The Mitzvah of Hakhel

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by R. Gidon Rothstein

Sefer Ha-Hinuch folds Va-Yelech into Nitzavim, listing the two mitzvot in Va-Yelech as if they were in Nitzavim—he does not let on that there is such a parsha as Va-Yelech. If we remember that he thought Mishpatim was two parashiyyotMishpatim and Im Kessef, we see there he “gained” one, here he has “lost” one.

This year, I’ll take one of those mitzvot for Nitzavim, the mitzvah of Hakhel, the other (writing a sefer Torah) for Va-Yelech. This is a good year to study Hakhel, since we are just finishing a shemittah year, and this Sukkot will have a Hakhel commemoration.

The basic mitzvah: to gather the Jewish people and have the king read–in Hebrew, as is agreed by Rambam, Minhat Hinuch, and Aruch Ha-Shulhan — selections of the Torah.

Coming to Hear, Coming to Be Seen

Kiddushin 34a names Hakhel one of the exceptions to women’s usual exemption from obligations with time components. They must come, just like the men.

Minhat Hinuch 612wonders whether Hakhel had to be in the Ezrat Nashim, the outer courtyard of the Temple, or could have been somewhere else in Jerusalem. However, he later points out the verse connects Hakhel to re’iyah, being seen in the Temple on holidays, evidence it had to be in the Mikdash. Perhaps by “elsewhere,” he meant elsewhere in the Beit Ha-Mikdash.

The Torah, 31;11, times the mitzvah to when the Jews are la-vo lera’ot, “come to be seen.” There are people who have a mitzvah of re’iyah, being seen, even if they cannot enter the Azarah, where the sacrifices were offered. Examples: those ritually impure by virtue of contact with the deceased (tamei met); who have gone to mikveh and are waiting for the stars to come out to be fully restored to taharah (tevul yom); or who need to offer sacrifices to be allowed to enter the Azarah (mehusar kippurim); since they may enter the Ezrat Nashim, they therefore should be part of Hakhel.

Except Hazal prohibited the tamei met and the tevul yom from entering the Ezrat Nashim. As in many cases where a rabbinic rule would prevent implementation of a Biblical idea, Minhat Hinuch is not sure whether they would have insisted these people stay out of the Ezrat Nashim during Hakhel as well.

Aruch Ha-Shulhan He-Atid 200;1 points out others with this questionable status. The Gemara in Hagiga exempts members of certain professions from re’iyah, because they would not be welcome among their brethren (their profession leaves them with a permanent odor, like a tanner who smelled of the foul tanning materials). He seems to have thought they should be exempt, but notices Rambam did not exempt them.

The Torah explicitly includes children, who are never themselves obligated; here, the mitzvah rests on the parents (Minhat Hinuch wonders whether it might be Beit Din as well, since they are often responsible to ensure proper observance among the Jewish people). Since it has nothing to do with the child’s abilities, Minhat Hinuch assumes it starts as soon as the infant is not a nefel, we no longer have any doubt it was full-term.

It being the parents’ issue, we do not need the child to be one who will eventually be included (a standard that does hold for parents’ hinuch obligations regarding other mitzvot, including re’iyah, says Minhat Hinuch). A deaf-mute child will never be obligated in mitzvotis brought for Hakhel, but the parents would not have to bring him/her for re’iyah in other years, because that is a matter of hinuch, preparing the child for his/her adulthood.

Second Day of Sukkot

It is supposed to happen on the second day of Sukkot, Rambam tells us in Obligation 16. [His having placed it this early in his list indicates its religious significance, because Rambam ordered the commandments with those most crucial for belief first.]

Rashi in Sotah seems to think we would have preferred the reading to be on the first day of Sukkot, and only delay it for technical reasons. Tosafot disagrees and takes Rambam’s view, it’s the second day. The Gemara also refers to delaying it if that day is a Shabbat, telling Turei Even and Minhat Hinuch it can be done on other days. Minhat Hinuch is sure it has to happen before the mid-point of the holiday, once the majority of it has passed,  the opportunity has been lost for that cycle.

In the seventh shemittah, which is followed by a yovel, Hakhel happens the Sukkot after the shemittah, in the yovel year. (The Gemara has a debate about whether yovel was a separate year or the first year of the next cycle; Minhat Hinuch is sure we accept the view it was a separate year). The next Hakhel would be eight years later, not the usual seven.

Teaching Awe/Fear of God or Rejuvenating the Connection to Torah

Sefer Ha-Mitzvot was not where Rambam gave reasons for mitzvot; normally, Sefer Ha-Hinuch gives a reason along the lines of Rambam’s, but here they seem to diverge. In Laws of Festival Offerings 3;1. Rambam described the passages of Devarim read at Hakhel as those that encourage observance of mitzvot and strengthen people’s connection to dat ha-emet, the true or correct way of viewing the world. In 3;6, Rambam says someone unable to hear the Torah reading should focus to hear as much as s/he can, to feel as if this is the day s/he is again receiving the Torah.

