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I have read somewhere that the meaning of the word Amalek is "wrung, twisted neck" which symbolizes his difficulty to make correct judgements, as for that both the head and the heart and the interaction between them are important. And having a "wrung neck" Amalek cannot balance the two different impulses (of emotions and mind's critical thinking) which makes him see the Jews as his enemy.

Is it mentioned anywhere in the Jewish scriptures or commentaries that 'Amalek' primarily has the meaning of "wrung, twisted neck"?

Thank you. All contributions are welcome.

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    Why should it and where did you see it? – sabbahillel Dec 11 '15 at 0:48
  • sabbahillel, it is said that G-d "will have war with Amalek, in each generation" and Israel has the obligation to fight Amalek and "obliterate the memory of Amalek from under the heavens". This made me want to find out what the essence of this enemy is. What I found was something similar to: "Shem MiShmuel explains that the name Amalek is a composite of two words: “am”, meaning nation, and “melika” which refers to a certain aspect of the bird offering in the Temple service. Specifically, melika was the process of breaking the back of a bird’s neck in preparation for its elevation on the altar. – a_hanif Dec 11 '15 at 16:18
  • Amalek is the nation with a strategy of melika, the nation that attacks Israel by cutting off and seizing their knowledge of G-d while it remains in the head, before it can pass to the heart, via the neck. This power is Amalek’s inheritance from his grandfather Esav, whose intellectual awareness of G-d was intact but who failed in translating his knowledge into inner consciousness. Esav excelled in the “you must know this day” but failed at “internalize it in your hearts.” This is why his head merited to be buried in the Tomb of the Patriarchs while the rest of him not." goo.gl/o00mfK – a_hanif Dec 11 '15 at 16:22
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    Thank you. Perhaps add this to the question so that we can see it and you would make what you want to find clearer. – sabbahillel Dec 11 '15 at 17:51
  • @Aquinax The Shem MiSh'mu'el (Chanuka 5679) mentions the idea about Esav, but aside from that, the source appears to be R' Shneur Zalman of Liadi (per my answer below). The Shem MiSh'mu'el does mention a couple of different etymologies for the name 'Amalek (ימח שמו וזכרו), though. 1. "עם לק": Slightly different than the etymology found in midrashim ("licking nation"), the Shem MiSh'mu'el takes this as "nation of hiding/dimming" (as in Y'chezkel 31:8). 2. He quotes his father that the name is related to the word "עקלקלות" ("crookedness"). – Fred Dec 17 '15 at 8:52
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The Alter Rebbe (R' Shneur Zalman of Liadi) gives approximately this explanation in Torah Or (T'tzaveh, page פה). He breaks the name of the nation into component words "עם מלק" ("'am malak") meaning "severed nation" in that the nation's metaphysical brain and heart are severed at the neck.

Thus, says the Alter Rebbe, even though that nation observed the miracles performed on behalf of the Jewish people, they allowed their feeling to be twisted from a natural reaction of awe and love for the Almighty to an unnatural one of hostility towards the Almighty and the Jewish people.

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From antiquity, Amalek appears as the people of the crushed head because of the apparent association with the serpent in the Garden of Eden, and so the imagery stems from the Book of Genesis where the head of the serpent will be crushed by the heel.


To begin, the phrase "עם מלק" ("'am malak") appears to mean people of the broken head. The 19th Century Hebraist John Lange provides the following.

Genesis 36:9
9 And these are the generations of Esau the father of the Edomites, in mount Seir: 10 These are the names of Esau’s sons; Eliphaz the son of Adah the wife of Esau; Reuel the son of Bashemath the wife of Esau. 11 And the sons of Eliphaz were, Teman [right side, southlander], Omar [Gesenius: eloquent; Fürst: mountain-dweller], Zepho [watch], and 12 Gatam [Gesenius: puny, thin; Fürst: burnt, dry valley] and Kenaz [hunting]. And Timna [restraint] was concubine to Eliphaz, Esau’s son: and she bare to Eliphaz, Amalek [From עַם מָלַק , a nation of head-breakers, spoilers? Lange: laboring, licking up]: these were 13 the sons of Adah, Esau’s wife. And these are the sons of Reuel; Nahath [going down, evening], and Zerah [rising, morning], Shammah [wasting; Fürst: report, call], and Mizzah [Gesenius: fear; Fürst: perhaps joy, rejoicing]: these were the sons of Bashemath, Esau’s wife.

According to the 18th Century Hebraist, Wilhelm Gensenius, the better translation of "עם מלק" ("'am malak") may be, people of the crushed head.

מָלַק TO BREAK, TO CRUSH (einknicken), Levit. 1:15; 5:8. (Cognate is the root פָּרַק, whence this has arisen, the letter r being softened into l, p, and m interchanged. Syr. and Chald. מלג vellicavit.) LXX. ἀποκνίζω, to cut off with the nail (abkneipen), contrary to the express words of the Hebrew text, יַבְדִּיל וְלֹא Lev. 5:8.

