Hakhel Is A Unique Mitzvah, And Shavuos is Hakhel on Steroids
by Rabbi Mordechai Rubin – Chabad of Colonie, NY
Among the many mitzvahs of the Torah, few are as unique as Hakhel. In this commandment, Jewish men, women, and children are summoned to the Beis Hamikdash (Holy Temple) in Jerusalem to gather together once every seven years following the Sabbatical year. They gathered to hear inspiration from the Jewish king as he read from the Torah. The message of Hakhel is one of unity, reconnection, and re-experiencing of the revelation at Mount Sinai.
What sets Hakhel apart from other mitzvahs? Its inclusivity.
While all other Mitzvos include a rabbinical ordinance of teaching their practice to our children (under Bar/Bat Mitzvah when they become biblically responsible), and there are even mitzvahs focused on education (such as learning Torah and teaching it to our children), yet Hakhel stands out from the rest. Hakhel is the only biblical Mitzvah that specifically calls upon children of all ages, even little babies to join the momentous gathering, every single Jew.
It is also unique in that, although women are normally exempt from time-bound mitzvot (an important subject for that has been beautifully discussed in Chassid teaching), they are obligated to take part in Hakhel, along with men. The Talmud even discusses whether women should be obligated in all other time bound Mitzvah based on the Hakhel principle, and the Talmud finally concludes that this is a Hakhel special.
In fact, many may not realize that even on the thrice annual pilgrimage to the Temple on the major 3 festivals of Pesach, Shavuot & Sukkot, although all Jews were encouraged to ascend to the Temple. Nonetheless, the “letter of the law” stipulates the obligation only on adult men, while there’s no firm requirement for women to join. So Hakhel was again unique, calling all women to the Temple.
What makes Hakhel different from all other Mitzvahs?
The significance of Hakhel lies not only in its inclusivity, but in its purpose. The gathering of men, women, and children, the immersion in the words of the king, serves to reconnect the Jewish people to the source of their faith. It allows them to experience, once again, the awe-inspiring moments of G-d’s revelation at Mount Sinai. Therefore this is the one & only Mitzvah, where biblically, children & even newborn babies are included, as it is a re-experience of the Sinai revelation.
Just as at Sinai, the entire nation was present (by Sinai, our Sages even taught that all future souls attended as well!), so to by Hakhel which is to relive Sinai we call upon every single individual to join.
The ancient Torah scroll that the Jewish king would read from was the very Torah that Moshe, the only man to hear & transcribe the Torah directly from the Almighty, wrote himself this Torah on his last day on this earth. The holy scroll was normally kept inside the Holy of Holies in the Temple, but special arrangements were made to bring out this “crown jewel” for this momentous occasion.
Imagine the feelings of all those attending. First, the journey to Jerusalem, seeing the entire nation flock toward the Temple. Huddled together in large numbers; you, your entire family, anyone you ever knew was there, the entire nation was there. Finally, the king would ascend on a tall wooden platform for all to see, and he would serve as G-d’s mouthpiece, as it were, as he read from the Torah, the very Torah that Moshe wrote, hundreds of years earlier.
It must’ve felt like we were re-enacting Sinai. That was the feeling of Hakhel.
Therefore, Maimonides explains that – as prescribed in the Torah – the King was to read aloud from the Torah in the original Hebrew. What if someone didn’t know Hebrew?
[Isn’t that wild! I can’t believe it. In Temple times there were jews that didn’t know Hebrew. Probably never thought of that, it’s only a recent thing in the 20th-21st century. Believe it or not, in Temple times that phenomena existed and they were still good Jews and felt part of the Jewish community and would arrive at the Beis haMikdash. That can inspire us, to drop all the Hebrew reading guilt etc., rock on and be a good Jew serving Hashem!]
Or what if you couldn’t hear, you didn’t get the expensive box seats near the king, the Jewish nation is alive and well with over a few million in attendance, & you are towards the back of the masses, how can you even hear the king (no PA systems back then).
Maimonides states (Book of Karbanot, Laws of Chagigah Chap. 3. Section 6) : “Converts 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 entire Torah are obligated to listen with exceedingly 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”.
This reconnection to Sinai is the reason why Hakhel is required every seven years, like Shabbat is to the 6-day work week. As they say, “more than the Jews kept Shabbat, Shabbat kept the Jews”. I think we can unequivocally declare: “More than the Jews kept Hakhel, Hakhel kept the Jews!”
It is a reminder that, just as the Israelites at Mount Sinai comprised all Jews of the past, present and future – Hakhel allows the Jewish people to experience the same unity, to connect with the same moment, every seven years.
The quintessential Mitzvah
The Rebbe’s emphasis on unity and inclusivity, on bringing together Jews of all ages and backgrounds, and on the importance of reliving the moments of Mount Sinai, are all part of the message of Hakhel. Through this mitzvah, we are not only brought closer to G-d and to each other, but we are reminded of the importance of Jewish continuity and of the role that every individual, even the smallest among us, plays in upholding that continuity. Each of us is an imperative link in the golden chain stretching back to Sinai.
