Rabbi Eliezer Melamed
Rabbi Eliezer MelamedPR photo

About twenty-five years ago, I took it upon myself not to express a public opinion regarding the choice of parties and personalities, both in the community, in the Regional Council, and in the national elections. Of course, I talk and write about values, but I decided not to talk and write about the partisan ways to realize these various values. And even though engaging in this is very important, I thought that since one party does not encompass all the truth, it would be better for me as a rabbi, not to engage in this matter.

Naturally, during an election period, in which one party has to be decided and chosen, the differences are highlighted, and the basic brotherhood that should exist between all of Israel is harmed. Therefore, along with the obligation to express a position and promote values ​​through the various parties, it is also an obligation to remember the shared values ​​- and thereby prevent the debate from developing into enmity. To that end, it is good for rabbis to stay out of the political debate.

This position is appropriate for the Sukkot holiday, when all Israel should rise above their individual needs, ascend together to the Beit Ha-Mikdash, and celebrate all the good things they have gathered throughout the year. The good in all its aspects and points, even those that seem ostensibly contradictory. And this is what our Sages said: “All of the Jewish people are fit to reside in one sukka” (Sukkah 27b).

In addition, the four species allude to all types of Jews who gather together on the Sukkot holiday. By the unity of all of Israel, including those who do not possess Torah and mitzvot, God is exalted, and Israel is maintained and blessed (see Peninei Halakha Sukkot 1:8; 4:2).

The Mitzvah of Hakhel

Another mitzvah that expresses the idea of ​​unity around the sacred Torah is the mitzvah of Hakhel. On Sukkot, at the end of the Shmita year, there is a positive mitzvah to assemble all of Israel, men, women, and children, and to read aloud Torah passages from the book of Devarim (Deuteronomy) that encourage faith, reverence, Torah study mitzvah observance.

The purpose of the Hakhel assembly was to raise the honor of the Torah and its commandments. There was no grander, more impressive event than this, in which all of Israel participated – young and old, men and women, and most esteemed of, the king, who would read from the Torah to the people. This spurred everyone to ask: What is the point of this large assembly? The answer was self-evident: “To hear the words of the Torah, which is our foundation, our glory, and our grandeur. This would lead them to speak of its great praises and its esteemed glory. They would all be implanted with desire for it, and from this desire they would learn to know God, earn the ultimate goodness, and God would be pleased with their actions (Sefer Ha-Chinuch 612).”

All were obligated in this mitzvah, from converts who did not yet understand Hebrew to great sages who knew the entire Torah for Hakhel is a reflection of the revelation at Mount Sinai; the entire people must imagine and feel that they are now accepting the Torah directly from God (see, Rambam Hagiga 3:6).

The Sages ordained that the king read from the Torah to further dignify the event. However, even when there is no king, the king’s voice is weak, or he is a minor, the mitzvah is not abrogated. Rather, a very prominent person does the reading – a prince, Kohen Gadol, or great Torah sage (Peninei Halakha, Sukkot 8:1).

Some say that Hakhel took place at night, right after the first Yom Tov (Tiferet Yisrael). Others maintain that it took place the next day, on the first day of Chol Ha-mo’ed (Aderet).

The Benefit to the Participants

Every participant benefited greatly from Hakhel. Those able to study Torah in depth were inspired to increase their study. Those able to listen and understand were inspired to listen avidly to the Torah’s words and to live by them. Children who were old enough to understand listened to the words, and the sanctity of the occasion inspired and encouraged them to study Torah and keep mitzvot. As for those children who were too young to understand, their souls absorbed the tremendous value and incomparable importance of Torah, when they saw that everyone was gathering together to hear it. Their parents were inspired too, recognizing the monumental mission incumbent upon them: to educate their children to Torah and mitzvot (Ramban on Devarim 31:12-13; Maharal Gur Aryeh ibid.).

The Timing of the Mitzvah and Those Obligated in it

The Hakhel assembly put the stamp of sanctity on the concluding Shmita cycle. The gathering of the entire nation then to hear the Torah conveyed a powerful message: everything connected to Torah has eternal value, while everything else is eventually lost and forgotten. This message strengthened and enlightened Israel to continue following the Torah’s ways for the next seven-year cycle.

Even if someone could not hear the king read – whether because he was forced to stand very far away due to the crowds or because he was hard of hearing – he was still expected to focus his attention on the reading. Rambam elaborates: “It was established by Scripture only to strengthen the true religion. A person is meant to see himself as if he is being commanded directly by God, right now. The king is a messenger conveying the words of God” (Rambam Hagiga 3:6, as interpreted by Lechem Mishneh ibid,).

The Proceedings

In preparation for the assembly, the Kohanim walked through Jerusalem blowing trumpets to gather everyone at the Temple Mount. A large wooden bima was brought and set up in the middle of the women’s courtyard. The king ascended and sat there so that everyone could hear and see him during the reading.

To honor the Torah and the king, the people assembled would make a point of passing the Torah scroll from person to person until it reached the king. The attendant of the synagogue on the Temple Mount took the scroll and gave it to the head of the synagogue, who passed it to the Deputy Kohen Gadol. He then gave it to the Kohen Gadol, who passed it to the king. The king accepted the Torah scroll while standing.

