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Historical Hakhel Ceremonies and the Origin of Public Torah Reading

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Aaron Demsky

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Historical Hakhel Ceremonies and the Origin of Public Torah Reading

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Historical Hakhel Ceremonies and the Origin of Public Torah Reading

Deuteronomy’s mitzvah of publicly reading the Torah on Sukkot every seven years appears in various forms in stories about King Josiah, King Agrippa, and Ezra the Scribe. The latter’s innovative ceremony served as the model for what became synagogue Torah-reading. 

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Historical Hakhel Ceremonies and the Origin of Public Torah Reading

Ezra stands on a wooden tower near the water gate and reads the laws of Moses. Jan Luyken, after Bernard Picart, 1700 rijksmuseum.nl

Torah Reading Ceremony in Deuteronomy

In Deuteronomy 31, Moses charges the people to perform a public reading of the torah:[1]

The date: Sukkot, at the end of the shemitah (7th) year

דברים לא:י …מִקֵּץ שֶׁבַע שָׁנִים בְּמֹעֵד שְׁנַת הַשְּׁמִטָּה בְּחַג הַסֻּכּוֹת.
Deut 31:10 At the end of every seventh year, the year set for remission, at the Feast of Booths,

The place: God’s dwelling

לא:יא בְּבוֹא כָל יִשְׂרָאֵל לֵרָאוֹת אֶת פְּנֵי ה’ אֱלֹהֶיךָ בַּמָּקוֹם אֲשֶׁר יִבְחָר
31:11 when all Israel comes to appear before YHWH your God in the place that He will choose,

The command: Read the torah to all Israelites.

תִּקְרָא אֶת הַתּוֹרָה הַזֹּאת נֶגֶד כָּל יִשְׂרָאֵל בְּאָזְנֵיהֶם.
you shall read this Teaching aloud in the presence of all Israel.

Scholars generally understand the word torah here as a reference to Deuteronomy and not the entire Pentateuch. The Mishnah further limits the scope, claiming that the reading is from selected parts of Deuteronomy only (m. Sotah 7:8, Kaufmann MS):

וקורא
And he reads:
מתחלת אלה הדברים ועד שמע
From the beginning of Deuteronomy until Shema (1:1-6:3); 
שמע
Shema (6:4-9);
והיה אם שמוע
“It will be if you listen” (i.e., the second paragraph of Shema, 11:13-21);
עשר תעשר
“You shall surely tithe” (14:22-29);
כי תכלה לעשר
“When you complete your tithe” (26:12-29);[2]
וברכות וקללות ועד שהוא גומר את כולם.
The blessings and curses (28:1-69) until the entire passage is complete. 

General Audience

Having established the basic contours of the mitzvah (commandment), Deuteronomy expands on the details of who should be present and why:

Who: men, women, children, sojourners

לא:יב הַקְהֵל אֶת הָעָם הָאֲנָשִׁים וְהַנָּשִׁים וְהַטַּף וְגֵרְךָ אֲשֶׁר בִּשְׁעָרֶיךָ
31:12 Gather the people — men, women, children, and the strangers in your communities —

Why: so they learn to revere God and observe torah.

לְמַעַן יִשְׁמְעוּ וּלְמַעַן יִלְמְדוּ וְיָרְאוּ אֶת ה’ אֱלֹהֵיכֶם וְשָׁמְרוּ לַעֲשׂוֹת אֶת כָּל דִּבְרֵי הַתּוֹרָה הַזֹּאת.
that they may hear and so learn to revere YHWH your God and to observe faithfully every word of this Teaching.

The opening word of this verse, Hakhel “gather,” from the root ק.ה.ל meaning “congregation” or “gathering,” gives the commandment its name and reflects its outlook nicely. This reading was not meant for priests, scribes or other initiated literati alone, as we would have expected in antiquity, but rather for the widest possible audience, without regard to status, gender or age.[3] This fits with the public nature of the theophany at Horeb, which forms the basis of God’s covenant with Israel.

