In recent times, the great of rabbis have encouraged the Jews of Eretz Yisrael to hold a commemoration of this precious mitzva, to honor the Torah and commemorate the Temple. We have learned that the Sages enacted several ordinances to commemorate Temple practices. They derived the impetus for these commemorations from a verse: “But I will bring healing to you and cure you of your wounds, declares the Lord. Though they called you ‘Outcast, that Zion whom no one seeks out’” (Yirmiyahu 30:17). The Gemara elaborates: “whom no one seeks out” implies that we should seek Zion and remember it. Doing so will help it heal (Rosh Ha-shana 30a).
All agree that there is no way to fulfill the mitzva of Hak’hel nowadays, because it is linked to the mitzva of making a pilgrimage to the Temple for the festival, as it is written: “At the Festival of Sukkot, when all Israel comes to appear before the Lord your God in the place that He will choose” (Devarim 31:10-11). As long as the Temple is in ruins and it is impossible to offer the festival sacrifices, the mitzva of making the pilgrimage does not apply (Peninei Halakha: Mo’adim 1:16). The Sages derived this from a gezera shava, as the Torah speaks of “appearing” in the context of both mitzvot (Ḥagiga 3a). Rambam codifies this succinctly: “All who are exempt from the pilgrimage are exempt from Hak’hel, except for women and children…” (MT, op. cit. 3:2).
Nevertheless, the greatest of rabbis considered it important to make a nationwide commemoration of Hak’hel, especially in our generation, as the Jewish people continue to gather in its land. The first person to put forth this idea was R. Eliyahu David Rabinowitz-Teomim, “the Aderet,” who composed a booklet called Zekher Le-Mikdash and then moved to Jerusalem at the end of his life to serve as its chief rabbi. His son-in-law, our master Rav Kook, supported the idea as well, but neither of them lived to see it happen.
Other rabbis who were in favor of a Hak’hel commemoration included R. Yeḥiel Michel Tikochinsky (Ir Ha-kodesh Ve-hamikdash 4:15) and two chief rabbis of Israel – R. Yitzḥak Ha-Levi Herzog and R. Ben-Zion Uziel – as well as R. Yaakov Moshe Charlap and R. Zvi Yehuda Kook. Two rabbis who worked hard to turn it into a reality were R. Shlomo David Kahana, who served for decades as the head of the Warsaw beit din and later as Chief Rabbi of the Old City of Jerusalem, and his son, R. Dr. Shmuel Zanvil Kahana, who served for two decades as the Director General of Israel’s Ministry for Religious Services. It was during his tenure there he organized the Hak’hel commemoration.
In 1945, after the Holocaust and before the founding of the State of Israel, the initiative of these rabbis came to fruition, and the first Hak’hel commemoration took place, with the participation of the chief rabbis and other leading rabbis. It was organized by the cultural division of Hapoel Hamizrachi, a political party of Religious Zionist workers.
Every seven years since then, at the end of every Shemita, there has been a Hak’hel commemoration. The one exception was in 1973, at the height of the Yom Kippur War, when the men had been called up to fight and risk their lives to protect the land and its people.
In 1987 there was an especially impressive Hak’hel commemoration, led by Chief Rabbis R. Avraham Shapira and R. Mordechai Eliyahu. Tens of thousands gathered at the Kotel and the porches overlooking it. The Western Wall Plaza was filled to capacity, and the crowds overflowed into the alleyways. The event was broadcast live on TV. The President of Israel, Chaim Herzog, participated in the reading, along with the chief rabbis. Many of the country’s luminaries participated in the ceremony, including the Prime Minister, many other ministers, and the President of the Supreme Court. Ever since then, at the end of each Shemita on the first day of Ḥol Ha-mo’ed, a Hak’hel commemoration takes place at the Kotel, drawing huge crowds and bringing great honor to God and His Torah.
Should a berakha be recited on a commemoration of the Temple? If a mitzva still applies after the Temple’s destruction (such as the lulav, where there is a mitzva everywhere to take it on the first day, even without the Temple), and the Sages expanded its scope as a commemoration of the Temple (ordaining that the lulav be taken everywhere during the rest of the festival as well), a berakha is recited on the commemoration. In contrast, if there is no mitzva remaining after the destruction, then its commemoration is performed without a berakha (as would seem to be the case with the mitzva of Hak’hel, which applies only when the Temple stands). Nevertheless, R. Herzog, in his article “Hatza’ot Le-ma’amad Zekher Le-Hak’hel 5713” tentatively presents a halakhic justification for the Torah reader at the Hak’hel commemoration to recite the berakhot that are normally said before and after an aliya (p. 620 in that collection). R. Ovadia Yosef gives his support to the custom of commemorating Hak’hel but says not to recite berakhot (Yabi’a Omer, YD 10:22). This was also the position of the other chief rabbis.