Hakhel on Sukkot? Why?

Why is the hakhel commandment on Sukkot? At the end of the shmitta year this ceremony, commanded in the Torah, takes place. A hakhel ceremony takes place at the Kotel on Wednesday of Sukkot this year.

Rabbi Avraham Gordimer,

Judaism סוכת הרבנים הראשיים
סוכת הרבנים הראשיים
Rabbi Avraham Gordimer

The mitzvah of Hakhel, in which the Melech (King) reads from a Sefer Torah to the entire nation in the Beit HaMikdash (Temple), is conducted at the commencement of the second day of Sukkot following the Shmitta (Sabbatical) year.

Whereas one would expect for the Rambam to present Hakhel in Hilchot Tefillah or Hilchot Melachim (the Laws of Prayer or the Laws of Kings), as Hakhel is performed by the Melech and is manifest through a public reading of the Torah and the recital of blessings, berachot, thereupon, and the Rambam presents the Keri'at HaTorah (Torah reading) regulations and routines in Hilchot Tefillah and the details that pertain to the activities of the Melech in Hilchot Melachim, the Rambam instead presents Hakhel in Hilchot Chagigah (the Laws of Holiday Sacrifices). This is mysterious and requires some investigation.

Even though Hakhel occurs during the period of Aliyah La-Regel (Pilgrimage to Jerusalem), when the holiday korbanot (offerings) featured in Hilchot Chagigah are offered, one would assume that this is a function of convenience – since Hakhel must be performed after the Shmitta year is completed, and Hakhel requires the attendance of all Jews (with a few rare exceptions), the most convenient occasion for Hakhel is during Sukkot, which is the first Yom Tov of Aliyah La-Regel after Shmitta concludes, and hence, being that the entire nation is anyway in Yerushalayim then, it is for practical reasons the most efficient time for Hakhel.

However, this reasoning is apparently rejected by the Rambam, for his presentation of Hakhel in Hilchot Chagigah indicates that there is an intrinsic relationship between Aliyah Laregel and Hakhel. The scheduling of Hakhel at that time of Aliyah Laregel is not simply a matter of of convenience, but is reflective of a deeper connection.

What is the special relationship between Hakhel and Aliyah Laregel?

As the Sages explain, Aliyah Laregel is one of the most miraculous events in Jewish life, as the entire Jewish People would gather in Yerushalayim for the Festival, leaving their homes, property and the country’s borders unmanned. Aliyah Laregel signifies a return to the supernatural state of existence that B’nei Yisroel (the Children of Israel) enjoyed in the Midbar (Sinai Desert), when they lived on an openly miraculous plane, and natural needs and considerations did not play a role.

As was explained, Hakhel is likewise a return to that state of existence, as it reenacts the final, special moments of Bnei Yisrael together with Moshe Rabbeinu in the Midbar immediately before the nation was to enter Eretz Yisrael, fight wars, separate geographically, and assume a "natural" life.

This is the intrinsic connection between Hakhel and Aliyah Laregel, for they are both a reversion to the Midbar experience of living l'maalah min ha-teva, on an elevated, otherworldly plane, in the close company of Hashem. This is precisely why Hakhel occurs during Aliyah Laregel, as Hakhel, according to the Rambam, is not a mere reading or a mere event, but is part of an overall state of being, which can only be experienced through the supernatural context of Aliyah Laregel. Hakhel is the climax of existence on an elevated spiritual stratum, in which Bnei Yisrael can palpably feel the closeness of the Shechinah (Divine Presence) and be enveloped by kedushah (holiness).

It is similarly for this reason that Hakhel must occur during Sukkot, for Sukkot is a manifestation of the divinely-protective clouds or shelters that surrounded our ancestors in the Midbar. (V. Sukkah 11b.) Sukkot represents living in the veil of the Shechinah, Divine Presence, sheltered from the course of nature in an intensely holy and elevated metaphysical environment.

Sukkot precisely embodies the message of Hakhel and is thus the occasion designated by the Torah for Hakhel. According to the Rambam, It is not a matter of convenience that Hakhel occurs during Sukkot; on the contrary, as is the case with Aliyah La-Regel, Sukkot sets the stage for Hakhel and encapsulates so much of its essence.

The Rambam, in his presentation of Hakhel, elaborates that subsequent to reciting the usual beracha of Noten Ha-Torah ("Blessed are You... Who gives the Torah") which follows every Torah reading, the Melech recites seven additional berachot. The final beracha in this series is quite unusual, for rather than adhering to a fixed text, as is the case of all other berachot, the Melech "supplicates and prays according to his ability and concludes ‘Hosha Hashem amcha Yisrael she-amcha tzrichin l’hivashe’a/Save your nation, O God, for your nation needs salvation. Baruch Atah… shome’a tefillah/Blessed are You…  Who hearkens unto prayer.’” (Hilchot Chagigah 3:4)

Why does this final beracha lack a fixed nusach (text), except for its closing statement? It is so uncharacteristic; does it signify anything exceptional

Every Jew has a unique personal share in the Torah and can share new insights, discerning and revealing true and legitimate concepts in the Torah that have not yet been formally articulated. This is the realm of chiddush, of drawing forth novel ideas that are found in the Torah and are brought to light by the individual Jew. The final beracha of the Melech represents this notion – that there is a personalized share in the Torah for each Jew; it is a share that has no standard, uniform text, as it is unique to each one of us. This is the eternal connection to the Torah that every one of us possesses on a very personal level, in addition to the national bond with the Torah on the part of the entire Jewish People.              

How can we today perpetuate the Hakhel experience, in the absence of the Beit HaMikdash and Melech? Are we precluded from encountering the Shechinah with intensity and from entering Hashem's holy realm?

“Rebbe Chiya bar Ami related in the name of Ula: Since the day that the Beit HaMikdash was destroyed, Hashem only has in His world the four amot (cubits) of Halacha.” (Berachot 8a) Ula is telling is something spectacular: that through engaging in Torah, a person can encounter the Shechinah and enter otherworldy, holy spheres, even without a Beit Ha-Mikdash, without Hakhel, and without Aliyah La-Regel. The same sacred experience that these manifestations of kedushah provide is still available in a personal and private, yet intense, robust and stirring manner.

This is actually the message of Simchat Torah, for as we depart the public and physical encapsulation of sanctity, kedushah, that the sukkah represents, we find solace and inspiration as we draw toward the Torah and thereby commune with Hashem in a different, holy and powerful realm that remains with us constantly.

May we merit to soon again attend Hakhel in the Beit HaMikdash, and may we always realize that we can recapture that experience and enter the sphere of the Shechinah by immersion in Torah.