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Peninei Halakha > Sukkot > 08 – Hak’hel

08 – Hak’hel

01. The Mitzva of Hak’hel

It is a positive mitzva to assemble all of Israel – men, women, and children – on Sukkot at the end of each Shemita year, during their pilgrimage to the Temple. Sections of the Torah that encourage faith, reverence, Torah study, and mitzva observance are then read to them, as it is written:

And Moses instructed them as follows: Every seventh year, at the time of the Shemita year, at the Festival of Sukkot, when all Israel comes to appear before the Lord your God in the place that He will choose, you shall read this Torah aloud in the presence of all Israel. Assemble (Hak’hel) the people – men, women, children, and the strangers in your communities – that they may hear and so learn to revere the Lord your God and to observe faithfully every word of this Torah. Their children, too, who have not had the experience, shall hear and learn to revere the Lord your God as long as they live, in the land that you are about to cross the Jordan to possess. (Devarim 31:10-13)

The purpose of this assembly, which took place once in seven years, was to raise the honor of the Torah and its commandments. There was no grander, more impressive event than this, in which all of Israel participated – young and old, men and women, and most esteemed of all, the king, who would read from the Torah to the people. This spurred everyone to ask: What is the point of this large assembly? The answer was self-evident: “To hear the words of Torah, which is our foundation, our glory, and our grandeur. This would lead them to speak its great praises and its esteemed glory. They would all be implanted with desire for it, and from this desire they would learn to know God, earn the ultimate goodness, and God would be pleased with their actions” (Sefer Ha-ḥinukh §612).

Every participant benefited greatly from Hak’hel. Those able to study Torah in depth were inspired to increase their study. Those able to listen and understand were inspired to listen avidly to the Torah’s words and to live by them. Children who were old enough to understand listened to the words, and the sanctity of the occasion inspired and encouraged them to study Torah and keep mitzvot. As for those children who were too young to understand, their souls absorbed the tremendous value and incomparable importance of Torah, when they saw that everyone was gathering together to hear it. Their parents were inspired too, recognizing the monumental mission incumbent upon them: to educate their children to Torah and mitzvot (Ramban on Devarim 31:12-13; Maharal, Gur Aryeh, ad loc.; see Harḥavot).

All were obligated in this mitzva, from converts who did not yet understand Hebrew to great sages who knew the entire Torah, for Hak’hel is a reflection of the revelation at Mount Sinai; the entire people must imagine and feel that they are now accepting the Torah directly from God. (See MT, Laws of Pilgrimage Offerings 3:6.)

The Sages ordained that the king read from the Torah to further dignify the event. However, even when there is no king, the king’s voice is weak, or he is a minor, the mitzva is not abrogated. Rather, a very prominent person does the reading – a prince, Kohen Gadol, or great Torah sage. (See: Tiferet Yisrael on Sota 7:8; Minḥat Ḥinukh §612; Ha’amek Davar on Devarim 31:11; R. Eliyahu David Rabinowitz-Teomim (Aderet), Zekher Le-Mikdash ch. 1.)

02. The Reading

Hak’hel must be read in the holy tongue, the Hebrew of Scripture, as the verse states, “You shall read this Torah aloud” (Devarim 31:11) – as it is written. Those who do not understand the holy tongue are still required to listen, just as when the Torah was given on Sinai (Sota 32a; MT, op. cit. 3:5-6).

All the readings were from the book of Devarim. The first section was from the beginning of Devarim until the end of the Shema paragraph (1:1-6:9). These chapters describe the preparations for entering Eretz Yisrael, the sin of the spies and its consequences, the conquest of the east bank of the Jordan River, and Moshe’s supplications to enter the land. This is followed by a lengthy section about the revelation at Sinai and the prohibition of idol worship, and an admonition to future generations to keep Torah and mitzvot and teach them to their children. As a reward, they will endure in the land. The first selection concludes with Shema (ibid. 6:4-9), which expresses the foundation of faith and includes the commandment to love God.

The second selection was the paragraph of “Ve-haya im shamo’a” (11:13-21), which speaks of reward and punishment for keeping the mitzvot. The third and fourth sections had to do with tithing: “Aser te’aser” (14:22-27) and “Ki tekhaleh le’aser” (26:12-15). The fifth section was about the king and his commandments (17:14-20). Finally, the sixth and final section was the blessings and curses (ch. 28), detailing the reward for Israel if they keep Torah and mitzvot, and the punishment if they do not (Sota 41a).