In Guide III;46, he says the Torah itself (Devarim 31;12) tells us the reason for the mitzvah, for Jews to hear and learn to better fear God, worship God better. Hakhel re-enacts the Giving of the Torah, for Rambam, to strengthen Jewish connection and observance.

Sefer Ha-Hinuch 612 concentrates on Jews’ connection to Torah itself. The essence of the Jewish nation is the Torah, it separates Jews from other nations, earns them their share in the pure pleasure of the World to Come.  [Not his point, but it means nonobservance is more than an unfortunate lack of connection to God, it is a loss of connection to what it means to be a Jew.]

To keep Jews aware of Torah, we gather to make sure we hear such words. Aside from the content, any such convocation involves lots of planning, and people will hear and ask about the goals and reasons, creating opportunities for the message of the centrality of Torah to spread among the people.

From there, he hopes and expects, people will be inspired to study and learn more.

[A Pause to Consider Reasons for Mitzvot]

Rambam was among the first to defend the proposition mitzcot have reasons we can infer, and since his time the idea has been broadly accepted, with a few famous exceptions [R. Moses Taku, I remember from graduate school].

[I wonder whether the ceremony the Torah lays out fits the idea they understand it to be communicating. They seem to assume a once-every-seven-years public Torah reading would impact Jews meaningfully enough for the Torah to mandate it. I have had the good fortune to attend the Hakhel ceremonies the Chief Rabbinate of Israel puts together, and they are beautiful. But I would not imagine the people who attend really hear the Torah that’s being read.]

Details of the Ceremony

The king was the designated reader, in the Ezrat Nashim (where more people are allowed to congregate), and was allowed to read it while sitting, although standing was preferred. He reads from the beginning of Devarim until the end of the first paragraph of Shema (in Parshat Va-Ethanan, almost two full parashiyyot), jumps to the second paragraph of Shema, finishes Ekev, then reads from Aser te’aser (the sixth aliyah of Re’eh, read on the eighth day of Pesah and the second day of Shavu’ot when they fall on Shabbat, and on Shemini Atzeret) until the end of the tochacha in Ki Tavo (Devarim 28).

Aruch Ha-Shulhan He-Atid 200 points out Rashi had a different list of readings; most of the differences we need not review here, but Rashi assumes the king also read about the obligation to appoint a king. Aruch Ha-Shulhan thinks all the readings are places of concentrated attention to reminding the Jews of where they have gone wrong in the past, to be sure they do better in the future, and to focus them on the necessity and rewards of worshipping God, the consequences of not.

For Rashi, the Jews also need to be reminded of the necessity of accepting the authority of a king.

But the ceremony wasn’t about the reading alone [these details, shared by Sefer Ha-Hinuch come from the Gemara’s description; we can wonder which are necessary to the ceremony and which happened to be how second Temple Jewry enacted it. For example, does the stage have to be wood?]. Before the ceremony itself, shofarot would be blown throughout Jerusalem (to publicize it), a large wooden stage was set up in the middle of the Ezrat Nashim of the Temple, where the king sat to facilitate his audibility, and all the Jews in Jerusalem would congregate there.

In the name of pomp, having the Torah honored by many people, it would be handed from official to official until it reached the king (hazzan ha-kenesset, sexton of the Temple synagogue to the head, to the assistant High Priest, the High Priest, to the king). The king would sit or stand, make the same berachot we make before reading the Torah, read the designated sections, and add seven extra berachot to the ones we make after reading the Torah.

Coming Back Sooner Than We Think?

Sefer Ha-Hinuch’s view of when the mitzvah applies lets us anticipate a situation where non-Zionists might feel the need to join the Chief Rabbinate’s Hakhel celebrations.  He says the mitzvah only applies when the Jewish people are in their Land, a qualification usually fulfilled by having the majority of the Jewish people there. [For some issues, we also need shevatim bimkomam, the twelve tribes residing in their parts of Israel, but I assume he would not have left that out if it was a requirement.]

Most of us assume we do not yet have such a majority, although it is quickly moving in that direction—perhaps next shemittah, or the one thereafter. Whenever it happens, Hakhel will again be a Biblical obligation, one Rambam and Sefer Ha-Hinuch thought significant to maintaining our national and individual connection to Torah.

But here’s an interesting thing: in a different context (where they could look down on the more “Zionistic” version of halachah), I have heard more “right-wing” Jews say we already have a majority of Jews in Israel. For them, Hakhel would seem to be de-oraita already. I hope to see all of them in the courtyard of the Kotel this coming Sukkot, for the Hakhel ceremony.

I suppose they could argue Hakhel needs a king to do the reading, but Sefer Ha-Hinuch, at least, did not see it that way. Minhat Hinuch raises the possibility there is such an halachah le-Moshe mi-Sinai but thinks it more likely the responsibility devolves to the gadol be-doro, the leader of the generation [I assume political] if there is no king.

Hakhel, a Biblical mitzvah on the verge of return.

About Gidon Rothstein

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