During the First Century of the Current Era, the Hellenistic Jewish philosopher, Philo of Alexandria suggested the correlation between Amalek and the serpent as follows.

. . . that is to say, Amalek; which name, being interpreted, means, the people licking. For he does, of a verity, devour the whole soul, and licks it up, leaving no seed behind, nor anything which can excite virtue.

Philo wrote in the First Century, and therefore his source of information appears to stem from interpretations relating to the serpent licking the dust. For example, the serpent licking the dust appears among the prophets of the Hebrew Bible:

Micah 7:17 (NASB)
17 They will lick the dust like a serpent,
Like reptiles of the earth.
They will come trembling out of their fortresses;
To the Lord our God they will come in dread
And they will be afraid before You.

The Amalekites therefore are the people of the crushed head of the serpent as the narrative of Genesis makes this apparent.

For example, when the Israelites escaped Egypt and entered the Promised Land, the Amalekites had “tripped them up.” That is, they attacked the Israelites at their weak spot, or at their hindermost part or “tail,” which was comprised of those who had lagged behind (Deut 25:17). The Hebrew word for the hindermost part of the body is עָקֵב, which is used in the Hebrew Bible to refer to the rear echelon of an army (Genesis 49:19 and Joshua 8:13). That is, the rear echelon of an army is their hindermost part. The Amalekites attacked Israel at their hindermost part. The exact same Hebrew word is also found in Genesis 3:15, where the serpent bites the “hindermost part” of the seed of the woman -- that is, the serpent attacks his heel, since the heel is physiologically the hindermost part of the human body. The moral and spiritual seed of the serpent is therefore the enemy of God. “Amalek” therefore is the enemy of the seed of God (Israel), who “trips up” at the most vulnerable time and opportunity.

In this regard, the Amalekites within the land of Canaan were not the seed of the Amorites, the Hittites, the Perizzites, the Canaanites, the Hivites or the Jebusites, but of Esau, who was the twin brother of Jacob (Genesis 36:12). When Esau was born, his twin brother tried “to trip him up” at birth, and therefore the twin brother was named “Jacob.” Jacob “the heel” was born from the seed of promise through Abraham. “Amalek” therefore is not biological, but moral and spiritual (since Esau and Jacob were born from the same biological parents). Please note that “Jacob” (יַעֲקֹב) and “heel” (עָקֵב) are therefore related etymologically. That is, the plain and normal meaning of the word יַעֲקֹב “Jacob” is qal imperfect of עָקַב, which means he will heel (and therefore crush).

In summary, the head of the spiritual seed of Amalek (serpent) is crushed by the head of the spiritual seed of the Jacob-heel (Israel). Thus the Amalekites are the people of the crushed head of the serpent.


References:

Gesenius, Wilhelm, & Tregelles, Samuel P. (2003). Gesenius’ Hebrew and Chaldee Lexicon to the Old Testament Scriptures. Grand Rapids: Baker Book House: 479.

Lange, John P., Schaff, Philip, Lewis, T., & Gosman, A. (2008). A Commentary on the Holy Scriptures: Genesis. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 572.

Yonge, Charles D. with Philo of Alexandria. (1995). The Works of Philo: Complete and Unabridged. Peabody: Hendrickson, 71.

  • "Is it mentioned anywhere in the Jewish scriptures or commentaries that 'Amalek' primarily has the meaning of 'wrung, twisted neck'?" I don't see any Jewish sources cited in this answer as saying so. This seems not to answer the question. – msh210 Dec 14 '15 at 22:58
  • @msh210 - There is another answer posted above my answer for this question. Were you going to make the same comment to that response as you made to mine (since no mention of Scripture was made in that response)? – Joseph Dec 15 '15 at 0:19
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    A few points regarding your answer (also pinging @msh210): 1. Melika does not mean "crushing"; it means partially severing the neck, particularly the trachea and/or the esophagus, via the back of the neck (Mishna Chullin 19b, as well as the subequent Talmudic discussion on 19b-22a). – Fred Dec 15 '15 at 4:00
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    2. Your mention of a connection to a snake is not completely implausible, but it is tenuous. Multiple early midrashim mention the same etymology as Philo, comparing that nation to "a dog who came to lick from Israel," not to a snake. Incidentally, the Hebrew word for "lick" in Micha 7:17 is a different word, and Tanach does not use that word exclusively to refer to snakes (see B'midbar 22:4, where Moav feared that Israel would lick up its surroundings like an ox). – Fred Dec 15 '15 at 4:00
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    5. I don't know how you exclude any biological element from the identification of 'Amalek because Esau and Jacob were brothers. There may very well be an additional spiritual dimension to 'Amalek that transcends biological identity, but it is fairly clear that it is an actual nation. There's nothing implausible about such a biological identity beginning with the Biblical individual 'Amalek, regardless of the fact that some of his ancestry was holy and righteous. – Fred Dec 15 '15 at 4:08

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