At the end of seven years, at the appointed time, in the festival of Sukkot [following] the year of Shemittah, when all of Israel comes to appear before the L‑rd, your G‑d, in the place that He will choose, you shall read this Torah before all Israel, in their ears. Assemble the people: the men, the women, the children, and the stranger in your midst, in order that they hear, and in order that they learn and fear the L‑rd, your G‑d, and they will observe all the words of this Torah.

Deuteronomy 31:10–12

The Jews began observing the Sabbatical (Shemittah) year seven years after conquering and settling the Land of Israel under the leadership of Joshua. This seven-year cycle has been marked ever since, with the applicable laws still observed today by the Jews living in Israel. The year following the Sabbatical year is known as Hakhel (“Gather!”), named for the great assembly that would take place that year in the Holy Temple.1 This year, 5769, follows a Sabbatical year, and is therefore a year of Hakhel. Though this great assembly only occurred in the times of the Holy Temple, our sages teach us how it is every bit as relevant today.

In Hakhel is unique in that we can still perform the mitzvah today (almost) in totalitydiscussing the mitzvah of Hakhel, Maimonides underscores that the mitzvah is not merely about the unity it engendered; rather, its express goal was to bring about an increase in our yir’at shamayim (fear of G‑d) and to strengthen our observance of the mitzvot. All the details related to the gathering are intended to achieve this objective. Maimonides writes that at the Hakhel gathering the assembled were to focus their minds and listen to the words of Torah read by the king with the same awe, reverence and joyful trepidation as the day the Jews stood at Mt. Sinai and received the Torah. Every aspect of Hakhel served as a wakeup call, a reality check, to strengthen faith, trust and commitment to serve G‑d with total devotion.

The Lubavitcher Rebbe pointed out that there are many mitzvot that were observed in the times of the Temple that we cannot perform today. Nevertheless, we fulfill those mitzvot on some level through learning about them, or through prayer. Hakhel is unique in that, although we do not have the Temple and cannot exactly re-enact how Hakhel was performed, we can still perform the mitzvah (almost) in totality. The objective of the mitzvah is yir’at shamayim, and that we are obligated to do today too.

Analyzing the details of when, how, who and where the mitzvah was performed provides us with inspiring reflections that enable us to fulfill the mitzvah of Hakhel today.


The year following the Sabbatical year.

Yankel the beggar would visit Mr. Pfefferbox every day to collect charity. Mr. Pfefferbox was very generous, and would hand him two twenty-dollar bills. One day Yankel came by and, much to his dismay, Mr. Pfefferbox only gave him one twenty-dollar bill. “Where’s the other bill?” Yankel asked. Mr. Pfefferbox explained that business was not going well, so he had to make cuts . . . Indignant, Yankel exclaimed, “And you made cuts on my account?”

The Sabbatical year involved two primary mitzvot: 1) abstaining from agricultural work; 2) the wild produce of the land was rendered ownerless, free for anyone to enjoy. These laws enforced the Jews’ recognition of G‑d as Creator and Master of the world. The first mitzvah demonstrates that He is our master, whom we must obey. He is in control of the world, nature, and all that occurs in the universe. He determines what will grow, when it will rain, whether we will prosper, who possesses what, etc. The second law drives home the point that even what G‑d grants us is never truly “ours”; it still remains His. We must use that which we are given as G‑d wants us to use it, because it is His.

Throughout the Sabbatical year, a person absorbed into his consciousness how G‑d is the Creator and Master of everything; how he is obligated to serve G‑d with all he has, and have complete trust that G‑d would take care of his needs. The mitzvah of Hakhel would ensure that the messages of the Sabbatical year stayed with themWhen the year was over and the new cycle commenced, everyone would return to the workplace. The mitzvah of Hakhel would ensure that these messages stayed with them. The portions of the Torah the king read at the Hakhel ceremony addressed the very same themes they experienced throughout the Sabbatical year. The king would read the Shema, which speaks about G‑d’s Oneness, how He alone is our master whom we must obey. The second section of the Shema, as well as the blessings and curses he would read, relate how G‑d orchestrates nature to respond to our actions, like causing the rains to fall when we adhere to His commandments. Finally, the king read about the various offerings and tithes the Jews were obligated to give, emphasizing that while G‑d gives us our lot, it remains His. He instructs us how to use that which He has entrusted to us.


