Hakhel: an international gathering of all Jews, men, women, and children, would take place once every seven years in Jerusalem. A platform would be erected in the Temple courtyard and the nation would gather to hear the king chant from the Torah. It always occurred on the second day of Sukkot of the year following shemitah—the sabbatical year.
Since last year was a shemitah year, this year is a Hakhel year.
The purpose of Hakhel is to inspire awe, strengthen faith, and encourage the practice of Torah and Mitzvot. The people were expected to imagine themselves standing united at Sinai and receiving the commandments for the first time. They were meant to listen to the king’s chant with deep concentration, reverence, awe, rejoicing, trembling.
The purpose was to recreate the enchantment and majesty of Mount Sinai. It was not difficult for those who were present at Sinai to conjure up the spectacle in their memory and reexperience its grandeur and awe. However, later generations could not tap into this piece of history. They needed to recreate it on some level so that they too could experience the ecclesiastic intensity and mystical elation of Judaism.
Hearing the king chant the commandments was evocative because he acted in this instance in the agency of G-d. As he chanted the Torah, the people could close their eyes and imagine G-d chanting the words through his agent. This generated the ecstasy and exalted inspiration of the moment.
The Hakhel gathering was only practiced when the Temple stood, and Jews enjoyed a monarchy. It is not practiced today, but its spirit can still be preserved. Today there is a symbolic Hakhel ceremony at the Western Wall and one will take place on Sukkot.
The truth is that all mitzvot that were only practiced in the days of the Temple can be preserved today. For example, the Talmud tells us that when we study the laws of an offering, it is considered as if we brought the offering. Although we did not bring it in action, we recreated the offering in thought and in word. We experienced it cerebrally and orally.
If this is true of an offering, it is certainly true of Hakhel. This Mitzvah is not about the physical gathering. It is primarily about inspiration. That is to say, the physical gathering was only meant to generate cerebral and oral inspiration. If inspiration was its purpose, it can be fulfilled today by finding inspiration through contemporary gatherings. We might not be physically present on the Temple mount, but if we are with other Jews and are inspired, we fulfill the Mitzvah of Hakhel cerebrally and orally.
As long as it is a gathering to fulfill the purpose of Hakhel and its agenda includes a Mitzvah and even more important, some Torah study, we can recreate Hakhel in our times.
It need not be in Jerusalem; it can be held anywhere. It need not be organized by the king, it can be organized by any Jew. It need not entail the entire nation; it can be a gathering of any group of Jews. It need not be on Sukkot; it can be at any time in the Hakhel year.
Hakhel on Sukkot
Though Hakhel can be celebrated at any point in a Hakhel year, its appointed time was during the festival of Sukkot. That means that Sukkot is a propitious time to organize Hakhel gatherings. Why?
Unity is key to the inspiration of Hakhel gatherings. The larger a Hakhel gathering, the greater is its inspiration. Sukkot is a key time for unity. The Talmud tells us that all Jews deserve to sit in a single Sukkah. What is the meaning of this bizarre statement? Can we even imagine a Sukkah large enough to hold all Jews?
The statement is meant to convey the unity inspired by the Sukkah. To fulfill the Mitzvah of Sukkah, all you need to do it enter it. If many Jews enter the same Sukkah at the same time, their individual Mitzvot coalesce in the single Sukkah. Unlike any other Mitzvah, you don’t need a separate Sukkah for each person. We can’t all shake the same lulav at the same time. We can’t all eat the same matzah at the same time. But we can all sit in the same Sukkah at the same time.
Conceptually, there is no limit to how many Jews are permitted to enter a single Sukkah at once. Hypothetically, every Jew that ever lived could gather in a single Sukkah, and thereby, merge and coalesce in one collective Mitzvah. The limitations are logistical. How to build a Sukkah large enough, how to gather people from different generations, etc. But if we could hypothetically overcome those logistics, all Jews could gather in a single Sukkah.
This demonstrates the unique powerful unity of this Mitzvah. No other Jewish festival boasts anything like it. No other Mitzvah is so large that it literally absorbs us. Sukkot is the only festival that generates such unity. This makes it the perfect occasion for Hakhel gatherings. A Hakhel gathering during Sukkot, moreover in the Sukkah, is uniquely propitious because it stimulates a unity that cannot be paralleled at other times and places.
When we experience a thrill on our own, the effect is limited. When we experience it with others, the effect is exponentially stronger. The thrill we see on each other’s faces, intensifies our own thrill. This means that if we are a group of a thousand, our thrill is multiplied by a thousand. In turn, we inspire those around us, a thousandfold, which they return to us a million-fold, and so it goes.
The Holy of Holies
The idea that all Jews deserve to sit in a single Sukkah is inspired by the singularity of Yom Kippur which precedes Sukkot. On Yom Kippur—the single holiest day of the year, the high priest—the single holiest person in the nation, entered the Holy of Holies—the single holiest place in the world. The apex of this trifecta—time, space, and soul—were fused in this moment. And at the apex of this fusion was G-d.
In the Holy of Holies, the high priest came face to face with G-d. In that moment, there was no ego or individuality. In that moment the high priest was subsumed completely within G-d. When he emerged, the Jews gazed at the face that gazed at G-d and that transcendence rubbed off on them. They found their own apex and collectively surrendered to G-d. It is with this inspiration and self-abnegation that they built their Sukkah and practiced this Mitzvah in a state of blissful all-consuming unity.
This helps us appreciate that the Sukkah not only unites us, but also brings us face to face with G-d. This is the highest state of unity and truest state of humility that is humanly possible. Thus, if we seek to create unity in our Hakhel gatherings to draw us closer to G-d, the most opportune time and place to do it, is in the Sukkah during the festival of Sukkot.
May this be a festival of absolute unity that brings together Jews of all stripes and colors. May this year of Hakhel gatherings generate a tidal wave of inspiration that will usher in the era of Mashiach. Amen.
Rabbi Eliezer (Lazer) Gurkow, currently serving as rabbi of congregation Beth Tefilah in London, Ontario, is a well-known speaker and writer on Torah issues and current affairs.