Hakhel Isn’t Just a Conference

Article by Rabbi Nochum Zajac: While Jews coming together to help each other is always a good thing, Hakhel refers specifically to Jews uniting to increase Yiddishkeit and dedication to Hashem.

By Rabbi Nochum Zajac – Chabad Scholar and Historian

Hakhel: Its Essence and Its Purpose

The corner has turned and a new year has begun; there is a special distinct aura in the air. This year is different; it is a Hakhel year.

As we walk down the streets and scroll through web pages, we are made aware constantly of Hakhel and encouraged to take part in Hakhel gatherings.

However, not always is it clear what Hakhel is, and what it is all about. We may be told how important it is to the Rebbe, however, much less clarity is parceled out to clarify as to what Hakhel is and what it is all about.

There are many causes that were held very dearly by the Rebbe and are clear-cut as to what they mean. Mivtza Lulav means to share the Mitzva of Lulav with other people who have, as of yet, not had the merit to engage in this Mitzva. So too regarding all the other Mivtzoim of the Rebbe (Tefillin, Matzo, etc.).

However, with Hakhel, it is not so clear what it’s all about. One might even get a misconception that it may mean something that is not intrinsically defined by the idea of Hakhel. To be sure, if one were to ask around or google the word Hakhel, one is assured to come up with a plethora of info, as to all the relevant ideas and details.

I would therefore like to present some sources on what “Hakhel” is all about.

Hakhel in its original form

In times of yore, when the Beis Hamikdash stood (may it speedily be rebuilt), the entire nation assembled, a platform was erected, and the king in his entire glory would read aloud from the Sefer Torah, passages that would bring about fear of Hashem. It was a momentous occasion, that would be instilled in them, and affect them for the duration of the next 7 years.

The Sefer Hachinuch explains the idea behind this event as follows (free translation):

“The entire essence of the Jewish people is the Torah, and with it, they are distinguished from all nations and peoples, to merit the eternal life, an everlasting pleasure, of which there is nothing greater than it in the creations.

“Therefore, since their whole essence is the Torah, it is fitting that all shall gather together periodically to hear its words, and for the voice to go out among the entire nation, men, women, and children saying, “What is this great gathering that all are assembled together?” And the answer will be, “To hear the words of the Torah, which is our whole essence, glory, and beauty”.

“The result of this shall be, the recounting of its great praise and its valued glory, and fermentation of a desire towards it, in every heart. And the nation that desires it, will learn to know Hashem and will merit good, and Hashem will be happy in their deeds, and as is written in the possuk regarding this Mitzvah, “And in order that you will learn and fear Hashem.'”

Of much import are the following words of the Rambam (which the Rebbe quotes quite often):

“It is a positive commandment to gather together the entire Jewish people – men, women, and children – after every Shemittahl year when they ascend for the pilgrimage holiday and to read so that they hear passages from the Torah that encourage them to perform mitzvos and strengthen them in the true faith, as Devorim (31:10-12) states:

“‘At the end of a seven-year period, at the time of the Shemitta year on the Sukkos holiday when all Israel come to appear… gather the nation, the men, the women, the children, and your stranger in your gates….’

“Converts who do not understand are obligated to concentrate their attention and direct their hearing, listening with reverence and awe and joyful trepidation 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.”

From here, one can glean a few ideas as to what Hakhel is about.

To mention a few:

  1. The whole idea and very definition of Hakhel and its establishment starts and ends with the “encouragement to keep the mitzvos”, “strengthening of the true faith” and nothing more.
  2. While to be sure it was a joyous occasion, nevertheless, concentration to the words of G-D was paramount, and the whole occasion was defined by “reverence and awe” (in a somewhat paradoxical fashion of “joyful trepidation”).
  3. The occasion was considered as a divine revelation directly from Hashem. This was an occasion reminiscent of the historic moment when our nation stood at Har Sinai.

Hakhel as Presented by the Rebbe

In our times, there is much discussion as to how and to what level our obligation is in regards to this exalted mitzva.

However, for our purposes, we shall stick to the idea as put forth by the Rebbe.

The Rebbe repeatedly encouraged all Jews to utilize this auspicious time to assemble – men, women, and children – and encourage each other to increase in Torah observance and study, and to foster an environment of fear of Hashem.

