Bar-Ilan University's Parashat Hashavua Study Center

Ha'azinu-Shabbat Shuva 5764/ October 4, 2003

Lectures on the weekly Torah reading by the faculty of Bar-Ilan University in Ramat Gan, Israel. A project of the Faculty of Jewish Studies, Paul and Helene Shulman Basic Jewish Studies Center, and the Office of the Campus Rabbi. Published on the Internet under the sponsorship of Bar-Ilan University's International Center for Jewish Identity.
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Inquiries and comments to: Dr. Isaac Gottlieb, Department of Bible,

Hakhel following the Destruction of the Temple

Rabbi Yehuda Zoldan
Midrasha for Women

Shirat Ha'azinu is recited in the presence of the entire congregation (kahal), as written: "Then Moses recited the words of this poem to the very end, in the hearing of the whole congregation of Israel (Deut. 31:30). In a sense this song concludes the process of re-acceptance of the Torah in the plains of Moab, just before entering the Land, forty years after the Israelites received the Torah at Sinai-the subject of Deuteronomy. At the conclusion of this process, we have been commanded in Va-Yelekh to re-enact the ceremony of receiving the Torah --Kabbalat ha-Torah - via the Hakhel ceremony, every seven years, at the close of the Shmitta year during Sukkot (31:10-13).

The giving of the Law at Mount Sinai is called yom hakahal "the day of the Assembly" (Deut. 9:10; 10:4; 18:16), and our ceremony, which is held every seven years to recreate the event at Mount Sinai, is called Hakhel. Aside from the linguistic connection, Maimonides (Hilkhot Hagigah 3:6) makes the substantive link: [The ceremony of Hakhel is] "to prepare their hearts and to set their ears to listening, to hear in fear and awe and joy, in trembling, as on the day it was given at Sinai."

The Bible does not describe the Hakhel ceremony during Sukkot at the close of the Shmitta year. There are other ceremonies similar in character, but they were not held at the appointed time. There are descriptions of gatherings of the people - men, women and children - when Torah verses were read out to them, and our sages even learned the laws for the commandment of Hakhel from these ceremonies. Such gatherings were organized by Joshua (Josh. 8:35; 23-24), Solomon (I Kings 8; II Chron. 6-7), Josiah (II Kings 23:1-3; II Chron. 34: 29-32), and Ezra and Nehemia (Ezra 10:1; Neh. 8:3).

Our sages relate to the performance of the Hakhel ceremony in the First Temple period during the reign of Rehoboam (Jerusalem Talmud Avoda Zara 1,5; Bavli Sanhedrin 101b) and towards the end of the Second Temple period when King Agrippa led the ceremony (Mishna Sota 7,8); in another description of the ceremony, we are told that R. Tarfon participated (Jerusalem Talmud, Megilla 1,10; JT Horayot 3,2).

With the destruction of the Temple the Hakhel ceremony was no longer practiced. Without a national framework in the Land, there was no reason to hold this ceremony. And so it was throughout the long generations of exile. Our sages did not even establish a "commemoration of the Hakhel", as they ordained certain commandments to be "in commemoration of the Temple". Nevertheless, it could be that in the period immediately after the destruction a ceremony was held that was a sort of "commemoration of the Hakhel".

Tosefta Sota (Lieberman) 7, 9 provides the following description:
Once R. Johanan b. Beroka and R. Eleazar Hisma came from Yavneh to Lod and paid their respects to R. Joshua at Peqi'in. Said R. Joshua to them: What new teaching was there at the College today? They replied: We are thy disciples and thy waters do we drink. Said he to them: Even so, it is impossible for a college teaching to pass without some novel teaching. Whose Sabbath was it? It was the Sabbath of R. Eleazar b. Azaria [they replied]. And what was the theme of his Haggadic discourse? "Assemble the people, the men and the women and the little ones (Deut. 31:12). He said to them: What did the rabbi teach on this? They said to him: Rabbi taught thus: If the men came to learn, the women came to hear, but wherefore have the little ones to come? In order to grant reward to those that bring them.