Before and after the reading, the king recited the berakhot that are normally said before and after an aliya. Afterwards he added seven more berakhot, on Israel and the Temple.

Commemorating Hakhel Today

In recent times, as Jews have returned to the Land of Israel, great rabbis have encouraged them to have a commemoration of this special mitzvah in order to honor the Torah and commemorate the Temple. We know that the Sages enacted a number of ordinances to commemorate Temple practices. The Gemara provides a source for these commemorations from a verse: “But I will bring healing to you and cure you of your wounds, declares the Lord. Though they called you ‘Outcast, that Zion whom no one seeks out’” (Yirmiyahu 30:17). The Gemara elaborates: “whom no one seeks out” implies that we should seek Zion and remember it. Doing so will help it heal (Rosh Hashana 30a).

True, all agree that there can be no actual Hakhel nowadays, because this mitzvah is linked to the mitzvah of making a pilgrimage to the Temple for the festival, and as long as the Temple is not standing and it is impossible to offer the holiday sacrifices, the mitzvah of making the pilgrimage does not apply (Hagiga 3a). Nevertheless, great rabbis considered it important to make a nationwide commemoration of Hakhel, especially now that the Jewish people have been returning to the Land.

Some Haredi rabbis were opposed to a Hakhel commemoration. Their reason was fear of breaking with tradition. Since their position does not have a strong halakhic basis, most of the great rabbis dismissed it.

Rabbis Who Encouraged Commemoration of Hakhel

The first person to put forth this idea was R. Eliyahu David Rabinowitz-Teomim, the Aderet (an important Lithuanian rabbi who served as the Assistant Chief Rabbi of Jerusalem at the end of his life, and for that purpose authored the pamphlet ‘Zecher Le-Mikdash’.

His son-in-law, our master Rav Kook, supported the idea as well, but neither of them lived to see it happen. Other rabbis who were in favor of a Hak’hel commemoration included R. Yeĥiel Michel Tikochinsky (Ir Ha-kodesh Ve-hamikdash 4:15) and two Chief Rabbis of Israel – R. Yitzĥak HaLevi Herzog and R. Ben-Zion Uziel – as well as R. Yaakov Moshe Charlap and R. Zvi Yehuda Kook.

Two rabbis who worked hard to turn it into a reality were Rabbi Shlomo David Kahana, who served as the head of the Warsaw beit din for decades and later as Chief Rabbi of the Old City of Jerusalem, and his son, who served for two decades as the Director General of Israel’s Ministry for Religious Services, and during his tenure there he instituted the tradition of Hakhel commemorations.

Commemorations of Hakhel That Actually Took Place

The first commemoration took place in 1945, after the Holocaust and before the founding of the State of Israel. The work to put it together was done by the cultural division of Hapoel HaMizrachi, which was the political party of Religious Zionist workers. The Chief Rabbis and other great rabbis participated in this unprecedented event.

Every seven years since then, at the end of every Shemita, there has been a Hak’hel commemoration. The one exception was in 1973, because that was at the height of the Yom Kippur War. The men had been called up to fight, risking their lives to protect the Land and its people.

In 1987 there was an especially impressive Hak’hel commemoration, led by Chief Rabbis R. Avraham Shapira and R. Mordechai Eliyahu. Tens of thousands gathered at the Kotel and the porches overlooking it. The Western Wall Plaza was filled to capacity, and the crowds overflowed into the alleyways. The event was broadcast on TV. The President of Israel, Chaim Herzog, participated in the reading, along with the chief rabbis. Many of the country’s leaders participated in the ceremony, including the Prime Minister, many other ministers, and the President of the Supreme Court. Ever since then, at the end of each Shmita on the first day of Chol Ha-mo’ed, a Hakhel commemoration takes place at the Kotel, drawing huge crowds and bringing great honor to God and His Torah.

As a follow-up to this, there is room to strengthen the initiatives to hold a commemoration of Hakhel in the various communities, to assemble together to read the Chumash Devarim, and to arouse people’s hearts to faith, reverence, Torah study mitzvah observance. To strengthen ourselves in the mitzvot of faith and the settlement of the land, in establishing the kingdom and Torah law, and assisting others, which are the main mitzvot that were read in the assembly of Hakhel (see Peninei HalaKha Sukkot 8:2).

Inspiration from the Custom of Hakel for all Communities

Similarly, our Sages, inspired by the mitzvah of the Hakhel, ordained for Jews to gather in every community to read the Torah every Shabbat. They also ordained the Shabbat sermon, to which women would also attend (Yerushalmi Sota 1:4; Tanya Ha-Rishon 18). “God said to Moshe: ‘Gather together large groups and publicly teach them the laws of Shabbat. Thus, future leaders will learn from you to convene groups every Shabbat and assemble in the batei midrash to teach and instruct Israel about what the Torah permits and forbids. Thus, My great name will be glorified among My children…Moshe said to Israel: “If you follow this system God will consider it as if you enthroned Him in His world.” (Yalkut Shimoni, Vayak’hel 408).

This article appears in the “Besheva” newspaper and was translated from Hebrew.