The Hakhel Ceremony
Reading “this torah” every seventh year: The Hakhel Ceremony
Parashat Vayelech legislates gathering together the community every seventh year to read “this torah,” a ceremony known by hakhel, “gathering together” (Deut 31:9-13):
9 Moses wrote down this Teaching and gave it to the priests, sons of Levi, who carried the Ark of Yhwh’s Covenant, and to all the elders of Israel. 10 And Moses instructed them as follows: Every seventh year, the year set for remission, at the Feast of Booths, 11 when all Israel comes to appear before Yhwh your God in the place that He will choose, you shall read this Teaching aloud in the presence of all Israel.12 Gather the people—men, women, children, and the strangers in your communities—that they may hear and so learn to revere Yhwh your God and to observe faithfully every word of this Teaching. 13 Their children, too, who have not had the experience, shall hear 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 (NJPS with modifications).
What is “this teaching”?
It is unclear exactly to what “this Teaching (התורה הזאת)” (v. 11) refers. Mishnah Sotah 7:8 suggests a minimalist reading, that it refers to selected sections of Deuteronomy (1:1-6:3; 6:4-9; 11:13-21; 14:22-29; 26:12-15; 17:14-20; 28). Jeffrey Tigay, professor emeritus of Bible from University of Pennsylvania takes a more maximalist position. He argues that the entire book of Deuteronomy may be the referent, noting that, “[a]ll of Deuteronomy can be read aloud in three to four hours” (JPS Commentary on Deut. ad loc., p. 292), and, therefore, can still be read in one day as suggested in Deut 31.
It is a striking fact that the Torah is remarkably un-self referential, by which I mean the Torah does not refer to the Torah. Certainly, the word torah appears often in the Torah: fifty-six times to be precise. In Priestly literature, it often means “(ritual) law,” and is frequently used to introduce specific regulations, as in Lev. 7:1, “This is the ritual of the guilt offering (וְזֹ֥את תּוֹרַ֖ת הָאָשָׁ֑ם).” The word appears mostly frequent in Deuteronomy (22 times), which, more than any other book, reflects on torah.
Our very brief parashah contains five, or nearly one-quarter of these references, and thus it is a torah-centric parashah within a torah-centric book. Yet, given that torah often means teaching, none of these references clearly refer to the (entire) Torah, namely the books of Genesis-Deuteronomy; most, if not all, refer to smaller or larger section of Sefer Devarim. Stated differently, in the Torah, torah never means Torah.
There is a simple logic to this. From the academic perspective, the Torah was compiled or redacted by (an) editor(s) who put together individual pieces to form the whole, hardly adding his own voice. Since these individual pieces predate the compilation of the Torah, then torah within them can never refer to the whole book. And indeed classical rabbinic and medieval parshanim often debate exactly what torah refers to in particular cases in devarim. It is only in very late biblical books such as Chronicles or Ezra-Nehemiah where it is likely that the word torah (in phrases such as the Torah, the Torah of Moses, God’s Torah) refers more or less to the Torah as we know it.
Deuteronomy expresses strong interest in the centralization of worship “to the site where Yhwh your God will choose to establish His name” (הַמָּק֗וֹם אֲשֶׁר־יִבְחַר֩ יְ-הֹוָ֨ה אֱ-לֹהֵיכֶ֥ם בּוֹ֙ לְשַׁכֵּ֤ן שְׁמוֹ֙ שָׁ֔ם, Deut 12:11), or in shorthand, “in the place that He will choose (המקום אשר יבחר).” Many scholars (traditional and academic) understand this as a code-name for Jerusalem. The Israelite males would have already been at the Temple for the Sukkot festival (16:13-16); our passage commands that at least once every seventh year the males would bring their entire family with them. Commemorating this ritual of torah-reading at the Temple would further enhance the position of Jerusalem and its Temple.
It is somewhat surprising that this ritual takes place on Sukkot. It is likely that Sukkot was at some point in ancient Israel a new year festival; it is dated in Deut 16:13 to the very end of the harvest season, and thus would mark the end of one year and the beginning of another. Indeed, in Exodus 34:22 notes “the Feast of Ingathering at the turn of the year.”
What we call Rosh Hashanah is only noted in Priestly calendars (Lev. 23:23-25; Numbers 29:1-6), where it is dated to the first of the seventh month, and thus clearly is not (yet) the new year. Sukkot, after the final ingathering and before preparation for planting the first grain crops, was the major festival in ancient Israel, a time that afforded some leisure from the agricultural cycle, and was, therefore, an appropriate time for this grand ritual. This complex ritual, which imagined everyone gathered in Jerusalem, was too grand to transpire annually, so it happened on the special Sukkot, once every seven years at the year of release.
The above is the simple reading of the text, but Chazal (m. Sotah 7:8) understand the text to mean that the reading should occur on the 8th year, i.e. the year after the Sabbatical year. The reason for this surprising (and forced) interpretation is that, as Chizkuni explains (v. 10), the laws of agricultural rest would apply to that year’s harvest, since whatever might be in the fields came from what grew during the seventh year. Thus, he writes (v. 12), people would have an easy time coming to the Temple then, since no agricultural activity needed to be done that year, making it truly a time of leisure.
This suggestion works well in the context of the Torah as we have it and rabbinic halakha, but this cannot be the intention of the author in its original context, since, in Deuteronomy, the sabbatical year is only a time of remission of debts (see 15:1-11), not of agricultural rest (as in Lev 25:1-7.) Instead, in Deuteronomy, its timing with the sabbatical year would have enhanced the importance of that year and the social legislation associated with it.
