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1592: Vayelech 6 Tishrei 5776 19/09/2015

A very special event is described in this week's Torah portion (Devarim 31:10-13). Once every seven years, on the holiday of Succot after the end of the Shemitta year, the "Hakhel" ceremony takes place. It is a very emotional event. The entire nation, "men, women, and babies, and the stranger at your gates" [31:12], all gather together in the Temple.

What is the purpose of this event? The passage implies that it has a very important goal: "So that they will hear and so that they will learn to fear your G-d" [31:12]. The participants in this ceremony learn the fear of G-d. This is repeated again, with greater emphasis: "They will hear and learn to fear your G-d" [31:13]. There is an important difference between the two verses. In the first one, we are told that the people will hear and study the words of the Torah, which will lead them to fear G-d. However, in the second verse the main element to be studied is the fear of G-d – "they will learn to fear..."

The Events at Mount Sinai

We can also point to another significant element. The Rambam makes it clear that the ceremony of Hakhel can be viewed as a reconstruction of what took place at Mount Sinai:

"Converts who do not know must prepare their hearts and set their ears to hear with fear and trepidation, with trembling, as on the day when it was given at Sinai. Even great scholars who know the whole Torah must listen with great attention... The Torah established this event in order to strengthen the true religion. And the person should see himself as if he is being commanded the Torah right then, and he hears it from the Almighty, since the King is a messenger to declare the words of G-d." [Hilchot Chagiga 3:6].

That is, at Hakhel everybody receives the Torah again, both those who know it and those who do not, those who understand it and those who do not. Everybody must attend this event. The entire nation of Yisrael stands there to hear the Torah, stands up and accepts the yoke of the Kingdom of Heaven.

The Mitzva of Hakhel Today

Ever since the Temple was destroyed, the mitzva of Hakhel has not been performed. Can we reinstitute this mitzva in modern times? The Torah commands that the mitzva of Hakhel should take place "in the place which He will choose" [31:11], and this implies that it must be held at the site of the Temple.

However, evidently the verse is not referring to a specific place but rather to the time when the event takes place. The mitzva of Hakhel takes place at the time of the pilgrimage to the Temple during the holidays. In fact, the Rambam does not mention that the Temple must exist in order to observe the Mitzva of Hakhel (Sefer Hamitzvot, positive command 16). On this basis, the Minchat Chinuch concludes that perhaps a priori it would be best to observe this mitzva in the Temple, but that in principle it can be performed at any site in Jerusalem (612).

And the King, who is described in the Mishna and the Talmud (Sottah 41a) as the one who reads the Torah during Hakhel, is not strictly needed. Evidently the most important figure of all the people gathered there is required to read the Torah at this event (Minchat Chinuch; Haamek Davar, Devarim 31:11).

"When all of Yisrael Come"

The Torah tells us that the mitzva is performed "when all of Yisrael come" [31:11]. We might understand that the mitzva can be observed only when the entire nation lives on the land, as is true for the mitzvot of Shemitta and Yovel. However, the Rambam does not mention any such condition. And in the Sefer Hachinuch it is merely written that this mitzva applies "when Yisrael are on their land" (612).

Thus, here again we can assume that the verse is a description of the relevant time and does not impose a halachic requirement. That is, the time for Hakhel is when the nation comes to its pilgrimage during Succot. Then there is no need to bring the people since they are already there to observe the mitzva of pilgrimage for the holiday.

It may be that there is another connection between Shemitta and the mitzva of Hakhel, since it is specifically written in the Torah that the mitzva takes place at the end of Shemitta. This may mean that since Shemitta today is merely a rabbinical decree the observance of Hakhel today will be no more than a rabbinical law. On the other hand, it is not definite that there is a connection in essence between Shemitta and Hakhel (see Sottah 41a), and it is therefore possible that even today the mitzva of Hakhel is a Torah law.

Performing the Mitzva in an Impure State

Another element which might cause trouble in trying to perform the mitzvah of Hakhel stems from the fact that today we are all ritually impure because of contact with the dead. The Rambam in fact writes that one who is impure is free from the obligation of Hakhel (Hilchot Hagiga 3:2), but it may be that the Rambam was referring to the ideal situation, when Hakhel was held inside the Temple, which would mean that anybody who is impure could not participate in the mitzva. If Hakhel will be held at some other location in Jerusalem, those who are impure will be able to participate, and perhaps they will therefore be obligated to do so (see the Minchat Chinuch). Thus, it may be that this issue is not relevant in our times.

In Memory of Hakhel

From the above discussion, we can see that because of some of the details of the law it is possible that in modern times it is not possible to observe the mitzva of Hakhel. However, even if the mitzva cannot be observed by Torah law (or by a rabbinical decree), it is good and proper that in memory of the ceremony of Hakhel all the people of Yisrael should join together in Jerusalem, and the greatest person there will read the relevant parts of the Torah.

In the year 5649 (1889), the Aderet tried to revive the custom of Hakhel, but he failed in his efforts. In the year 5706 (1946), Rabbi Herzog was able to organize the first Hakhel event, and several times afterwards, at the end of the Shemitta year, a Hakhel event was organized in Jerusalem. We must put a lot of thought into the proper way to organize a serious and authoritative event, how to gather the support of different groups within Yisrael, as a means of establishing unity around a Torah subject.

Why is it Held at the End of Shemitta?

Let us return to the matter of the link between Hakhel and Shemitta. Chizkuni explains (31:12) that since at the end of Shemitta the people are not busy gathering the produce (since they did not plant during Shemitta), they are free on Succot, and instead of gathering the crops they can come together to learn about the Torah.

We can add that at the end of a year when the people had minimum contact with the physical world, a year of spiritual uplifting, of building up aspects of morality, values, and social contacts, a year of gathering great strength in faith, there is a need to pause – to take the time out to see how this spiritual year will influence the next six years. We want to make sure that the six years of regular labor will maintain the elements of sanctity and purity.

The ceremony of Hakhel can serve to sum up the spiritual significance of the Shemitta, which ended the previous cycle of seven years. It can also be an opportunity to think about the next six years, in anticipation of better times that are more spiritual and moral than before.

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