The mitzvah of Hakhel is not only another Mitzvah, rather it is the quintessential Mitzvah. Vital & crucial to all of Judaism, as it serves as a unique mechanism for keeping the Jewish tradition alive. Hakhel is not even from the important Mitzvahs, but is of the most important ones, since it maintains the sacred connection between generations of Jews. Through Hakhel, Jews are able to connect with the Torah, with Mount Sinai, and with each other, ensuring that the Jewish tradition is passed down from generation to generation.
Hakhel is how Hashem made a mechanism in Judaism, how to keep Judaism alive. It’s our magic, our secret recipe. It’s an embedded mechanism. Even though many years and few generations after the Torah is given at Mount Sinai, there’s still the Jewish connection to Mount Sinai, to the Jewish people, to the continuity of our people. So Hakhel is not only a mitzvah, it is the mitzvah.
The significance of this mitzvah is particularly evident when considering the historical context of the Jewish people. Despite the challenges and struggles that Jews have faced over the centuries, they have been able to maintain their connection to the Torah and to each other through the power of unity and commitment to Sinai. This has been a critical factor in the resilience and survival of the Jewish people, as it has allowed for the continuity of Jewish tradition in the face of adversity.
In essence, the mitzvah of Hakhel is not just a ritualistic gathering, but is a way of ensuring the perpetuity of Judaism. It serves as a bridge that connects the generations of Jews, allowing them to access the spiritual power and guidance of the Torah. Through this mitzvah, Jews can experience the ongoing relevance and vitality of the Jewish tradition, even in the modern era.
Therefore, the mitzvah of Hakhel should be taken seriously and practiced with utmost devotion. Jews across the globe shall come together periodically, to collectively be inspired and experience the Torah, thereby keeping Judaism alive for future generations. The Hakhel gathering is much more than a mere formality – it is a vital and integral component of Jewish existence and must be embraced with gratitude and reverence.
Resurrection of “Hakhel”
The Rebbe resurrected this almost “dormant” Mitzvah of Hakhel, one that – in the minds of most Jews – had “gone to sleep” with the Temple’s destruction. Breathing new life and vitality into this most crucial Mitzvah, the built-in mechanism designed by G-d to keep the “Giving of the Torah” continually perpetuated, for Judaism to be fresh & relevant.
The Rebbe taught that the mitzvah of Hakhel was not just an ancient practice, but a living Mitzvah that needs, more than ever, to be kept alive.
In 1988, the Rebbe reminded his followers that it was imperative to create Hakhel-type gatherings throughout the year. We must create Hakhel gatherings, regular gatherings, to study Torah, learn about what our Sages say about the king and how we can live up to his example. The Rebbe believed that the mitzvah of Hakhel was not just limited to the actual gathering that took place every seven years in Temple times but an opportunity for Jews to connect with each other and with G-d. “Be a Hakhel Jew!” the Rebbe announced.
One of the ways in which the Rebbe emphasized the importance of Hakhel, was by encouraging Jews from all over the world to make their own Hakhel gatherings.
The Rebbe taught that every time Jews come together to learn Torah or perform mitzvahs, a sense of Hakhel is present, and that this was an important way for Jews to connect with each other and with G-d.
Whether it is through a Hakhel gathering in Jerusalem, or through a personal Jewish birthday party in a person’s home, the spirit of Hakhel is alive and well in the Jewish community.
Counterintuitively, perhaps, not only is this mitzvah also relevant to our times, but truly, more needed now more than ever, even more than Temple times! When the exile and spiritual darkness is so strong we desperately need a Hakhel boost of inspiration!
Takeaway for this Shavuot of the Hakhel Year!
Shavuot on Steroids
Each year on Shavuot, the Rebbe emphasized the importance of bringing men, women and children together, as many as possible, to re-experience the giving of the Torah in the same way as Mount Sinai. Even young children, especially because they are considered the guarantors of the Torah according to the Midrash. They are a vital part of the experience and are certainly invited to participate.
But on this Shavuot as we are in a Hakhel year, to truly live the message of Hakhel is to experience a Shavuot – reliving Sinai – on steroids! A renaissance of reawakening of our connection to G-d and to our fellow Jews. We need to make every effort to lovingly invite all our fellow Jews; neighbors, relatives, & friends to relive Sinai & hear the 10 Commandments at your shul or Chabad House. Hakhel is blind to different types (or denominations) of Jews, it needs everyone on deck! No Jew will be left behind. All aboard now, young and old, men & women.
As they say, “more than the Jews kept Shabbat, Shabbat kept the Jews”. I think we can unequivocally declare: “More than the Jews kept Hakhel, Hakhel kept the Jews!”