To whom is the Torah Read: The Place of Women
Verse 12 is very clear about who must participate in the hakhel ritual: “Gather the people — men, women, children, and the strangers in your communities.” This verse offers a clear definition of העם, “the people” or “the nation,” that is very inclusive.
It is much broader than the description of the same group in the unit preceding the revelation at Sinai in Exodus 19, where women are likely excluded, or at best, included via their fathers or husbands. Exodus 19:14-15 states: “Moses came down from the mountain to the people and warned the people to stay pure, and they washed their clothes. And he said to the people, ‘Be ready for the third day: do not go near a woman.’” Since the men only are addressed with respect to their wives, the term “the people” here refers to men only, and only they are imagined as directly part of the covenantal community; the ‘am is comprised principally of males. This is similar to the preamble of the U.S. Constitution, where we know from history that “We the people” referred to landowning, white, Protestant males—terms such as “the people” or ha’am often seem inclusive, but are not.
The rabbis recognized the problematic exclusion of women here—for if women are excluded how can they be expected to fulfill the mitzvot—and they therefore interpreted the doubling in Exodus 19:3, “Thus shall you say to the house of Jacob and declare to the children of Israel” to mean that both women and men were addressed, with “the house of Jacob” referring to the women (Mechilta, famously cited by Rashi).
This wonderful midrashic reading reverberated deeply in Jewish culture—indeed, that is why the girls’ school founded in Cracow in 1917 by Sarah Schenirer was called Beis Yaakov—but it is not the obvious reading of Exodus 19, which does exclude women. Indeed, Judith Plaskow’s pioneering book of 1990, Standing Again at Sinai: Judaism from a Feminist Perspective focuses on how women may be reintegrated into Jewish tradition.
In contrast to Exodus 19, Deuteronomy 31 explicitly includes women. This equality, however, is undermined in the Babylonian Talmud (Chagigah 3a), cited and made famous in Rashi’s commentary to Deut 31:12. The Talmud claims that the men came to study and the women (only) to hear. Abravanel (1437-1508) explicitly polemicizes against this tradition, noting in his long discursive commentary that “women will listen to fear the LORD, to avoid committing any negative precepts under which they are obligated, just like the men.” Abravanel’s polemic against Rashi and the Babylonian Talmud is an important reminder that interpretation, and halachic issues, do respond to changing cultural sensibilities.
According to the Book of Nehemiah (end of ch. 7 – the beginning of ch. 8), Ezra gathered the community together at the very beginning of the seventh month, seemingly on what we would call Rosh Hashanah (though the festival is never mentioned there) for a reading of (8:1) “the scroll of the Teaching of Moses with which Yhwh had charged Israel (אֶת־סֵ֙פֶר֙ תּוֹרַ֣ת מֹשֶׁ֔ה אֲשֶׁר־צִוָּ֥ה יְ-הֹוָ֖ה אֶת־יִשְׂרָאֵֽל).” This is a hakhel-like ceremony, but, given the date at the beginning of the month, it is not the hakhel mandated in ourparashah. (Perhaps this was not a sabbatical year?) This passage is one of the most important in the entire Bible for understanding the development of the Torah, and the attitude toward it by some groups (likely) in the fifth century BCE.
For our purposes, it is significant to note that in v. 2 the congregation is defined as, “men and women and all who could listen with understanding”; similarly the next verse notes that the text was read “to the men and the women and those who could understand.” Nehemiah uses the term “kahal” rather than “‘am,” and his congregation/nation, like that of Deuteronomy, but unlike that of Exodus, includes women.
Hakhel is an important reminder that the Torah must be read and studied regularly by all. Sinai was not a static event, but, as suggested by hakhel, must be periodically re-envisioned and reenacted. Every seven years would have allowed people not only to recall the biblical text, but to reflect upon it and reinterpret it in line with different stages of their lives.
Ezra reinterpreted hakhel by instituting a similar ceremony on a one-time basis on Rosh Hashanah, and including not only the reading of the Torah, but its translation and interpretation.
They read from the scroll of the Teaching of God, translating it and giving the sense; so they understood the reading (Neh 8:8, NJPS).
This is a model worthy of emulation.
As we mark hakhel, we too must discover, to use the words of Rashi’s grandson the Rashbam, the new contextual biblical interpretations that develop daily (הפשטות המתחדשים בכל יום). Such active listening to Torah allows us, to use the key verbs of Deuteronomy 31:12, to hear and learn, and to revere God and observe the mitzvot faithfully.
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September 17, 2014
November 27, 2020
Prof. Marc Zvi Brettler is Bernice & Morton Lerner Distinguished Professor of Judaic Studies at Duke University, and Dora Golding Professor of Biblical Studies (Emeritus) at Brandeis University. He is author, most recently, of How to Read the Jewish Bible (also published in Hebrew), co-editor of The Jewish Study Bible and The Jewish Annotated New Testament (with Amy-Jill Levine), and co-author of The Bible and the Believer (with Peter Enns and Daniel J. Harrington), and The Bible With and Without Jesus: How Jews and Christians Read the Same Stories Differently (with Amy-Jill Levine). Brettler is cofounder of Project TABS (Torah and Biblical Scholarship) – TheTorah.com.
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