STATE OF THE UNION
The mitzvot of the festival of Sukkot range from shaking the lulav and etrog to living in the sukkah. One of the less familiar mitzvot, which is no longer in practice, is called hakhel, the gathering of the nation.
The mitzvot of the festival of Sukkot range from shaking the lulav and etrog to living in the sukkah. One of the less familiar mitzvot, which is no longer in practice, is called hakhel, the gathering of the nation. As the Torah states: "Gather all the people together, men, women, little ones, and your stranger that is within your gates. (Deuteronomy 31:12).
On the first of the intermediate days of Sukkot, in the first year of the seven year sabbatical cycle, trumpets were to be sounded to proclaim that all Jews should gather together to celebrate and assemble in the Temple courtyard. A platform was erected for the king and he was to be surrounded by the masses. A Torah was brought out and handed to the head of the community, and then handed to the Kohen Gadol (High Priest). The Kohen Gadol then presented the Torah to the king. The king opened the Torah scroll, made a blessing, and began reading. The king would first read from various chapters in Deuteronomy. All the passages read dealt with the topics of allegiance to God and the concept of reward and punishment. The king would then close the Torah scroll, recite a closing prayer, and seven blessings. This ceremony is known as hakhel and is the second to last mitzvah commanded in the Torah.
This mitzvah seem a little peculiar. The Kli Yakar, a classic 16th century commentator, asks about the significance of the requirement to gather specifically on the first of the intermediate days of Sukkot and only at the beginning of the seven year cycle. He answers that throughout the year there are many sins which individuals commit. On Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur the individual repents and seeks forgiveness from G-d. Through this penitence, he makes peace with his conscience, G-d, and his fellow man. However, there are a large number of sins that a nation commits as a whole, such as economic exploitation of the poor by the wealthy. This by no means should pass unnoticed. In such cases, the entire nation must resolve the issue publicly so it can mend its ways. The resolution of such an issue can only be effective if the whole nation is present.
The gathering is specifically held in the first year, after the last sabbatical cycle has been completed because it is a time when, once again, they start pursuing financial endeavors. This increased pursuit in financial aspects will undoubtedly lead to strife between the rich and poor. This mitzvah is especially significant on a day when the lulav, etrog, aravot, and hadassim are taken because the four species represent unity. Though the need for this gathering is unfortunate, it is much needed.
The Sefer HaChinuch, a classic 13th century work explaining the mitzvot, is of the opinion that this gathering is not unfortunate at all, and takes a much simpler approach. He explains that the Torah is the crowning glory for a Jew. When there is a huge gathering it is Man's natural tendency to inquire as to the reason for the gathering. The answer in this case is obviously to hear the Torah reading. Due to this "herd theory" people will take a personal interest in this mitzvah because of its unique setting. The unique setting provides a conduit for the unlettered Jew to get involved in the mitzvah. It is with this type of curiosity and enthusiasm that we should strive to fulfill all of G-d's commandments.
Joey Wagner, an alumnus of Yeshiva Atlanta, is studying at Yeshivat Kerem B'Yavneh in Israel.
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