Deuteronomy reiterates the importance of reading to children:

Who: children who don’t know

לא:יג וּבְנֵיהֶם אֲשֶׁר לֹא יָדְעוּ יִשְׁמְעוּ
31:13 Their children, too, who have not had the experience, shall hear

Why: learn to revere God and thus survive on the land.

וְלָמְדוּ לְיִרְאָה אֶת ה’ אֱלֹהֵיכֶם כָּל הַיָּמִים אֲשֶׁר אַתֶּם חַיִּים עַל הָאֲדָמָה אֲשֶׁר אַתֶּם עֹבְרִים אֶת הַיַּרְדֵּן שָׁמָּה לְרִשְׁתָּהּ.
and learn to revere YHWH your God as long as they live in the land that you are about to cross the Jordan to possess.

In this ceremony, all Israelites must gather to hear the torah read aloud, even women and young children, making this passage the earliest instantiation in the Ancient Near East of the innovative idea of setting a specific time for inclusive religious public education.

Deuteronomy’s Covenant Ceremony and ANE Vassal Treaties

The Hakhel ceremony at the end of Deuteronomy, functions to renew the covenant between God and Israel. Since the 1950s, biblical scholarship has compared this covenantal idea and institution with the genre of political treaties and oaths from the 2nd and 1st millennia B.C.E. found throughout the Ancient Near East.[4]

Some of these treaties were between equals of political rank, others between suzerain and vassal, demanding loyalty to the overlord from the inferior party. The latter type, from the second and first millennia, have a number of key features, many of which overlap with Deuteronomy:

Historic Prologue – A list of the favors bestowed by the suzerain on the vassal, which was prevalent in the Second millennium Hittite treaties.[5]

Obligations – A list of political and military obligations imposed upon the vassal;

Divine Witnesses – A list of the gods of both cosignatories were called upon to witness the treaty.

Curses – Vassal treaties had varied curse formulae recited and sometime acted out in order to insure the vassal’s loyalty.

Oaths – The earlier treaties were solemnized by a sworn oath of allegiance by “the life of the gods”, i.e., niš ilī. Needless to say, parallels to these paragraphs have been found in the Torah, especially in the Book of Deuteronomy.[6] 

Treaty in a Box by the Deity – Of particular interest is the clause assuring the safe keeping of these vassal treaties placed in a box (‘aron), near the image of the deity.

Read Aloud before the King – The text was to be read aloud before the vassal king and his court at selected intervals that could range from every couple of months to several years. This recital of the text reiterated the vassal’s duties as well as the favors that the sovereign has benevolently granted him. See for example, the treaty between Muwattalli II of Hatti (ca.1300) and Alaksandu of Wilusa (Ilios//Troy):

Furthermore, this tablet which I have made for you. Aleksandu, shall be read out before you three times yearly, and you Aleksandu, shall know it.[7]

This last feature is particularly significant in our context, since it is likely that the public reading of the torah was envisioned along these same lines. In the Torah, however, the vassal treaty has been recast from a political document with local and limited time-bound import, which was frequently broken, into a sublime, divinely revealed text that has shaped Israel’s destiny and theology over the millennia.

Historical Hakhel ceremonies?

We do not know how this mitzvah was performed—or even if it was performed—in ancient times. Nevertheless, three Hakhel or Hakhel-like ceremonies are described as having occurred in ancient times.

Josiah’s “Hakhel

The book of Kings relates how while renovating the Temple during the reign of King Josiah, a lost scroll of the torah (some form of Deuteronomy?) was found (2 Kings 22:8). Upon reading the scroll, King Josiah initiated a massive religious reform. Part of this reform was a public reading of torah, highly reminiscent of the mitzvah of Hakhel in Deuteronomy:

מלכים ב כג:א וַיִּשְׁלַח הַמֶּלֶךְ וַיַּאַסְפוּ אֵלָיו כָּל זִקְנֵי יְהוּדָה וִירוּשָׁלָ‍ִם. כג:ב וַיַּעַל הַמֶּלֶךְ בֵּית ה’ וְכָל אִישׁ יְהוּדָה וְכָל יֹשְׁבֵי יְרוּשָׁלַ‍ִם אִתּוֹ וְהַכֹּהֲנִים וְהַנְּבִיאִים וְכָל הָעָם לְמִקָּטֹן וְעַד גָּדוֹל וַיִּקְרָא בְאָזְנֵיהֶם אֶת כָּל דִּבְרֵי סֵפֶר הַבְּרִית הַנִּמְצָא בְּבֵית ה’.
2 Kings 23:1 At the king’s summons, all the elders of Judah and Jerusalem assembled before him.23:2 The king went up to the House of YHWH, together with all the men of Judah and all the inhabitants of Jerusalem, and the priests and prophets — all the people, young and old.And he read to them the entire text of the covenant scroll which had been found in the House of YHWH.

The term used for the torah found in the Temple “the Scroll of the Covenant” (ספר הברית) underscores the Vassal Treaty-like feel of Deuteronomy (as noted above). The story continues with Josiah’s (re-)establishing the covenant with the people:

כג:ג וַיַּעֲמֹד הַמֶּלֶךְ עַל הָעַמּוּד וַיִּכְרֹת אֶת הַבְּרִית לִפְנֵי ה’ לָלֶכֶת אַחַר ה’ וְלִשְׁמֹר מִצְו‍ֹתָיו וְאֶת עֵדְו‍ֹתָיו וְאֶת חֻקֹּתָיו בְּכָל לֵב וּבְכָל נֶפֶשׁ לְהָקִים אֶת דִּבְרֵי הַבְּרִית הַזֹּאת הַכְּתֻבִים עַל הַסֵּפֶר הַזֶּה וַיַּעֲמֹד כָּל הָעָם בַּבְּרִית.
23:3 The king stood upon the platform and solemnized the covenant before YHWH: that they would follow YHWH and observe His commandments, His injunctions, and His laws with all their heart and soul; that they would fulfill all the terms of this covenant as inscribed upon the scroll. And all the people entered into the covenant.

The public reading to all the people, with the intention that they will understand how to observe the commandments, is very much in line with the passage in Deuteronomy. Nevertheless, the passage makes no explicit reference to the mitzvah of hakhel, nor does it imply that the reading took place on Sukkot, or on a shemitah year, the seventh year of remittance. The reading has the appearance of an impromptu, emergency measure, to ensure that the people would follow Josiah’s covenant-based reform. Note that the event takes place in Josiah’s 18th regnal year (2Kings 22:3; 2Chron 34:8), which is dated to 622-21 BCE.[8]

Agrippa’s “Hakhel

The Rabbis assume that the king must perform this mitzvah (m. Sotah7:8), though it seems likely that this was meant as an ideal and not a hard-and-fast rule.[9]  They even refer to the mitzvah as Parashat HaMelekh,“the portion of the king.”

פרשת המלך כיצד מוצאי יום טוב הראשון של חג בשמיני במוצאי שביעית עושין לו בימה של עץ בעזרה והוא יושב עליה שנאמר (דברים ל”א) מקץ שבע שנים במועד וגו’ חזן הכנסת נוטל ספר תורה ונותנה לראש הכנסת וראש הכנסת נותנה לסגן והסגן נותנה לכהן גדול וכהן גדול נותנה למלך והמלך עומד ומקבל וקורא יושב.
The portion read by the king: How so? At the conclusion of the first day of the [Sukkot] festival, in the eighth [year], at the end of the seventh year, they make him a wooden platform in the Temple court,[10] and he sits upon it, as it is said (Deut 31:10), “At the end of seven years, in the set time” etc. The minister of the assembly takes a Torah scroll and gives it to the head of the assembly, the head of the assembly passes it to the deputy, who gives it to the high priest, and the high priest passes it to the king and the king stands and receives it, but sits down to read it.