The possuk the Rebbe quotes every time when speaking about Hakhel defines quite clearly the purpose of such gatherings (Devorim 31:12):

הַקְהֵל אֶת-הָעָם, הָאֲנָשִׁים וְהַנָּשִׁים וְהַטַּף, וְגֵרְךָ, אֲשֶׁר בִּשְׁעָרֶיךָ–לְמַעַן יִשְׁמְעוּ וּלְמַעַן יִלְמְדוּ, וְיָרְאוּ אֶת-יְהוָה אֱלֹהֵיכֶם, וְשָׁמְרוּ לַעֲשׂוֹת, אֶת-כָּל-דִּבְרֵי הַתּוֹרָה הַזֹּאת.

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

It would be a misnomer to state that the primary purpose of Hakhel is to inspire the Jews in Torah and Mitzvos, for it would then follow, that there is a secondary purpose also.

The one and only, clearly defined purpose of Hakhel gatherings is to inspire, imbue and inculcate Yiras Shomayim. This is what the Rebbe presented, as being the sole idea behind the Mitzvah of Hakhel.

In addition, strengthening the dedication to Hashem, is not just the purpose of the mitzvah. Rather the Rebbe explains that it is the very act of the mitzvah.

Hakhel in practical terms

I would like to present a few points (though by no means exhaustive) the Rebbe sets forth about Hakhel:

(1) Although the Rebbe requests that one treat the entire year as a Hakhel year, he places a particular emphasis in regards to Hakhel in conjunction with the time of Tishrei. The month of Tishrei is one that brings about a heightened sense of G-dliness and holiness, which is the very essence of Hakhel.

“The significance and instruction of the Mitzvah of Hakhel for each and every one of us is, that it calls upon us to avail ourselves of the opportune awe-inspiring days of Tishrei, to gather our fellow-Jews — men, women, and children, including the very little ones — into the hallowed places of prayer and Torah, in an atmosphere of holiness and devoutness; and gather them for the purpose which was the very essence of the Mitzvah of Hakhel, as stated in the Torah: In order that they should listen and should learn, and should fear G‑d, your G‑d, and observe to do all the words of the Torah (Devorim 31:12).”

(2) The Rebbe does, however, speak about the specialty of a Hakhel gathering which is assembled on a plain Wednesday.

The reason put forth is, when the gathering takes place in the month of Tishrei, it is possible for the person’s heightened sense of that month to bring forth certain spiritual feelings, and it is those feelings that pull him forward in regard to Hakhel as well. However, his regular day-to-day senses have not been touched

However, when the Hakhel event takes place on a plain Wednesday, it has the capability to affect and transform his mundane senses as well.

(3) Any person who is in a position of any sort of influence should try to affect others in this regard.

“Particularly it is the duty of everyone who is a “king”, a leader, in his circle — the spiritual leader in his congregation, the teacher in his classroom, the father in his family — to raise the voice of the Torah and Mitzvos, forcefully and earnestly, so that it produces a profound impression and an abiding in­fluence in the audience.”

(4) The year of Hakhel is a time for every Jew to take stock of his current personal spiritual standing.

“This year, at the conclusion of the Hakhel-Year, every Jew must undertake a special “stock-taking” in the spirit of Hakhel, with a firm resolve to:

Change those thoughts, words, and deeds in daily life which require a change;

Repair and improve those which require more perfection…

“To the extent of realizing the full revelation of G‑dliness in the personal life, in the environment, and in the world at large —

“In accord with our prayer: “O, extend Thy reign upon all the world, that [every creature] know… understand… and declare: G‑d, the G‑d of Israel, is King, and His Kingship rules over all!””

(5) One should take stock in regard to the purity and holiness in the Jewish homes and schools.

“Similarly, when the days of Hakhel come around (once in seven years), every one of us, including the very small children, must become deeply mindful that our homes and every Jewish home, also the Jewish school that houses the children (and their classmates), should be pure and holy, like being in the Bais HaMikdosh”

(6) When done in a unified manner, it has a much more potent effect.

“The significance of the term one Kohol, which characterizes this assemblage, is that in addition to having the quality of an assembly of a number of distinct and different individuals who are assembled together for a certain purpose, in order to achieve a certain goal with concerted efforts, which makes it possible to accomplish a great deal more than could be accomplished by all of them acting independently—

“As we see from experience that a person can lift and carry a much larger load when another person helps him lift it.

“There comes into being an essentially new entity, a “Kohol,” which can accomplish things that could not be done by the individuals, as individuals…

“So it is in connection with Hakhel: It had to be carried out “When all Israel come . . . (then) read this Torah before all Israel . . . (in a manner of) hakhel—assemble the people, the men, and the women, and the children”:—which made them all into one Kohol, and they listened to the Torah “as . . . if they heard it from G‑d,” “as on the day when it was given at Sinai,” when “Israel encamped there facing the mountain—Like one person, with one heart”.”

