1. The Entire Nation Gathered

Hakhel was a unique gathering when all Jews—men, women, and children—would come together in the Holy Temple to hear the king read from the Torah. Even though women are generally not obligated in time-bound mitzvot, Hakhel is an exception to the rule. There is much discussion as to exactly what form this obligation takes when it comes to children, as we generally do not impose obligations on minors.1

Read: What Is Hakhel?

2. It Took Place Following the Sabbatical Year

The Hakhel gathering occurred on the first intermediate day of the Festival of Sukkot, following the Sabbatical year. Every seven years, farmers in the Land of Israel would leave their fields fallow and turn their focus to the service of G‑d. After a year spent in spiritual nourishment, when the population was utterly reliant on G‑d’s kindness for their basic sustenance, the Hakhel gathering was a way to cement that faith and carry it into the years ahead.2

Read: Shemitah - A Year of Faith

3. A Large Platform was Erected

In order for the king to be seen and heard, a large wooden platform was erected in the courtyard of the Temple, in the area known as the ezrat nashim, the women’s courtyard, (named as such because it contained a balcony reserved for women).3 There is some discussion as to exactly when this platform was constructed. Building is forbidden on the intermediate days of the festival, and the platform could not be built earlier as space was extremely limited in the Temple during the holidays.4 Tosafot writes that it was built in parts before Sukkot and pieced together in a manner permitted on its intermediate days.5

Read: Ezrat Nashim - The Women's Courtyard

4. The King Read Sections of Deuteronomy from a Torah Scroll

There is some disagreement regarding the exact timing of the festivities. Some authorities believe it occurred the evening following the festival's first day,6 but the consensus seems to be that the ceremony occurred on the morning of the first intermediate day.7 At the appointed time, the king (or, according to some, the “leader of the generation” if there was no king) would receive the Torah from the High Priest and read various sections from the Book of Deuteronomy aloud. These portions inspire piety, love, appreciation of the Torah and the observance of mitzvahs, particularly the mitzvah of tzedakah.8

Read: Hakhel in the Holy Temple

5. Moses’ Torah was Used

Art by Rivka Korf Studio
Art by Rivka Korf Studio

According to tradition, the Torah scroll used by the king during the Hakhel ceremony was one of the 13 scrolls written by Moses himself. Rashi writes that this scroll—generally kept in the Ark of the Covenant in the Holy of Holies—was used only by the High Priest on Yom Kippur and the king during Hakhel.9 (During the Second Temple period, when the Ark and its scroll were no longer available, another was used in its place.)

6. The King Recited A Total of 9 Blessings

During the ceremony, the king would recite a total of 9 blessings: A blessing before and after the reading of the Torah (as is done during the Torah-reading in the synagogue), as well as seven blessings specific to the Hakhel ceremony. The first three blessings are familiar to us.

1. “Grant favor, G‑d, our L‑rd, to Your people Israel. . .” (retzei Hashem Elokenu)
2. “We thankfully acknowledge You. . .” (modim anachnu loch)
3. “You chose us from all the nations. . .” (atah verchatanu)
4. A blessing for the Temple
5. A blessing for the Jewish Nation and their kings
6. A blessing for the kohanim that G‑d shall find favor in their service
7. A general blessing composed by the king, concluding, “G‑d, deliver Your nation Israel, for Your nation Israel requires salvation. Blessed are You, G‑d, Who heeds prayer.”10

7. The Kohanim Sounded Golden Trumpets

In describing Hakhel, the Tosefta depicts the kohanim blowing golden trumpets throughout Jerusalem to call the nation to gather. Every kohen was to acquire a trumpet and herald the upcoming ceremony, to the point that Tosefta asserts that any Kohen seen without a trumpet might have his lineage questioned.11

Read: Blast Your Jewish Trumpet

8. The Purpose of Hakhel was to Inspire the Nation

The verse describes Hakhel’s purpose: “Assemble the people: the men, the women, the children, and your stranger in your cities, so that they hear, and so that they learn and fear the L‑rd, your G‑d, and they will observe to do all the words of this Torah.”12 The whole purpose of this gathering was to invigorate the Jews, giving them the strength to carry them through the next six years of toil in the field.

Read: What Is the Point of ‘Hakhel,’ the Great Gathering?

9. Maimonides Compares it to the Giving of the Torah

When discussing the importance of listening intently to the king read from the scroll, Maimonides writes that it is comparable to G‑d giving the Torah at Sinai:

Foreigners who do not understand are obligated to concentrate their attention and direct their hearing, listening with reverence and awe, rejoicing while trembling as on the day the Torah was given at Sinai. Even great sages who know the Torah must listen with great concentration. One who is unable to hear should focus his attention on this reading, for Scripture established it solely to strengthen the true faith. He should see himself as if he was just now commanded regarding the Torah and heard it from the Almighty. For the king is an agent to make known the word of G‑d.13

Read: What Happened at Matan Torah?

10. It is the Second-to-Last of the 613 Commandments

The mitzvah of Hakhel follows the verse describing Moses transcribing the Torah and giving it over to the kohanim for it to be placed in the Ark of the Covenant (this was the scroll subsequently used for the Hakhel gatherings). Shortly after this, we find the final commandment of the Torah: “And now, write down this song for yourselves,”14 which Maimonides interprets as, “write down the [entire] Torah which contains this song”15 —i.e., each individual is obligated to write their own Torah Scroll.

Read: Are We Ignoring the Torah's Final Mitzvah?

11. After the Destruction of the Temple the Ceremony Ceased

Since the destruction of the Temple, the glory and splendor of the Hakhel ceremony has been confined to history. Hopefully, soon, with the arrival of Moshiach, Hakhel will again be held in the courtyard of the Temple, and all will bear witness to the uniqueness of this occasion.

Read: The Mitzvah of Hakhel Today

12. We Can Make Our Own Hakhels All Year Long

The sages prescribed some form of practice by which we commemorate many of the mitzvot that were only applicable in Temple times: Prayer in place of the sacrifices, counting the Omer as a rabbinic obligation in place of the Biblical one, Hillel’s sandwich and the shank on the Seder plate to remember the Paschal Sacrifice, etc.

When it comes to Hakhel, however, we find no such formal commemoration.

Some suggest that the custom to read the book of Deuteronomy on the night of Hoshana Rabbah (the seventh day of Sukkot) commemorates the king reading sections of Deuteronomy at the Hakhel gathering.

In the second half of the 20th century, the Rebbe rekindled the spark of Hakhel. He strongly encouraged the organization of “Hakhel gatherings.” In a letter preceding the year 5713 (1952-53, a Hakhel year), he wrote:

Although at all times we are commanded to bring up our children in the way of the Torah and mitzvot, the mitzvah of Hakhel, coinciding with this season, impresses upon us our duties towards the children with special force and timeliness.

Therefore, let every Jewish father and mother, every rabbi and leader, every communal worker and person of influence, heed the call of the mitzvah of Hakhel: to gather the masses of Jewish children and bring them to the Yeshivot, Talmud Torahs and Torah - true educational institutions; to increase the Torah-Tzedakah, the support of true Torah institutions and ensure their existence and growth, in order that all Jewish children, boys and girl, be brought up in the spirit of piety and love for G‑d, love for the Torah and mitzvot, and love for one another.

In the merit of this, the Almighty will favor us and enable us very soon to fulfill the mitzvah of Hakhel in the Beit Hamikdash [Temple] in Jerusalem, rebuilt by our Righteous Messiah, Amen.

Letter of the Lubavitcher Rebbe, dated Chai - 18 - Elul, 5712 [September 8, 1952]

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