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Parashat Nitzavim 5758/1998
The Command of Assembly (Haqhel)
Prof. Aaron Demsky
Department of Jewish History
Parshat Nitzavim (Deut. 29-30) contains some deep foundations of Israelite faith, including the notion of covenant and the centrality of repentance. Parshat Va-Yelekh (Deut. 31) shows Moses' ideas on preserving the Torah by publicly proclaiming it to all.
It should be noted that formulating the text of a covenant, safeguarding it in an ark and publicizing it by reading it to one and all, as described in this week's reading, are practices known to us from pacts that were made with vassal countries in the ancient Near East. The text of the pact between the hegemon and the vassal was placed in a chest alongside the statue of their deity. The text was read aloud to the vassal ruler and his ministers at regular intervals, sometimes twice a year, sometimes less often, perhaps every two years or so.
In contrast, reading the text of our covenant to a public gathering, i.e., the commandment of haqhel, is the first example in history of setting appointed times to teach the Law to the general public. This time was fixed at the conclusion of the Sabbatical year, when the people assembled at the Temple to hear the Torah read aloud. According to the Sages, passages from the book of Deuteronomy were read intermittently. This practice of reading a passage of religious literature for a didactic purpose, "that they may hear and so learn to revere the Lord your G-d and to observe faithfully every word of this Teaching" (Deut. 31:12), is unparalleled in all of the Near East.
Furthermore, this command applies not only to the priests and the literate population, but to the entire public, irrespective of status or gender: "Gather the people--men, women, children and the strangers in your communities" (31:12).
One might ask how this command affected the national consciousness? How many people actually heard the reading, and how many of them understood what was read? How many remembered the passages they heard once every seven years? Although we have no answers to these questions, we do have evidence that this commandment of assembly developed to the point of becoming a very important didactic tool. These developments can be summarized as follows:
During the return to Zion, when Ezra the Scribe returned from Babylonia in approximately 443 B.C.E., "For Ezra had dedicated himself to study the Teaching of the Lord so as to observe it, and to teach laws and rules to Israel" (Ez. 7:10), he chose the command of haqhel as his model for teaching the Law to the general public. This festive event did not take place during the Feast of Tabernacles, rather, on the first day of the seventh month, i.e., on the New Year, two months after his return (Neh. 8:1-12). The assembly took place "facing the square before the Water Gate," in other words, in the plaza that later, in the late Second Temple period, served as the women's court.
The clearest indication that the command of haqhel served as the model for this event is found in Ezra's account, which describes how he brought the Teaching "before the congregation, men and women and all who could listen with understanding" (Neh. 8:2). As we see, Ezra was aware of the technical difficulties in reading the scroll aloud and having it be understood by the public. Hence, he stood "upon a wooden tower made for the purpose," so that all present could see him and hear him well. He raised the scroll up high before his reading, in the practice of Eastern Jewish communities, symbolically inviting the public to pay attention to the contents of the scroll, an open book. Then he blessed the Lord on the reading (8:6). The public responded to each act, standing, raising their hands, bowing and prostrating themselves, thus actively participating.
Ezra knew full well that the level of education and intellectual capacity of the people before him varied widely. Some may well have arrived recently from Babylonia and did not understand Hebrew, especially biblical Hebrew. To cope with the educational challenges, Ezra appointed a staff of instructors who translated and interpreted the text: "They read from the scroll of the Teaching of G-d, translating it and giving the sense; so they understood the reading" (v. 8). Ezra notes in conclusion that they succeeded in teaching the people the Torah. It should be noted that Ezra imparted new meaning to the word Mikra (Neh.8:8), namely "reading the Torah (keri'at ha-Torah) from the sacred scroll."
This special occasion, fulfilling the commandment of assembly set once in seven years, became the model for public reading of the Torah on all days of assembly, name the days called mikra'ei kodesh--the Sabbath, New Year, and the festivals. Continuing this democratic approach of bringing the Torah before the public at large, the Sages taught us that Ezra instituted the practice of reading the Torah on market days, i.e., on Mondays and Thursdays. By reading the Torah in public on weekdays, the commandment of haqhel transcended its original more circumscribed context and became a didactic instrument of paramount importance, truly making the Torah part of the entire people, "the heritage of the congregation of Jacob."
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