The Torah explains that the people – all genders and all ages – would gather together every seven years to listen to the Torah being read publicly. This event, known as Hakhel, which means “gathering,” would take place during the week of the Festival of Sukkot and the leader of the people - usually the king - would recite specific passages.
Why is Hakhel during Sukkot?
Three times a year the Torah commands that people gather together - at Pesach in the early spring, at Shavuot in the early summer, and at Sukkot in the autumn - these are the three regalim, or pilgrimage festivals. The Torah instructs for Hakhel to happen during the festival of Sukkot:
What Happened at Hakhel?
The people would gather to have “this Torah” recited “in their ears.” As is often the case, there are different opinions among the commentators of what the Torah means when it says “this Torah.”
Does it literally mean that the entire Torah was read from the beginning to the end at once? Could it mean just the Book of Deuteronomy? Here’s what the rabbis in the Mishnah thought:
According to this opinion, “this Torah” referred to a very specific collection of texts chosen from throughout the Book of Deuteronomy.
Even though in the time of the Torah there were no monarchs for the Jewish people, the rabbis of the Mishnah understood that it was the responsibility of the king, or, in their absence, the upper echelon of leaders who were expected to recite the Torah at Hakhel.
The entire procedure is described in the Mishnah:
We can see that there was a public performance component to this ritual. The story about King Agrippa tells of a time when a foreign-born king showed humility and the Sages found his actions praiseworthy, also highlighting that this public event was truly for the entire Jewish people.
Why is Hakhel important?
The Torah does not specify *why* Hakhel happened. There are a few different reasons suggested by various voices over the years. One suggestion comes from the 13th century philosopher from Provence, Rabbi Levi ben Gershon, or the Ralbag, who teaches:
For the Ralbag, Hakhel is important because it presents an opportunity every seven years for the people to be inspired by the Torah and its central place in Jewish culture.
To learn more about different understandings for what Hakhel is trying to accomplish, check out this sheet.
What Does Shemitah have to do with Hakhel?
This event is also designated to occur during Shemitah - the sabbatical year of agricultural and economic remission when every seven years farmland was left fallow and debts were released. The Shemitah year occurs every seven years beginning at Rosh Hashanah and ending at the following Rosh Hashanah. Since Sukkot takes place after Rosh Hashanah, the rabbis in the Mishnah interpret this to mean the Sukkot after the Shemitah year concludes:
Were it not during or following a Shemitah year, the people would be busy preparing to plant grain to be harvested the following spring. However, having come out of a Shemitah year the people would not yet be engaged in such activities which allowed for more people to be present at Hakhel making it a true gathering of the people.