(7) Hakhel has to be on a level, where it evokes a powerful feeling that Hashem, in His full glory, is revealing Himself and talking to him.

“One of the reasons why the mitzvah of Hakhel has been reserved for this particular time is the following: Inasmuch as the year of Shemittah is a “Shabbos unto G‑d,” when the time that was released from work in the field and orchard (the principal occupation in those days) was dedicated to increased Torah study, and to prayer and Mitzvos, in the fullest measure, it was the proper and fitting preparation to make their pilgrimage, all as one nation, and to make the people most receptive to the Torah reading, “as if they heard it from G‑d,” so that it evoked in them a profound soulful experience, as when the Torah was given at Sinai;”

(8) Hakhel must permeate and vitalize the person, to the effect that shall change him into a different type of individual, a Torah and Mitzvos being.

“The Torah was given to us in order that it permeates and vitalizes each and every Jew without exception — man, woman, child, and ger — so thoroughly, and to such an extent and degree, that one’s entire being, in all its aspects, senses and feel­ings, will become a Torah and Mitzvoth being.

And in order to attain this end, most deeply and fully, the Torah was read on that occasion by the King, whose awe-inspiring quality filled the audience with an overwhelming sense of tremor and subservience, to the extent of complete self-effacement.”

(9) Hakhel must be a most transformative experience, which shall affect and be reflected in one’s day–to–day life. It must be so powerful as to have an enduring resonation in all of the following seven years.

“And the impression was so deeply engraved upon their hearts and minds that it was subsequently reflected in the everyday life throughout all the years ahead.”

“…To be felt not only through the month of Tishrei, nor merely throughout the year, but throughout the seven years from the present Hakhel to the next; an influence that should be translated in the daily life, into conduct governed by the Torah and Mitzvos, with fear of Heaven, and, at the same time, with gladness of heart.”

(10) Hakhel is a time, with which to concern oneself with the education of the youth. It is a time, to build, maintain and grow Torah-true educational institutions. In addition, it is a proper time to gather and bring in as many children as possible in those institutions.

“Therefore, let every Jewish father and mother, every Rabbi and leader, every communal worker and person of influence, heed the call of the Mitzvah of Hakhel: to gather the masses of Jewish children and bring them to the Yeshivos, Talmud Torahs, and Torah – true educational institutions; to increase the Torah-Tzedaka, the support of true Torah institutions and ensure their existence and growth, in order that all Jewish children boys and girl, be brought up in the spirit of piety and love for G‑d, love for the Torah and Mitzvoth, love for one another.”

(11) In addition, Hakhel is a time, in which to give oneself over in the education of others who are educationally on a lower rung in matters pertaining to Yiddishkeit. This shall be done in a way that imbues them with a fear of G-d and propels them in the observance of the holy Torah. This impact has to be in a way, in which it is felt as if it is heard from Hashem himself.

“It is also obvious how strongly the Mitzvah of Hakhel emphasizes the Torah education of our children. It follows that also those who are grown in years but still “children” in Yiddishkeit; all those “who know not,” who, for one reason or another, did not get the proper Jewish education; and even those who belong to the category of “one who knows not to ask,” namely, those who do not know, and do not feel, that they miss something and should ask and seek help—these also must be assembled to let them hear and learn what Torah is, what a Mitzvah is, in a manner of learning that would imbue them with fear of G‑d, and, most importantly, that they should “observe and do all the words of this Torah,” the Torah from Sinai that shall never be changed — all of the above with such impact, “as if they heard it from G‑d Himself.””

(12) One should inculcate himself with the belief that there is the king, Hashem, who rules and directs our daily lives and activities.

“…And that in every Jew, young and old, there is a “king” that rules and directs his daily activities, this being our Emunah (belief) in G‑d, with which we begin our everyday life, as all of us, including the tiny tots, say immediately upon rising in the morning: Modeh ani—“I give thanks to You, living and eternal King.” We must listen attentively, with obedience and devotion, to this “king” in us, in order to make sure that everything we do is in keeping with what is written in His Torah.”

(13) Hakhel should only be done in a permitted fashion.

(14) Accomplishing the purpose of Hakhel, namely the inspiration to serve Hashem, speeds the coming of Moshiach.

To conclude with the Rebbe’s words:

“In the merit of this, the Almighty will favor us and enable us very soon to fulfill the Mitzvah of Hakhel in the Beis Hamikdash in Yerushalayim, rebuilt by Moshiach Tzidkeinu, Amen.”

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