According to Rambam, everything from the section on tithes to the end of the curses was read straight through (14:22-28:69). This lengthy reading includes many mitzvot; 138 mitzvot appear here for the first time (§473-611 in Sefer Ha-ḥinukh), as do many more mitzvot that were mentioned earlier in the Torah. These include many interpersonal mitzvot, including tithing, charity, returning lost objects, appointing judges, rules of justice, and the prohibition upon charging interest. Other mitzvot relate to kings and war, prophecy and priesthood, and marriage, as well as many prohibitions connected to idolatry and magic.[1]

[1]. MT, Laws of Pilgrimage Offerings 3:3, based on y. Sota 7:8 and Rambam’s version of the mishna. The first opinion cited above is based on the text of the mishna as it appears in Sota 41a. According to this version, “Ki tekhaleh le’aser” was read before the section on the king, even though in the Torah it appears later, to keep the two sections on tithes together. Rashi has a third version of the mishna, according to which the blessings and curses were read after “Ki tekhaleh le’aser,” and the section about the king was read at the end.

03. The Timing of the Mitzva and Those Obligated in It

Hak’hel took place on Sukkot right after the Shemita year: “Every seventh year, at the time of the Shemita year, at the Festival of Sukkot, when all Israel comes to appear before the Lord your God” (Devarim 31:10-11). Based on the phrase “when all Israel comes,” the Sages extrapolate that the verse refers to the beginning of the festival, as that was when everyone came to Jerusalem (Sota 41a). However, the Sages did not want to hold the assembly on the first day of the festival, because that day is Yom Tov, and it would be forbidden to erect the platform on which the king stood. Putting it up before the festival was not a good option either, because that would have led to crowding in the Temple courtyard when everyone came to offer sacrifices. Therefore, Hak’hel was postponed until right after the first Yom Tov (Rashi). Alternatively, it can be derived from the verse’s use of the word “ba-mo’ed” (translated above “at the time”), which can be understood to mean “in the festival,” that Hak’hel took place in the middle of the festival, not at the very beginning (Tosafot).

Some say that Hak’hel took place at night, right after the first Yom Tov (Tiferet Yisrael). Others maintain that it took place the next day, on the first day of Ḥol Ha-mo’ed (Aderet).

The Hak’hel assembly put the stamp of sanctity on the concluding Shemita cycle. The gathering of the entire nation then to hear the Torah conveyed a powerful message: everything connected to Torah has eternal value, while everything else is eventually lost and forgotten. This message strengthened and enlightened Israel to continue following the Torah’s ways for the next seven-year cycle.

Since Hak’hel took place on a pilgrimage festival, the Sages derived from a gezera shava that men who are exempt from making the pilgrimage and offering the festival sacrifices (Peninei Halakha: Mo’adim 1:15) are also exempt from Hak’hel. Therefore, the deaf, mute, blind, lame, and tamei are exempt from Hak’hel, as are slaves. Elderly and sick men unable to walk from Jerusalem to the Temple Mount are exempt as well. However, women are obligated in Hak’hel even though they are not obligated to make the pilgrimage.

Parents are obligated to bring a minor with a disability to Hak’hel, just as they were obligated to bring the rest of their children. This was true even if the disability would exempt the child from the obligation to undertake the pilgrimage himself as an adult (Minḥat Ḥinukh 612:4). The uncircumcised are also obligated in Hak’hel (MT, Laws of Pilgrimage Offerings 3:2).

Even if someone could not hear the king read – whether because he was forced to stand very far away due to the crowds or because he was hard of hearing – he was still expected to focus his attention on the reading. Rambam elaborates: “It was established by Scripture only to strengthen the true religion. One is meant to see himself as if he is being commanded directly by God, right now. The king is a messenger, conveying the words of God” (MT, op. cit. 3:6 as interpreted by Leḥem Mishneh ad loc.).

04. The Proceedings

In preparation for the assembly, the kohanim walked through Jerusalem blowing trumpets to gather everyone to the Temple Mount. A large wooden platform was erected in the middle of the women’s courtyard. The king ascended and sat there so that everyone could hear and see him as he read (MT, op. cit. 3:4). If he wanted to honor the Torah by standing up during the reading, this was deemed praiseworthy. (See Tosafot on Sota 41a, s.v. “mitzva.”)[2]

To honor the Torah and the king, the people assembled would pass the Torah scroll from person to person until it reached the king. The attendant of the synagogue on the Temple Mount took the scroll and gave it to the head of the synagogue, who passed it to the Deputy Kohen Gadol, who gave it to the Kohen Gadol, who passed it to the king. The king accepted the Torah scroll while standing (Sota 41a; MT, op. cit. 3:4).

