Bar-Ilan University's Parashat Hashavua Study Center

Parashat Nitzavim--Va-Yelekh 5769

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. Prepared for Internet Publication by the Computer Center Staff at Bar-Ilan University. Inquiries and comments to: Dr. Isaac Gottlieb, Department of Bible, gottlii@mail.biu.ac.il

 

 

Haqhel – Who Stands at Center Stage?

 

Rabbi Judah Zoldan

 

Midrasha for Women

Gather the People … Read this Teaching

In this week’s reading we are commanded to gather the people at the Feast of Booths (Sukkot), at the end of the year of remission, shemitta (Deut. 31:10-13) – a commandment known as haqhel:

And Moses instructed them as follows:  Every seventh year, the year set for remission, at the Feast of Booths, when all Israel comes to appear before the Lord your G-d in the place that He will choose, you shall read this Teaching aloud in the presence of all Israel.   Gather the people – men, women, children, and the strangers in your communities – that they may hear and so learn to revere the Lord your G-d and to observe faithfully every word of this Teaching.   Their children, too, who have not had the experience, shall hear and learn to revere the Lord your G-d as long as they live in the land that you are about to cross the Jordan to possess.

The components of this ceremonious gathering are clearly spelled out:  the time and place, those present, and the objective – all save for one thing:  “you shall read this Teaching.”  Who is to do the reading?  Who presides over the gathering?  According to a tradition of the Sages, it is the king – the governmental figure in charge of secular matters (the economy, army, etc.) – who presides over the gathering and reads the Torah to the people.  Commentators have suggested several explanations for the origins of this tradition, such as the fact that Moses commanded Joshua ben Nun to do so, and Joshua had the status of king (Tos. Yom Tov on Mishnah, Sotah 7:8).

Maimonides presents the commandment of Haqhel similarly:  the main thrust of the commandment is the gathering of the entire community in order to hear the Torah, and the question as to who reads and everything connected with the reading itself is secondary (Sefer Mitzvot la- Rambam, pos. com. 16):

We are commanded to gather the entire people on the second [festival day] of Tabernacles, at the end of every year of remission, and to read some passages from Deuteronomy to them; this is as the Exalted One said, “Gather the people – men, women, children,” and this is the commandment of haqhel… The laws of this commandment are explained – that is, how it is to be read, who shall read, and what shall be read – in the seventh [chapter] of Tractate Sotah (32a; 41a).

The king who is to read and the order of what is to be read – all this belongs to the laws of the commandment and are part of its halakhic details, but they are not part of the intrinsic definition of the commandment. [1]

The King or the People?

Looking at tannaitic writings, we see a different emphasis.   There the commandment of haqhel comes under the heading, “The Portion of the King” (parashat ha-melekh).  The Mishnah in Tractate Sotah deals with commandments that involve oral recitation  or reading: “The following may be said in any language… recitation of the Shema and prayers, … and the following must be said in the holy tongue:   the passage on bringing first fruits, halizah … the Portion of the King” (7.1).   The mishnah dealing with the Portion of the King describes at length the entire procedure for this gathering, not only the reading itself (Sotah 7.8):

In what manner was the Portion of the King recited?  At the conclusion of the first Holyday day of the festival of Tabernacles, in the eighth [year], after the close of the seventh year, they prepared for him in the Temple Court a platform of wood, and he sat thereon, as it is said:   Every seventh year…   The minister of the Assembly took a Scroll of the Law and gave it to the president of the Assembly, and the president of the Assembly gave it to the High Priest, and the High Priest gave it to the king, and the king stood and received it, and read it sitting.   King Agrippas stood when he received it and also stood when he read it, and the Sages praised him for this.  When he reached You must not set a foreigner over you (Deut. 17:15), tears gushed from his eyes.  They said to him, “Be not afraid, Agrippas; you are our brother! You are our brother!   You are our brother!”   And he read from the beginning of These are the words (Deut. 1:1), until Hear, O Israel! (6:4), Hear, O Israel!, and If, then, you obey…  (11:13), You shall set aside a tenth part… (14:22), When you have set aside in full … (26:12), and the Portion of the King, and the passage of blessings and curses, until he finished the entire section.  The king blessed them with the benediction used by the High Priest to bless them, except that he substituted that for the Festivals instead of that for the pardon of sin.