The Kohanim

The kohanim fanned out throughout Jerusalem and blew golden trumpets, announcing the Hakhel event. All the Jews would gather to the Holy Temple, where the king would read selected portions from the Torah scroll.

Reb Moshe Meisels—a chassid of Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi, the “Alter Rebbe”—served as a spy in the service of the czar during Russia’s war against Napoleon.2 At one point, Napoleon suspected that his war plans were being leaked to the Russians. Angrily, he burst into the room where Moshe and a group of generals were mapping out their strategies. He strode right up to Moshe, accused him of espionage, and placed his hand over Moshe’s heart. Moshe remained calm—his heart didn’t skip a beat—which convinced Napoleon that he was not the spy. Chassidim later asked him how he was able to remain calm. How was he able to stop his heart from pounding?! Moshe explained that as a chassid he learned about the importance of the “mind ruling the heart.”

The Maggid of Mezeritch explained the deeper meaning behind the use of trumpets. The Hebrew word for trumpet is chatzotzrah. This word can also be read as chatzi tzurah, “half of a form.” We are made “in His image”;3 we were created with a physical body and spiritual capacities that mirror the divine energies which G‑d employs in the creation of the worlds. The Maggid taught that the Jews and G‑d are like two halves that are complete only when united. When we follow His commandments and use our body and capacities to serve Him, we become united. Our “form” connects with G‑d, drawing upon ourselves the divine energies.

The role of the kohanim was to help the Jews connect and become closer to G‑d. When they blew the trumpets, they were sending a message to the Jews: It is time to reassess our connection and our relationship with G‑d. It was a call to examine our performance to see whether it reflected our attachment to G‑d.

The King

The A king was supposed to be “head and shoulders above” the people, serving as a role model of how to serve G‑dclimax of the Hakhel gathering was the king’s reading from the Torah. The Torah does not look favorably at the concept of having a monarch merely to simulate other nations’ style of government.4 Rather, the king’s primary function was to serve as a spiritual leader. A king was supposed to be “head and shoulders above”5 the people, serving as a role model of how to serve G‑d. The Hebrew word for king, melech, is an acronym for moach, lev, kaved (mind, heart and liver)—the three most vital organs. A king exemplified how to conduct oneself so that the mind, guided by Torah wisdom, would control all thoughts, emotions and actions. The king, a truly righteous leader, would inspire awe and reverence, thereby bringing the people gathered at the Hakhel assembly to a greater sense of awe in serving G‑d.

In the presence of a king a person is humbled, his ego is set aside, and all his attention is directed at the king. It is in such an environment that there can be true unity. Differences between people become immaterial, and everyone feels a sense of equality, united as subjects of the king. Thus the Hakhel gathering resembled the experience at Mt. Sinai, where the Jews stood in absolute unity, “like one man with one heart,”6 awestruck as they witnessed the divine revelation. Hakhel showed the Jews how love and unity is achieved by focusing inwardly at the commonality of our souls, and treating the material differences that separate us as inconsequential. This is achieved through the efforts a person makes in putting his soul as the primary focus and priority of life.


The king would read from the Torah scroll on a wooden platform that was erected in the women’s courtyard7 of the Holy Temple.

A chassid was imprisoned in the gulags of Siberia. He noticed that every night a fellow inmate would get up and, after checking that everyone else was sleeping, take out a uniform from a package and put it on. He would stare into a cracked mirror, salute, and then remove the uniform, place it back into a rumpled bag and go to sleep. The chassid approached him one night and asked him to explain. After imploring the chassid to keep his secret activity in confidence, he explained: “I was once a four-star general in the army. Here, they want to break us and make us feel worthless. How long can we last—weak, frozen, exhausted and hungry, with no end in sight? I found a way to survive. Every night I pull out my uniform, wear it for a few minutes and take a hard look at myself. I tell myself, ‘I am a four-star general. I will not forget, and I will persevere.’”

