, much more productive.

In terms of Canaanites being specifically black, I'm not so positive about that. Despite midrashim one might drum up, I think I can drum up counter-midrashim. Specifically, the midrash in which Rabbi Yuda ben Simon attributes a statement of Avraham to his wife as they are about to enter Egypt, coming from the land of Canaan.

  • With regards to the last paragraph, I assume you're referring to the Midrash quoted in Rashi Bereshit 12:11 - chabad.org/library/bible_cdo/aid/8176/showrashi/true#v11 - However, Rashi in verse 6 - chabad.org/library/bible_cdo/aid/8176/showrashi/true#v6 - tells us that only then were the Canaanites conquering the land, which had, until then, belonged to Shem. Also, the Canaanites who went forth and conquered were "accustomed to a beautiful woman", while those who remained in the lands of Cham were not.
    – Menachem
    Jun 29 '12 at 19:31
  • nice. that works according to Rashi, though I would note that the midrash from pasuk 11 is from Midrash Rabbi, while the one on pasuk 6 is from the Sifra. the 'danger' in such midrashim is taking them too literally and applying them to other people, and chas veshalom 'justifying' slavery or racism as deserved Divine punishment. Jul 2 '12 at 0:42
  • It's really a whole other topic, but according to the Gemara (Sanhedrin) it was Cham who was turned black, so it would stand to reason that all his descendants would be black. Only one of Cham's sons was cursed with slavery, so it would be tough to justify slavery using that argument.
    – Menachem
    Jul 2 '12 at 3:28

I'll answer from my own head so please, don't ask for any real "proof" - this is simply how it strikes me. You mistranslate rashi.

Rashi says "ראו ישראל לבושיהם כלבושי עמלקים" using the word "levusheyhem" not "bigdeyhem." They might have altered their clothing -- begadim, but not their raiment -- the decorative flourishes (the Stone tanach translates the root lvsh as raiment in Yeshayahu 63:2 to distinguish it from bgd in the same pasuk) and that's what Bnei Yisro'el saw and recognized. Maybe tattoos, maybe feathers, but something separate from the regular begadim.

The little things which might have seemed extra and personal to amalek, and which they thought would not give them away while they were wearing the actual kena'ani clothing did indeed give them away. Just an idea based on the specific language rashi quotes (my rashi doesn't source this as a particular medrash but the Stone chumash says it is one). If I saw the text of the medrash, that might clarify.


I was thinking about this over Shabbat, and perhaps, according to Rashi, the diguise of the Amalekim was deliberate. As Rashi says, they wanted to get the Jews to pray for the destruction of the Caananim, which would have no affect on them, since they were Amalekim.

Perhaps their plan was to make the Jews think they were Cannanim dressed as Amalekim, so that the Jews would see through their disguise and pray for the destruction of the Cannanim. Thus they changed their language, but kept their clothes the same. To an outside observer, it would appear like the Cannanim were dressing up as Amalekim.

The Jews foiled this plan by generically praying for their enemy to fail.

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