The Mishnah continues with an account of King Agrippa I (10 BCE – 44CE) performing the public reading (m. Sotah 7:8).[11]

אגריפס המלך עמד וקבל וקרא עומד ושבחוהו חכמים…
King Agrippa stood up, took [the Torah scroll] and read standing, and the Sages praised him….[12]

The Sages mention this story mostly to point out that it is praiseworthy—though unnecessary—for the king to stand during the recitation, and as an opening to discuss whether Agrippa, as a descendant of Herod  and thus from a family of converts, was an appropriate king. Even so, this passage is the only description of a public Torah reading by a king or leader in ancient times that is explicitly referred to as a Hakhel.

Ezra’s “Hakhel

The most elaborate Hakhel-like reading appears in the book of Nehemiah, and is significant not just as a possible example of this mitzvah, but because of its place in the history of public Torah reading, to this day a key feature of the Jewish prayer service.[13]

Ezra and Nehemiah

The Bible describes the careers of two great Jewish leaders arriving in Judea around the mid-fifth century B.C.E., during the Period of the Return (Shivat Zion). One of these leaders is Ezra the Scribe, who received a royal appointment as overseer of the Temple administration[14] and Jewish affairs throughout the Twentieth Satrap of Eber Nehar (Ezra 7:11-26). The text describes Ezra as dedicated to Torah study:

עזרא ז:י כִּי עֶזְרָא הֵכִין לְבָבוֹ לִדְרוֹשׁ אֶת תּוֹרַת ה’ וְלַעֲשֹׂת וּלְלַמֵּד בְּיִשְׂרָאֵל חֹק וּמִשְׁפָּט.
Ezra 7:10 For Ezra had dedicated himself to study the Teaching of YHWH so as to observe it, and to teach laws and rules to Israel.

The second leader was the governor of Judea, Nehemiah ben Hakaliah, whose administrative prowess as well as his indomitable personality allowed him to have great influence in shaping Judean society.

The Public Torah Reading

On the first of the seventh month, which according to my chronology came out in September, 443 BCE at the end of a sabbatical year,[15] throngs of people had congregated at the wide plaza at the eastern gate of the Temple compound[16] for the traditional sacrificial service of the New Year[17] that would be conducted by the priests and Levites. They request that Ezra bring out the Torah and read it to them.

נחמיה ז:עבוַיִּגַּע הַחֹדֶשׁ הַשְּׁבִיעִי וּבְנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל בְּעָרֵיהֶם. ח:אוַיֵּאָסְפוּ כָל הָעָם כְּאִישׁ אֶחָד אֶל הָרְחוֹב אֲשֶׁר לִפְנֵי שַׁעַר הַמָּיִם וַיֹּאמְרוּ לְעֶזְרָא הַסֹּפֵר לְהָבִיא אֶת סֵפֶר תּוֹרַת מֹשֶׁה אֲשֶׁר צִוָּה ה’ אֶת יִשְׂרָאֵל.
Neh 7:72 …When the seventh month arrived — the Israelites being settled in their towns — 8:1 the entire people assembled as one man in the square before the Water Gate, and they asked Ezra the scribe to bringthe scroll of the Teaching of Moses with which the LORD had charged Israel.

The date is the first of the seventh month as opposed to the holiday of Sukkot (15th to the 22nd of the month), the time Deuteronomy instructsHakhel to take place. While the reading was seemingly done at the people’s request much of the planning of this innovative event must have come under Ezra’s direction and religious sanction. 

ח:ב וַיָּבִיא עֶזְרָא הַכֹּהֵן אֶת הַתּוֹרָה לִפְנֵי הַקָּהָל מֵאִישׁ וְעַד אִשָּׁה וְכֹל מֵבִין לִשְׁמֹעַ בְּיוֹם אֶחָד לַחֹדֶשׁ הַשְּׁבִיעִי. ח:ג וַיִּקְרָא בוֹ לִפְנֵי הָרְחוֹב אֲשֶׁר לִפְנֵי שַׁעַר הַמַּיִם מִן הָאוֹר עַד מַחֲצִית הַיּוֹם נֶגֶד הָאֲנָשִׁים וְהַנָּשִׁים וְהַמְּבִינִים וְאָזְנֵי כָל הָעָם אֶל סֵפֶר הַתּוֹרָה.
8:2 On the first day of the seventh month, Ezra the priest brought the Teaching before the congregation, men and women and all who could listen with understanding. 8:3 He read from it, facing the square before the Water Gate, from the first light until midday, to the men and the women and those who could understand; the ears of all the people were given to the scroll of the Teaching.

