Parshat Nitzavim-Vayelech: Mitzvat Hakhel
One of the final mitzvot in the Torah is Hakhel, “The Gathering,” that was only observed once every seven years, when the Temple stood. Even though this mitzvah is not observed today, there is still much we can learn from it, as our sages taught in another context “delve in and expound and you will be rewarded.” What can we learn from this mitzvah we can no longer observe?
Before Moshe’s death the Torah relates his final actions. He bolsters Yehoshua, the new leader, before all of Israel. He writes the Torah and gives it to the Priests, the sons of Levi, who carry the Ark of the Lord, and to the elders of Israel. And he commands all of Israel – men, women, and children – to gather (Hakhel) once every seven years on the pilgrimage festival of Sukkot: “He shall read this Torah aloud before all of Israel.”
The reason for Hakhel
What is Hakhel supposed to accomplish?
The Torah clearly tells us, “so that they hear and so that they learn and they will revere (yira) the Lord your God and observe to do all the words of this Torah.” It seems there are several goals – listening and learning Torah is meant to lead to yirat Hashem (reverence or awe of God) and mitzvah observance.
We have seen the idea that Torah study leads to mitzvah observance earlier in this book; before Moshe related the story of Ma’amad Har Sinai and repeated the Ten Commandments, we read that: “Moshe called all of Israel and said to them, ‘Israel, hear the laws and statutes that I speak in your ears today, learn them and observe them to do them.” This verse very clearly connects study to action. After all, it’s difficult to observe mitzvot if you don’t know what they are.
The Book of Devarim also discussed developing yirat Hashem, in the context of eating ma’aser: “You shall eat the tithes of your grain and wine and oil and the first of your cattle and sheep before the Lord your God, in the place where [God] will choose to establish His name, so that you learn to revere the Lord your God all the days.”
The mitzvah of Hakhel seems to combine these two elements – learning the content of the Torah leads to observing mitzvot, the experience of gathering to hear the Torah in a chosen place leads to yirat Hashem.
Who reads what?
According to the mishna we do not read the whole Torah, or even the entire book of Devarim, but rather specific sections from the latter. The mishna describes Hakhel as “Parshat HaMelekh,” “the section of the king,” and lists the sections of Devarim the king reads: “From the beginning, ‘These are the devarim’ until ‘Shema,’ and ‘Shema,’ and ‘V’haya im shamo’a’ (the second paragraph of Kriyat Shema).” These are early sections of the book that deal with faith. He follows with two sections that deal with teruma and ma’aser (“aser t’aser,” “ki tikhleh l’aser”), “and the blessings and curses until he finishes the entire section.” Some versions insert “Parshat HaMelekh” which deals with the laws of the king before the blessings and curses.
Why was the king chosen to read? Rashi connects the language commanding the king to write “Mishneh Torah” in Parshat HaMelekh and the Hakhel reading from the book of Devarim, which is also called Mishneh Torah.
Some commentaries teach that the command “he shall read” refers to Yehoshua, since no one else is specified and he was mentioned in the previous section; Yehoshua bears some similarity to a king. Other commentaries learn from events described in Sefer Melakhim; King Yoshiyahu gathered “all the people, from young to old” to Jerusalem to read the Torah to them and renew the covenant with God. Even though it is not expressly mentioned in the Torah, these opinions maintain that the Torah mitzvah of Hakhel is that the king reads, and this detail was preserved – not innovated – by the sages. Yereim adds that Hakhel is actually two mitzvot – one for the people and one for the king.
According to other Rishonim it seems that the king is chosen as a default. The people need to gather, as Rambam describes “We are commanded to gather the entire people… and read some of the sections of the Mishneh Torah aloud.” The reader should be the greatest among them. This may be the reason Josephus thinks the Kohen Gadol would read, as opposed to the mishna that states the king read. As Rambam explains, “The king is the emissary to make the words of God heard.”
Renewing the giving of the Torah on Sinai or the covenant of Sinai
Hakhel can be approached in two different ways. One possibility is that it is a reenactment of Mount Sinai that occurs once every seven years. If it was done yearly it would diminish the power of the experience, which needs to be unique and leave a lasting impression. Rambam teaches that we read “sections that spur them to do mitzvot and strengthen them in the true religion… and converts that do not know have to prepare their hearts and bend their ears to hear with dread and reverence, joyously trembling as the day it was given on Sinai… because the king is the emissary to make the words of God heard.”
Since Hakhel is a reenactment of Mount Sinai, as Rambam explains, the king is merely a stand in for the voice of God. The Hakhel at Mount Sinai and the Hakhel reenactment at the Temple are linguistically similar; both aim to teach Torah and yirat Hashem to the entire people, including children. It’s possible that we finish the Torah on Sukkot (Shemini Atzeret/Simkhat Torah) as a way to preserve the memory of this idea. Similarly, the early custom in Israel split up the weekly Torah reading so it took over three years and was finished twice in the seven year shemitah cycle. While this does not commemorate the experience of Hakhel, it does preserve the content. Those who attend the “commemoration of Hakhel” at the Kotel once every seven years may be trying to add the experiential element as well.
Hakhel can also be understood as a renewing of the covenant between God, the leader, and Israel, as we see in the time of King Yoash: “Yehoyada forged the covenant between the Lord, the king, and the people – to be the people of the Lord, and between the king and the people.” It’s not only the people who forge this covenant, but the king as well. He is the mediator between God and the people, an integral part of this covenant – which revolves around the blessings and curses. When he writes the Torah for himself he is also responsible for passing it on. A similar story is related in the time of Yoshiyahu, when he gathers the people, reads the Torah, and renews the covenant with God. In this context we await leadership that can faithfully act as an intermediary, to truly connect us to God, so we may fulfill the mitzvah of Hakhel.
So it seems that there are two possible approaches to Hakhel. As a recreation of the Giving of the Torah on Mount Sinai, Hakhel serves as a reminder that our service of God is tied to the content that we learn and our spiritual experience. As a renewal of the covenant between the people, their leader, and God, Hakhel is a reminder of the collective destiny of our people and our commitment to serve God.
 Devarim 31:10-13
 Devarim 5:1
 Devarim 14:23
 Mishna Sota 7:8
 Patshat HaMelekh is at the end of Devarim 17.
There are several issues with the versions of this mishna. “Parshat HaMelekh” doesn’t appear in many of them. In contrast, in Rambam’s version it sounds like he reads from the sections on ma’aser until the end of the blessings and curses which contains most of the mitzvot in the covenant in the Book of Devarim. In this case it’s strange that chapters 12-14 are left out, as they also have many mitzvot that are related to this covenant.
 Melakhim II 23:1-2
 Hilkhot Chagiga 3:1-6
 See Prof. Shlomo Naeh, “Sidrei Kriyat HaTorah b’Eretz Yisrael: Iyun Michadash,” Tarbitz 67, 5758, pages 167-187.
 Melakhim II 11:17
 It’s possible that the dispute over reading “Parshat HaMelekh” as part of the select passages in Hakhel reflects these different approaches.