Before and after the reading, the king recited the berakhot that are normally said at the beginning and end of an aliya. Afterward, he added seven more berakhot: 1) Retzei (Birkat Ha-avoda, from the regular Amida); 2) Modim (Birkat Ha-hoda’a, also from the regular Amida); 3) Ata Veḥartanu (the fourth berakha of the Yom Tov Amida); 4) a prayer for the Temple to endure, concluding with “Barukh ata Hashem, ha-shokhen be-Tziyon” (“Blessed are You, Lord, Who dwells in Zion”); 5) a prayer for the monarchy of Israel to endure, concluding with “Barukh ata Hashem, ha-boḥer be-Yisrael” (“Blessed are You, Lord, Who chooses Israel”); 6) a prayer for the service of the kohanim to find favor with God, concluding with “Barukh ata Hashem, mekadesh ha-kohanim” (“Blessed are You, Lord, Who sanctifies the kohanim”); 7) an extensive, unscripted prayer, concluding with “Hosha Hashem et amkha Yisrael, she-amkha tzerikhin lehivashe’a” (“Lord, save Your people, Israel, for your people needs salvation”), followed by “Barukh ata Hashem, shome’a tefilla” (“Blessed are You, Lord, Who listens to prayer”) (Sota 41a; MT, op. cit. 3:4).

[2]. According to the Gemara, the event took place in the women’s courtyard (Sota 41a). The Tosefta (t. Sota 7:8) also records the view of R. Eliezer b. Yaakov that it took place on the Temple Mount. Rambam writes that Hak’hel took place in the women’s courtyard (MT, op. cit. 3:4). This would seem to be problematic, since the women’s courtyard was too small for the entire nation to assemble there. R. Yisrael Ariel writes that the women’s courtyard could hold, at most, 10,000 people. This leads him to conclude that generally there was not a very big crowd, and the mitzva could be fulfilled in the women’s courtyard. But when the crowds were larger, Hak’hel was held on the Temple Mount, in accordance with the view of R. Eliezer ben Yaakov (Maḥzor Ha-Mikdash, Sukkot volume).

This leads to another question: How could all the people assembled hear the king without a microphone? Perhaps in the women’s courtyard, which was closed off, 10,000 people could hear the king if his voice was strong. But if there were more than that, they would not have been able to hear him for such a long reading. Evidently, it was not necessary for everyone to hear him. This idea is supported by the requirement for the hard of hearing to attend (Leḥem Mishneh on MT, Ḥagiga 3:6). Even though they would not have been able to hear, they were expected to be there and imagine that God was issuing these commands at that moment. If this is correct, we may conclude that the halakha follows the opinion of the Sages (and Rambam) that the event took place in the women’s courtyard. Ten thousand people were there, and the rest of the nation stood on the Temple Mount. Even though an individual might not hear, he still completely fulfilled the mitzva. Alternatively, according to Tosafot (Ḥagiga 3a s.v. “af”), the mitzva does require each and every person to hear, which leaves open the question of how the masses could fulfill the mitzva. In any case, people in the future Temple will certainly fulfill the obligation, because the king will be able to use a microphone. See Peninei Halakha: Berakhot 12:9 n. 8.

05. Commemorating Hak’hel

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.[3]

[3]. See R. Yehuda Zoldan’s article “Le-toldot ‘Zekher La-Hak’hel’” in the collection Sefer Hak’hel (pp. 653-678). Some Ḥaredi rabbis were opposed to a Hak’hel commemoration. Their reasoning was similar to the reason for their opposition to settling Eretz Yisrael and establishing the State of Israel – fear of breaking with tradition – which was popularly expressed in the proverb, “Anything new is prohibited by the Torah.” Since their position does not have a strong halakhic basis, most of the great rabbis dismissed it. See R. Yehuda Amichai’s article “Takanot Zekher La-Mikdash” in that collection (pp. 606-617), where he puts forth the thesis that anywhere the Temple can be commemorated, it should be done, as long as there will not be negative halakhic consequences.

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.

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