This year, 5776, follows a shmitta year, and it is the year of Hakhel. The mitzvah of Hakhel is described in last week’s parsha, Vayeilech. Every seven years, after the conclusion of a shmitta year, when the Jewish people come to the Beis Hamikdash for Sukkos, the leaders are commanded to assemble the whole nation – “men and women and children and your stranger within your gates” – in the Beis Hamikdash and read to them selected passages from the Torah, “so that they will hear, and so that they will learn and fear Hashem, your G-d, and keep and do all the words of this Torah” (Devarim 31:12).
The Rambam describes the procedure of the Hakhel ceremony. On the first day of Chol Hamoed Sukkos, trumpets would sound throughout Yerushalayim to gather the people. A special platform would be set up in the ezras Nashim, the women’s courtyard in the Beis Hamikdash. The king would sit on the platform. The rest of the nation would gather around him. The religious leaders of the people would take out the Torah scroll and pass it from one leader to the next, until the Kohen Gadol received the Torah scroll and passed it to the King.
The King would stand to accept the scroll, and then sit down, unroll it, recite the blessing before an aliyah to the Torah, and read from it to the assembled nation. He would read from the beginning of Sefer Devarim through the first paragraph of Shema (Devarim 1:1 – 6:9), then skip to the second paragraph of Shema (Devarim 11:13-22), then skip to the passage on tithing (Devarim 14:22) and read from there until the end of blessings and curses (Devarim 28:69). Then the king would roll up the scroll and recite the blessing recited after an aliya to the Torah, followed by seven more blessings.
All men, women, and children were obligated to attend Hakhel, unless they were ritually impure. They all had to hear the Torah reading, even if they did not understand the words, either because of a language barrier or because of young age. This was intended to create the same joy and trembling that accompanied the receiving the Torah for the first time at Har Sinai. “Even great sages who know the whole Torah are obligated to listen with great concentration,” writes the Rambam. “And one who cannot hear should direct his heart to the reading because the Torah established it in order to strengthen true faith and see oneself as if being commanded right now from Hashem’s mouth, because the king is an agent to make known the word of G-d.”
Since the destruction of the Beis Hamikdash the Jewish people haven’t been able to fulfill the biblical mitzvah of Hakhel, which does not apply when the majority of the Jewish people reside outside of Eretz Yisrael. However, in recent times the concept of Hakhel experienced a revival. Families and communities began to use the year following shmitta as an opportunity to get together and strengthen their connection to the Torah and to each other.
The idea was first proposed by Rabbi Eliyahu David Rabinowitz–Teomim, known as the Aderes, the assistant to the Ashkenazic Chief Rabbi in Eretz Yisrael in the beginning of the twentieth century and the father-in-law of Rav Kook. The first official Hakhel gathering in the twentieth century was conducted in Jerusalem in 1945 by Chief Rabbi Yitzchak Halevi Herzog. The Torah portions from Sefer Devarim were read at the Western Wall, the Kosel, in the presence of a large number of people. An eyewitness described it as an impressive gathering. In 1987, Rav Herzog’s grandson, President Chaim Herzog, read from the Torah at the Kosel at a Hakhel event, attended by many Israeli officials.
Since then, Hakhel events organized by the Israeli Rabbinate have been taking place every seven years. In 2008, President Moshe Katzav read from the Torah. This year, a Hakhel gathering is scheduled to take place at the Kosel on the second day of Chol Hamoed Sukkos. President Reuven Rivlin, together with the Ashkenazi and the Sefardi Chief Rabbis, will participate in the event. About 100, 000 people are expected to attend.
Another proponent of reviving Hakhel, even outside of Eretz Yisrael, was the Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneersohn. In 1952, he called upon parents and teachers to organize children’s gatherings at Torah institutions in order to increase their Torah learning and mitzvah observance. Since then, Chabad communities throughout the world hold Hakhel gatherings every seven years. These gatherings don’t necessarily take place on Sukkos. In fact, the Lubavitcher Rebbe encouraged conducting such events throughout the year of Hakhel.
This year, advances in technology took the Chabad Hakhel gathering to new heights. The gatherings took place all over the world at the same time, which was 10 a.m. local time on Sunday, September 20th. All the participants were connected to each other through live video hook up. In Los Angeles, these events took place at Moshe Ganz hall and at Chabad of SOLA. The video program included speakers from different cities and continents: New York, London, Sao Paulo, Brazil, Kfar Chabad in Israel, Johannesburg, Paris, and Buenos Aires.
Rabbi Menachem Glukowsky of Rechovot, Israel, spoke about the Lubavitcher Rebbe’s directive to light up the world by using every opportunity to unite the Jewish people and strengthen their Yiddishkeit. The program included a special video presentation for children.
Some local families use the Hakhel year as an opportunity to reconnect with extended family. Cindy Abrams of North Hollywood described the family gathering organized by her son in the previous Hakhel year. The extended family gathered together in Malibu over the Fourth of July weekend. They spent Shabbos at Chabad of Malibu. “We wound up all coming back to our home on the Sunday of that weekend and sharing stories and pictures of the family,” says Abrams. “[It was] wonderful and I think very nourishing for the younger generation. I would encourage anyone to make that a family minhag if they could.”