One of my fondest childhood memories is of my grandfather recounting the weekly Torah reading. With his thick foreign accent, Zeide brought the Torah’s teachings to life. Those timeless lessons left an indelible impression on my young mind.

I relate those early positive experiences to the mitzvah of Hakhel, described in Parshat Vayelech:

“Assemble the people: the men, the women, and the children, and the stranger in your cities, in order that they hear, and learn and fear the L-rd, your G‑d, and they will observe all the words of this Torah.”1

Once every seven years, the entire Jewish nation gathered in the Holy Temple where the king read a portion of the Torah aloud. The king served as G‑d’s representative; each Jew was to experience the reading as if it was emanating from Mount Sinai.2

Just imagine the profound impression an awe-inspiring experience like this made on the people. The kohanim (“priests”) stood throughout Jerusalem, blowing golden trumpets. After everyone had assembled, the king ascended a wooden platform that had been erected in the women’s courtyard of the Temple to read select portions from the book of Deuteronomy.3 When he finished, the king recited seven blessings, praising G‑d for causing His presence to dwell in the Land of Israel.

The assembly took place on Sukkot, right after the High Holy Days, at the culmination of the seven-year Shemitah cycle.4 During the Shemitah year, after six years of working the land, the residents of the Land of Israel were required to completely desist from cultivating their fields.This allowed them to dedicate their time to increased Torah study for the entire year. Hakhel was the exalted climax of their efforts and generated inspiration for the years to come.5

Why were people commanded to bring their young children to Hakhel? Oftentimes, children cause disturbances at solemn occasions. Why bring them? Children couldn’t fully comprehend the significance of what was transpiring around them … or could they?

An enlightening conversation is recorded in the Talmud6 regarding why the children attended Hakhel. Rabbi Elazar ben Azariah said to his teacher, Rabbi Yehoshua, “The Torah commanded us to bring our children to provide eternal reward to those who brought them.” How so? Since all the men and women were required to travel to Jerusalem for Hakhel, what other option did they have but to bring their young children? Who would watch them? G‑d, in his infinite kindness, commanded the people to bring their children. Although it was something that they had to do anyway, now they were fulfilling G‑d’s will, for which there is eternal merit.

Rabbi Yehoshua responded, excitedly, to the words of Rabbi Elazar ben Azariah. “You had this beautiful gem, and you tried to hide it from me!”7 he said. What does this mean? Perhaps Rabbi Yehoshua’s excitement can be explained by the Jerusalem Talmud8 recounting that, when Rabbi Yehoshua was a baby, his mother brought his crib into the synagogue so that he would become accustomed to the sounds of the words of the Torah.

Like the young children at Hakhel, Rabbi Yehoshua’s ears heard the holy Torah being read aloud. Perhaps those first sounds led him to develop into the Torah scholar that he became. Thinking back on his mother’s actions might explain his excitement about “the gem” that Rabbi Alazar ben Azariah shared with him.

The Torah espoused the value of early childhood education thousands of years before modern educational psychology recognized it. Today, it’s acknowledged that babies are capable of learning in the womb. Recent research has found that what a fetus hears by its 34th week in utero can inspire learning, and by the 38th week of pregnancy, memory is evident. Obviously, then, babies are ready to continue learning the moment that they are born.9 It is interesting to note that when Rabbi Yehoshua’s mother was pregnant, she went to the study halls asking the scholars to pray that her fetus should become a sage.10 Clearly, Rabbi Yehoshua’s mother was a visionary who was way ahead of her time!

Regarding Hakhel, Maimonides writes, “This experience was ordained by the Torah to strengthen deep faith. Each individual felt as if (s)he had just been commanded to observe the Torah.”11

Several classical commentators have argued that children benefited from attending Hakhel simply for the religious and cultural experience.12 The Midrash describes children telling each other: “I remember when my father took me to Jerusalem. We joined the huge crowd in the Holy Temple, and the king read the Torah to us.”13 Clearly, this experience left a memorable, positive, impression on these children.

The impressions created by early childhood experiences play a major role in the development of one’s Jewish identity. The early Torah education, provided by my grandfather, ignited an inner flame within me. That flame represents an inextinguishable commitment to Torah study and mitzvah observance.

Zeide wasn’t a scholar, but he shared what he knew with me. The Torah was precious to him; therefore, it became precious to me.

What if you didn’t have a grandfather like mine? Many people don’t receive positive Jewish experiences in their youth. But it’s never too late to light your own inner flame. Don’t depend on someone else for that; you can do it! When the Torah becomes precious to you, your flame can then ignite those of others.

Making It Relevant

  1. Be mindful of the memories that you create with your children and others. Are they positive? Are they long-lasting?
  2. Strive to inspire yourself through learning and absorbing the relevant lessons of the weekly Torah readings.
  3. Make an ongoing effort to share a meaningful Torah thought with someone else. You never know how this could influence another in a positive way.