The usage of a wooden platform shares a similarity with G‑d’s choice of giving the Torah on Mt. Sinai. G‑d could have given the Torah in a valley to teach us the value of humility, or on a gigantic mountain to project greatness, loftiness, etc. However, G‑d chose a small mountain—to teach us both humility and pride.

There is a famous conundrum that chassidim discuss: On one hand it is stated, “Let my soul be as dust to all.”8 Yet we are also told that a person must believe that “for my sake the world was created.”9 Some have remarked that a person should carry two slips of paper, each inscribed with one of these statements. When one feels his timidity, fearfulness or lack of motivation preventing him from doing a mitzvah, he should pull out the slip of paper stating “For my sake the world was created.” A person must realize how important his deeds are; everyone has a unique niche that no one else can fill. The world needs him; his actions are significant. This statement motivates to act and accomplish. On the other hand, if a person is about to sin, he must pull out the other slip of paper: “Let my soul be as dust to all.” It’s time to consider who he really is; his ego is creating a barrier, preventing him from staying the course on his mission in this world.

Pride is a confusing characteristic, because it is often associated with a sense of egoism or entitlement. The pride does not reflect how we feel about ourselves; it focuses on the importance of our task and the honor of serving G‑dA person takes credit for his accomplishments, and fails to recognize that his talents, abilities and fortunes are all gifts on loan from G‑d. As a general rule, we try to focus on humility and distance ourselves from ego. However, there are times when pride is not negative at all; on the contrary, it is very important. This is when we take pride in our mission because it is a G‑d-given mission. The pride does not reflect how we feel about ourselves; it focuses on the importance of our task and the honor of serving G‑d. It is about honoring G‑d and affording proper respect to the Torah and mitzvot, the purpose of the world and our existence. This is where we should stand proud and tall as Jews, cherishing our Jewishness and sharing our treasure with others.

A platform or stage is meant to draw attention, highlighting the significance of what is placed on it. Yet the king read from a wooden platform, a temporary organic material—as opposed to metal, stone, or other long-lasting materials that symbolize permanence and endurance. This was to teach that we employ pride in a very restricted and limited fashion. It is not always positive, and therefore is used minimally. When is it appropriate? Only within the Holy Temple is it constructive—when it is used exclusively for the service of G‑d. When serving G‑d we should be uplifted like a platform, with strength “like a lion”10 to overcome our evil inclination, to withstand peer pressure and scoffers, to better succeed at our important mission.

To Whom

The King’s Mitzvah

The king was commanded to gather all the men, women and children—even infants.

Hakhel demonstrates the unique bond between the king and the nation, and their interdependence. When considering the dynamics of most mitzvot, there are generally a few factors involved: There is the person performing the mitzvah, the object with which the mitzvah is done, and sometimes others who enable the mitzvah to be performed. When there is a partnership between two people involved in performing the mitzvah, the accomplishment is shared, as is the reward. The more dependent the person is on the assistance of the other, the more that partner has a greater share in the mitzvah. For example, although women are not commanded to procreate, they have a share in this mitzvah by enabling their husbands to fulfill their mitzvah of having children, which could not have been done without them.

With the mitzvah of Hakhel, the king’s mitzvah is to gather the Jews. The assembled Jews are not only like an “assisting partner” without whom his mitzvah could not be done, they are actually the object of the mitzvah!

Ultimate Unity

All the Jews were to gather together to replicate the Sinai experience. When the Jews were in the desert, G‑d commanded them to build a Tabernacle, to construct a dwelling place wherein the Divine Presence would reside. Today, our synagogues take the place of the Tabernacle, and through the unity of a congregation joined in prayer, the Divine Presence dwells upon the assembled. Every added person increases the revelation, with the ultimate goal: gathering as one nation, as we did at Mt. SinaiThere is that special power that individuals alone cannot tap into, but that as a group can be achieved. If this is accomplished through the unity of a small group, how much more powerful is the divine revelation present when larger groups come together. Every added person increases the revelation, with the ultimate goal: gathering as one nation, as we did at Mt. Sinai. It was our unity then that brought about the greatest revelation of G‑d when He gave us our commandments, and it will be our unity now that will once again bring about the most supreme revelation with the coming of Moshiach.