The public reading here resonates with the description of hakhel with its emphasis on torah being read to the entire nation, even using the same root ק.ה.ל, albeit in noun form, as that of the verb hakhel (הקהל). And yet, the text does not explicitly say that it was being done in accordance with Deut 31. In addition, the description of the audience is slightly different.

Whereas in Deuteronomy, the torah is read to men, women, and children and the stranger in your community (הָאֲנָשִׁים וְהַנָּשִׁים וְהַטַּף וְגֵרְךָ אֲשֶׁר בִּשְׁעָרֶיךָ), and Josiah reads the torah to the entire nation from young to old (וְכָל הָעָם לְמִקָּטֹן וְעַד גָּדוֹל), Ezra reads to men, women, and those who can understand (הָאֲנָשִׁים וְהַנָּשִׁים וְהַמְּבִינִים). Whether this is a reference to those who understand Hebrew, or more likely to older children, the list seems less expansive than that of Deuteronomy and Kings.

Innovative Techniques

As part of this “Hakhel” ceremony, the story in Nehemiah introduces a number of features to make the ceremony more effective:

Wooden Tower – Ezra stands on a wooden tower that was built to solve the problem of acoustics:

ח:ד וַיַּעֲמֹד עֶזְרָא הַסֹּפֵר עַל מִגְדַּל עֵץ אֲשֶׁר עָשׂוּ לַדָּבָר…
8:4 Ezra the scribe stood upon a wooden tower they made for the purpose…

This stage, or to use the later Hebrew word bimah, derived from Greek: βημα,[18] served the additional purpose of giving the people visual contact focusing on the ceremony. It is mentioned in the Mishnah quoted above as a standard part of the king’s reading.

Showing the Scroll – Ezra opens the Torah scroll in view of all the people, symbolically indicating that it is an “open book” meant for all the people regardless of gender, age or status.[19]

ח:ה וַיִּפְתַּח עֶזְרָא הַסֵּפֶר לְעֵינֵי כָל הָעָם כִּי מֵעַל כָּל הָעָם הָיָה…
8:5 Ezra opened the scroll in the sight of all the people, for he was above all the people….

Standing or Silence – As Ezra prepares to read, the people stand up

ח:ה וּכְפִתְחוֹ עָמְדוּ כָל הָעָם.
8:5 as he opened it, all the people stood up.

This translation is the standard interpretation of the verse, found already in the LXX, and in most modern translations of the Bible, such as NJPS and NRSV. Nevertheless, some traditional commentaries understand the term as “stopped talking,” i.e., they were silent (see Avraham ibn Ezra ad loc.). In fact, Ravah bar Rav Huna learns from this verse that it is forbidden to speak during the synagogue Torah reading ceremony (b. Sotah 39a).

Blessing – After this, he consecrated the act of Torah reading with a blessing.

ח:ו וַיְבָרֶךְ עֶזְרָא אֶת ה’ הָאֱלֹהִים הַגָּדוֹל וַיַּעֲנוּ כָל הָעָם אָמֵן אָמֵן בְּמֹעַל יְדֵיהֶם וַיִּקְּדוּ וַיִּשְׁתַּחֲוֻּ לַה’ אַפַּיִם אָרְצָה.
8:6 Ezra blessed the LORD, the great God, and all the people answered, “Amen, Amen,” with hands upraised. Then they bowed their heads and prostrated themselves before the LORD with their faces to the ground.

At his every move, the people responded by various physical gestures of acknowledgment such as standing, raising their hand, genuflecting and bowing.

