Originally published in The Jewish Review, 6 (159) (1952), pp. 5-6.
The introduction of new ideas and novel methods of strengthening our religious life is to be commended, if for no other reason, because of the freshness and vitality such ideas and methods infuse into our spiritual outlook. Loyalty to Jewish tradition can be a dynamic rather than a static concept. For this reason alone the revival of the ancient ceremony of Hakhel in Jerusalem this coming Succoth will be widely welcomed, this year being a Sabbatical year.
We read in the book of Deuteronomy: ‘And Moses commanded them, saying, At the end of every seven years, in the solemnity of the year of release, in the feast of tabernacles, When all Israel is come to appear before the Lord thy God in the place where he shall choose, thou shall read this law before all Israel in their hearing. Gather the people together, men and women, and children, and thy stranger that is within thy gates, that they may hear, and that they may learn and fear the Lord your God, and observe to do all the words of this law.’ (Deut. 31. 10-12). The Hebrew for ‘gather the people together’ is hakhel eth ha’am, hence the name hakhel.
The purpose of the precept is obvious. Nothing could be more typical of Jewish loyalty to the Torah than a periodical re-affirmation of its binding and guiding power by its reading in the presence of the whole people. Such a gathering was bound to make a great impression on those assembled, quickening their interest in the Torah and giving them the impetus to study its teachings. As Abraham Ibn Ezra (1092-1167) remarks, in his commentary to the above verses, ‘that they may hear,’ at the assembly itself, ‘and that they may learn,’ during the next seven years. Evidently with the intention of making the assembly fully effective and preventing it becoming wochedig the law demanded that hakhel was to take place only once in seven years. Nothing is more calculated to destroy the beneficial effects of a mass demonstration than too frequent repetitions.
In the Days of the Second Commonwealth
The Mishnah (Sot. 7, 8) gives a vivid account of how the assembly was carried out in the later years of the Second Common wealth. ‘After what manner was the paragraph of the king? (i.e. hakhel, the Torah being read by the king himself). After the close of the first Festival-day of the Feast, in the eighth year, after the going forth of the Seventh Year, they used to prepare for him in the Temple Court a wooden platform on which he sat, for it is written, “At the end of every seven years in the set time.” The minister of the synagogue, used to take a scroll of the Law and give it to the chief of the synagogue, and the chief of the Synagogue gave it to the Prefect, and the Prefect gave it to the High Priest, and the High Priest gave it to the king, and the king received it standing and read it sitting. King Agrippa received it standing and read it standing, and for this the sages praised him. And when he reached “Thou mayest not put a foreigner over thee which is not thy brother” (Deut. 17, 15) his eyes flowed with tears (because Agrippa was of Edomite descent); but they called to him, “Our brother art thou, our brother art thou, our brother art thou.” (Danby’s translation).
According to the Rabbis only parts of Deuteronomy were to be read, not the whole of the Torah. They further taught that the assembly took place, in the ordinary way, on the first day of Chol Hamoed Succoth, but if this day fell on the Sabbath the ceremony was postponed, either because of the prohibition of setting up the platform on the Sabbath or because of the trumpets which were blown by the priests, to summon the people to the assembly (Sot. ibid, Meg. 5, 1, and Yer. ad loc.).
As Rabbi S. Savin notes, in a comprehensive article on hakhel published in his well-known Leor Hahalachah (Jer. 1946, p. 105f) the details of this precept are to be found scattered in the halachic literature in incidental discussions, there existing no complete work dealing solely with hakhel. Thus in a discussion on the religious duties of the Jewish woman it is stated that although generally speaking she is exempt from carrying out a religious precept the performance of which is limited to a given time, she is nonetheless obliged to attend the assembly, the Torah stating explicitly: “Gather the people together, men and women, and children” (Kidd. 32b).
It follows from the association of hakhel with the pilgrimage to the Temple—“when all Israel is to appear before the Lord thy God in the place where he shall choose”—that this precept is obligatory only in Temple times. However, the majority of Israel’s Rabbis, among them Rabbi Dr. Herzog, the Chief Rabbi of Israel, see no harm in a revival of the ceremony nowadays. They point out that we find in the Halachah many examples of practices introduced for the purpose of serving as a reminder of the glories of Jewish life in Temple times, zecher lemikdash, so that there can be no objections to the revival on halachic grounds. In fact it can only be of help to those whose aim it is to strengthen loyalty to Torah in Israel and it can be, if properly conducted, as no doubt it will be, a source of inspiration for religious Jewry both within Israel and outside it.
The Role of the President of Israel
It is reported that the Torah will be read at this assembly by the President of Israel or in view of Dr. Chaim Weizmann’s illness, by the acting President, Mr. Sprinzak, who will fulfil the function formerly allotted to the king. One run imagine that some will find reason to cavil at this, considering it to be incongruous in view of the lukewarm attitude of the heads of the State of Israel to orthodoxy. But we orthodox Jews cannot have it both ways. If we never tire of demanding greater recognition of Torah principles by officialdom in Israel we can hardly refuse such an excellent opportunity of underlining our point of view by welcoming this public act of admission to the justice of our claims by the highest official in the State. Only the narrow-minded would consider the choice of the Israeli President to be other than a Kiddush Hashem.
More important even than the effect the assembly will have on grown-ups, is the enthusiasm it will awaken in the hearts and minds of the many children who will be present. There is a famous homily of the second century teacher of Judaism, Rabbi Eleazar ben Asariah, in which he asked concerning hakhel: “The men come to the assembly to learn, the women come to hear, what purpose is served by bringing the little children?” His answer is indicative of rabbinic emphasis on introducing our children to the Torah life in their earliest infancy, “so that those who bring them might be rewarded for so doing” (Hag. 3a).
Hakhel and our Community
The idea of Hakhel can lend itself to further elaboration. Would it not be possible to organize similar gatherings in other parts of the Jewish world? Consider the impression a great mass meeting of religious Jews from all over the country, at which the Torah would be read by the Chief Rabbi or the President of the Board of Deputies, would make on Anglo-Jewry for example. A gathering of this kind once every seven years would bring a touch of much needed pageantry into our religious life. Taking place, as it would, only once in seven years the vulgarities and overtone of the revivalist meeting could easily be avoided and a new force for the good could be introduced.