In Masekhet Soferim (18:8) we find that this exposition or one similar was delivered "on the day that they placed R. Eleazar b. Azaria in the College". He began by saying: "You are standing here today, all of you, your children and your women. The men are come to hear, the women to be rewarded for taking the steps. Why the children? In order to give a reward to those that bring them". This drasha, based on a verse in parashat Nizavim, was delivered on the day of his appointment.[1]

The historical background for these sources which we have cited is the period when the presidency was shared by Rabbi Gamaliel and Rabbi Eleazar ben Azaria, and there was a division between them regarding the delivery of the drasha, whereby "R. Gamaliel was to deliver the drasha on three Sabbaths and R. Eleazar b. Azaria on one Sabbath. And therefore Mar said: Whose Sabbath was it - it was R. Eleazar's" (Brakhot 28a).

From the wording of the question "Whose Sabbath was it today?" and from the question that follows "And what was the theme of his Haggadic discourse today?" (we add "today" based on the version in Ba-Midbar Rabba 14,4) or, in another version: "What new teaching was there at the College today?" (according to Hagigah 3a) it appears that this story took place on the Sabbath. If so, how did the disciples traverse such distances on the Sabbath? Is not the distance between Lod and Yavneh, or even Peqi'in[2] greater than that allowed on the Sabbath? Not even for the purpose of greeting one's rabbi does one transgress the Tehum Shabbat (Eruvin, 36b).

Rabbi Eleazar ben Azaria's drasha seems to encompass several subjects. They tell Rabbi Joshua that Rabbi Eleazar ben Azaria delivered the drasha on parashat Hakhel (verses in parashat Va-Yelekh) and also on verses from Ki Tavo and Kohelet (In some versions, it was Rabbi Joshua who delivered the drasha on the verses of Kohelet - thus Hagigah 3a).

One might suggest that the event took place during Hol ha-Mo'ed Sukkot, and that Rabbi Eleazar ben Azaria held a sort of Hakhel ceremony.[3] The subject is parashat Hakhel - the verses that refer to the commandment, but they are not read by the king. Rabbi Eleazar continued by expounding verses from the parashiot read by the king in Ki Tavo before the chastisement, verses that stress the nationalist aspect of Hakhel -"And who is like your people Israel, one nation in the Land".

The final drasha made at this gathering refers to Ecclesiastes or Kohelet, which should be understood, as its name implies, as verses which were recited in the Hakhel ceremony: "Why is the book of Kohelet called Kohelet? Because its contents were recited at the Hakhel ceremony, as it is said "and then Shlomo gathered (az yakhel)" (Kohelet Rabba, Chapter 1:1). By expounding from the book of Kohelet R. Eleazar ben Azaria also reinforced the status of Ecclesiastes, confirming that it was written with the Holy Spirit. This decision was taken after a big dispute on the very day of his appointment as Nasi (Yadayim 3:5).

Because of this custom to expound Kohelet at this "Hakhel remembrance", in the course of time some communities established the custom of reading of the Book of Kohelet every year at Sukkot.[4] Rabbi Eleazar ben Azaria even completes his drasha on this book with a commentary on the opening verse of Deuteronomy: "That is to say ‘words', ‘the words', ‘these are the words' (Deut. 1:1), ‘All of them are given from one shepherd' (Ecc. 12:11). One G-d gave them, one leader uttered them, from the mouth of the Lord of all creation, blessed be He, for it is written: ‘And G-d spoke all these words'" (Hagigah 3a). The verse "These are the words..." from Deuteronomy introduced the King's Torah reading at the Hakhel ceremony, and it appears that this should be the verse cited in Hagigah as well. [5]

Rabbi Eleazar b. Azaria was president and he presided over the ceremony. R. Joshua's question "Whose Sabbath was it today?" need not be interpreted to mean that that day was the Sabbath - the seventh day. It means: who was there, who presided over the ceremony? One can also explain that the division between them was on a weekly basis, and that the question "Whose Sabbath?" meant, in fact: "whose week was it?"[6] Perhaps Rabbi Eleazar b. Azaria's turn to deliver the drasha fell on Hol ha-Mo'ed Sukkot, and therefore he led the ceremony in commemoration of Hakhel.