The Foundation of Education

One of the rare aspects of this gathering was the emphasis on women coming with their children, including newborns. Ordinarily, mitzvot apply to those who can understand what they are doing at some level. What was the point here of having babies in attendance? The Hakhel gathering was meant to instill in everyone a sense of yir’at shamayim, to strengthen their performance of mitzvot. Torah recognizes that education begins from birth; babies absorb like sponges, and are profoundly impacted by what they are exposed to. To prepare a Jewish child for a life of serving G‑d, Hakhel served as an essential foundation.

There are also Jews whose knowledge of Judaism is scant, on the level of a child—or perhaps even like a newborn. One of the messages of Hakhel is that when beginning to learn Torah, the premise, the most important foundation, is the realization that all of Torah was given by G‑d at Mt. Sinai. The essential component of all of Judaism is that we are here because G‑d gave us a mission at Mt. Sinai to accomplish.

We Are the Kings

On a personal level, independent of the king’s obligation to gather the people, each individual was charged to “gather together in the Holy Temple to listen to the king.” We all have different talents, strengths and capabilities based on our physical and spiritual makeup. We are challenged to channel all our abilities, all parts of our souls’ capacities towards one goal: To listen to our “King” and serve Him with every part of our being. We each become a living Holy Temple, a place where G‑d’s presence is perceived.

We are all also asked to be like kings, to act as leaders and affect our spheres of influence. Whether functioning as a teacher, serving as a rabbi, mother, father, friend, neighbor or fellow Jew, we each carry the responsibility of helping each other, inspiring ourselves and those around us to develop our relationship with G‑d and enhance our observance of mitzvot.

In G‑d gives us the antidote: perform Hakhel. Gather with others; pull yourself together!our lives we can easily get overwhelmed—inundated by all the stresses, struggles and obstacles continuously testing our resolve—and lose focus. G‑d gives us the antidote: perform Hakhel. Gather with others; pull yourself together. This is a wakeup call, to really contemplate our purpose and reflect on the many principles of faith the mitzvah of Hakhel explores, and this will achieve a renewed commitment to serving G‑d with vigor and passion.

A wealthy executive took one of his employees out for lunch at an exclusive restaurant. As they were walking, the wealthy man paused, looking intently at the pavement. He bent down and gently picked up a penny, sliding it into his pocket with a smile, as if he had found some treasure. The employee, his curiosity aroused, asked whether he had discovered a rare coin.

The executive invited him to look at the coin and read what it says: “In G‑d We Trust.” He paused, letting the words sink in, then noted that every United States coin has that inscription, but people don’t seem to notice. “G‑d is dropping us constant messages to trust Him. When I see a coin, I stop to think if my trust is in G‑d at that moment. I pick up the coin as a response—my way of replying that I do trust in G‑d. I am thankful for G‑d’s message.”

A while later, the employee found himself all stressed out. While grocery shopping, he found a penny on the store’s floor. He stopped and read the words: “In G‑d We Trust.” He let out a laugh and sighed with relief, releasing his pent-up tensions. “Yes, G‑d,” he whispered, “I get the message.”

Perhaps the coins are minted with the inscription "In G‑d We Trust" to teach us that wealth and all sorts of materialism should not distract us, but assist us. They have us call to mind our faith in G‑d and our obligation to use what we are given to serve Him. A quick glance at even a penny can be a real Hakhel moment!

Through our performance of the mitzvah of Hakhel, may G‑d respond in kind, gathering us all together for the greatest Hakhel, as it is prophesied, “A great assembly will return here”11—to the Holy Temple, with the coming of Moshiach.

This essay is dedicated to my dear mother, Mrs. Tzivia Miriam Gurary, of blessed memory, on the occasion of her third yahrtzeit. During very challenging times my mother would remark, “Remember who you are working for!” This clarity gave her the perseverance that enabled her to forge ahead with confidence and strength, and to uplift those around her. I hear her words calling on me to ask myself, “What would G‑d want? What would the Rebbe say? How would Jewish law look at this?” This is the priceless guidance she imparted in her quiet and determined way.