Translators

As noted above, Ezra’s reading was aimed at those who understood. This was because the audience would certainly have included newcomers from Babylon who spoke Aramaic but could not understand the Hebrew of the Torah. In order to overcome this language barrier, he appointed groups of Levites as teachers (cf. Ezra 8:15-19), called מבינים “people who understand,” or rather “who taught,”[20] and who would translate and explain the Torah reading:

ח:ז וְיֵשׁוּעַ וּבָנִי וְשֵׁרֵבְיָה יָמִין עַקּוּב שַׁבְּתַי הוֹדִיָּה מַעֲשֵׂיָה קְלִיטָא עֲזַרְיָה יוֹזָבָד חָנָן פְּלָאיָה וְהַלְוִיִּם מְבִינִים אֶת הָעָם לַתּוֹרָה וְהָעָם עַל עָמְדָם. ח:חוַיִּקְרְאוּ בַסֵּפֶר בְּתוֹרַת הָאֱלֹהִים מְפֹרָשׁ וְשׂוֹם שֶׂכֶל וַיָּבִינוּ בַּמִּקְרָא.
8:7 Jeshua, Bani, Sherebiah, Jamin, Akkub, Shabbethai, Hodiah, Maaseiah, Kelita, Azariah, Jozabad, Hanan, Pelaiah, and the Levites explained the Teaching to the people, while the people stood in their places. 8:8 They read from the scroll of the Teaching of God, translating it and giving the sense; so they understood the reading.

Of particular note is that Ezra used the term מִקְרָא innovatively, i.e., “reading (a sacred text)”, thereby creating the word miqra to mean a biblical text.[21] 

Ezra’s Sukkot Reading

Ezra does another public Torah reading, two weeks later, on Sukkot:

נחמיה ח:יח וַיִּקְרָא בְּסֵפֶר תּוֹרַת הָאֱלֹהִים יוֹם בְּיוֹם מִן הַיּוֹם הָרִאשׁוֹן עַד הַיּוֹם הָאַחֲרוֹן וַיַּעֲשׂוּ חָג שִׁבְעַת יָמִים וּבַיּוֹם הַשְּׁמִינִי עֲצֶרֶת כַּמִּשְׁפָּט.
Neh 8:18 He read from the scroll of the Teaching of God each day, from the first to the last day. They celebrated the festival seven days, and there was a solemn gathering on the eighth, as prescribed.[22]

This is not presented explicitly as Hakhel, though it does take place at the right time. Ezra reads from the Torah every day on Sukkot,[23] continuing his campaign of Torah education among the Judeans.

Precedent for Rabbinic Torah Reading

Ezra’s public Torah reading on the first of the seventh month–Yom Zikaron Teruah (Lev 23:24, Num 29:1)–and continued on every day of Sukkot seems to be an application of the hakhel ceremony.  This sets a precedent of reading the Torah on the other festival days including Shabbat, Rosh Hodesh (the new moon), Yom Kippur[24] and the Regalim (the three pilgrimage festivals of Passover, Shavuot and Sukkot).

As we have already seen, the ceremony became the model of the synagogue service,[25] which flourished during the late Second Temple Period. As an extension of this democratic innovation, overriding sacred space and time, the Rabbis attributed to Ezra the public Torah reading outside the synagogue on the market days of Monday and Thursday (b. Bava Qama82a).

Hakhel has essentially morphed into the Ezra-inspired weekly torah readings. Yet it hasn’t been entirely lost. In fact, the biblical Hakhel ceremony has resurfaced in modern Israel where the practice of hakhel has been renewed, and takes place at the Kotel (Western Wall) at the end of the sabbatical year.

Published

September 15, 2017

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Last Updated

October 11, 2019

Footnotes

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Professor Aaron Demsky is Professor (emeritus) of Biblical History at The Israel and Golda Koschitsky Department of Jewish History and Contemporary Jewry, Bar Ilan University. He is also the founder and director of The Project for the Study of Jewish Names. Demsky received the Bialik Prize (2014) for his book, Literacy in Ancient Israel