Perhaps R. Joshua's words at the end of the conversation between himself and R. Johanan b. Beroka and R. Eleazar Hisma: "That generation is not an orphan, when R. Eleazar sits in its midst" (Tosefta Sota 7:11) refer not only to the biblical interpretations offered by R. Eleazar but to the Hakhel commemoration itself. Such a ceremony would have reinforced his presidency in the wake of the crisis with R. Gamaliel, and also strengthened the entire nation that was burdened with all the spiritual and practical difficulties that followed the destruction of the Temple. The very fact of celebrating a commemoration of the Hakhel ceremony and the Temple, only a few years after the destruction, means "That generation is not an orphan", for it has leadership.[7]

Examining the other parallels, which present R. Eleazar b. Azaria delivering similar drashot at different times on the day of his appointment or some other Sabbath, one can understand that R. Eleazar b. Azaria called upon the colleges to open their doors to all, and encouraged the people - men, women and children - to join with the Torah scholars in different ways. Saying these words on an occasion that represented a sort of "commemoration of the Hakhel", while people were coming to welcome him, would have served the purpose of strengthening Torah study among the masses, after the Destruction.[8]

We know of no further efforts in later generations to perform the ceremony of commemoration of the Hakhel. Over a hundred years ago, the Aderet - R. Eliyahu David Rabinowitz Teomim of Ponevitz, Lithuania and later rabbi of Jerusalem, proposed the celebration of such a ceremony. He wrote an unsigned treatise: Zekher la-Miqdash,[9] in which he calls for the celebration of an event commemorating the Hakhel. He took no practical steps to implement this suggestion, even at the end of the Shmitta year of 5664-1924, while he was rabbi of Jerusalem, but he was the first to raise the subject, in both his drashot and his writings.

The first ceremony that fit the description of commemoration of the Hakhel, following the call of the Aderet, took place at the end of the last Shmitta year before the establishment of the State of Israel, Sukkot 5706-1946. Perhaps it was the feeling that the people of Israel were indeed on the threshold of renewed national sovereignty in the Land. Behind this initiative, and those gatherings to commemorate the Hakhel following the establishment of the state, was R. Shmuel Zanvil Kahana, later to become director general of the Ministry of Religions of the State of Israel. From that time on, ceremonies commemorating the Hakhel are held at the end of every Shmitta year, some modest and limited, and some with great public fanfare.

[1] A structure similar to the Sota Tosefta is found in Mekhilta de-Rabbi Yishmael Bo, Tractate Pisha, 16, s.v. li hu. Here too the drasha is on Nizavim.
[2] Whether this was Peqi'in in the Galilee or Peqi'in in Judea is discussed in by Lieberman, p. 679.
[ ]3 Such a possibility was already raised in the past. See Rabbi Haim Zvi Toibsch, Sefer Hakhel- a collection of articles, Kfar Darom: Makhon ha-Torah veha-Arez, 5761-2001, p. 12; and ibid. Rabbi Professor Shmuel Kalman Mirsky, p. 647; Dr. Shmuel Zanwil Kahana, Be-Vo Kol Yisrael, Jerusalem: Eliner Library 5755-1995, pp.25-26; Professor Shlomo Na'eh, Sidre Kri'at ha-Torah be-Erez Yisrael: Iyyun Mehudash, Tarbiz 67 (1998), pp. 184-186. I thank Dr. Aharon Arendt for drawing my attention to this article.
[4] Rabbi Avraham Ha-Yarhi, in his book Ha-Manhig, writes of the custom of reading Kohelet on Sukkot, "and I found a pleasing explanation, that King Solomon of blessed memory read it during the Hakhel ceremony on the holiday (as explained in Kohelet Rabba 80:1), and therefore it can be read on the holiday".
[5] In other words, the drasha is on Deut. 1:1 and not on Exodus 20:1. See Na'eh (ibid. note 3), note 79.
[6] See Y.N. Epstein, Mevo'ot le-Sifrut ha-Tana'im, Jerusalem, 1957, p. 427.
[7] A similar expression was used by R. Akiva about R. Eleazar b. Azaria at the time of his death: "He was screaming and crying and saying: Woe on you, rabbi, woe on you, my mentor, who has left the entire generation an orphan" (Avot de-Rabbi Natan version A, Chapter 25).
[8] R. Meir Simha Ha-Kohen of Dvinsk expanded on this idea,in Meshekh Hokhma, Deut. 31:9 (p. 297, ed. R. Y. Kuperman).
[9] Republished anew in Sefer Hakhel (see above, note 3), pp. 495-546.