This mishnah about the commandment of haqhel focuses on the king, the platform that is erected for him, the order in which the Torah is passed to him (from which we may conclude that his status was even higher than that of the High Priest), the manner in which he received the Torah, and whether he read standing or sitting.  Only at the very end does the mishnah mention which passages the king is supposed to read on this occasion and which benedictions are to be recited.   Although the story about King Agrippas is not intended to teach us about the procedure for this ceremony, on all the occasions when it was held, nevertheless it gives the impression that the reading is intended for the king himself in order to heighten his awareness of his ways and his position. [2]   One can hardly ignore the focal position of the king, his status and actions in the commandment of Haqhel.

The Portion of the King is the caption given to the commandment in its entirety, but it is also the name given one of the passages (Deut. 17:14-20) that the king would read on this occasion, also called the Portion of the King in this mishnah.   One can deduce from this that the reading at the Haqhel ceremony, which is known in its entirety as the Portion of the King, is aimed primarily at the verses dealing with the commandment of appointing a king and the detailing of his powers and authority. [3]

However, other tannaim have a different caption for the commandment of Haqhel:  The Passage of Haqhel (Avot de-Rabbi Nathan A, ch. 18; Hagigah 3a; Numbers Rabbah [Vilna ed.] 14.4): [4]

Rabbi Joshua’s disciples came to visit him in his old age, and he said to them,   “My children, what new insight did you discover in the Beit Midrash today?”  They answered, “We are your disciples, and we drink up your teaching.”  He said to them, “Heaven protect us from a generation of rabbis with no mentor.  Whose turn was it this Sabbath?”   “It was Rabbi Eliezer ben Azariah’s turn,” they responded.  “And what did the day’s discussion concern?”  They answered, “The passage of Haqhel – ‘Gather the people – men, women, children.’”

The story continues to list the contents of the homilies on Haqhel that were given in the Beit Midrash that same day.   These homilies dealt with the purpose of the men, women and children attending:  “Men come to learn, women to hear, and children – why do they come?   So that those who bring them merit a reward.”   Another homily deals with the relationship between Israel and the Holy One, blessed be He, based on a verse that was read at the Haqhel ceremony:

You have affirmed this day that the Lord is your G-d, …  And the Lord has affirmed this day that you are … His treasured people (Deut. 26:17-18).  The Holy One, blessed be He, said to Israel:   You made Me a single unit in the world, and I shall make you a single unit in the world.

Another homily is based on a verse from Ecclesiastes, for it is quite possible that this book, too, was read at the Haqhel ceremony. [5]   This homily makes no mention of the king and his status in observing the commandment of Haqhel.

Two Aspects of Haqhel

Some compilations of commandments list two commandments associated with Haqhel:

The King’s reading – the Holy One, blessed be He, commanded that he read Deuteronomy at the gathering of Haqhel. [6]

The commandment of Haqhel – the Holy One, blessed be He, commanded that everyone come to hear when the king reads the Torah aloud. [7]

Indeed, there are two aspects to the commandment of Haqhel. The first is that the entire people gather to hear the Torah read aloud, so that they receive it anew as a single nation.  Maimonides, who noted that the main thrust of the commandment was the gathering of the people, and the question of who would preside over this gathering he viewed as secondary, reiterated his position when he explained the reason for the commandment of Haqhel (Guide for the Perplexed, III, ch. 46):

The use of keeping festivals is plain.  Man derives benefit from such assemblies:  the emotions produced renew the attachment to religion:  they lead to friendly and social intercourse among the people.   This is especially the object of the commandment to gather the people together on the Feast of Tabernacles, as is plainly stated:  “that they may hear…”

This is a gathering of the entire people, as a public body and society, with the object of learning Torah en masse and uniting the people around the Torah and its commandments.  The fact that the king presides over this gathering is a secondary matter.   Because he stands at the helm, to him was delegated the task of organizing the event and serving as the one who presents the word of the Lord (Maimonides, Hilkhot Hagigah 3.6). [8]   The emphasis is on the personal responsibility of all those present to observe the Torah and on the people uniting to safeguard it.

The second aspect presents this gathering as one of national, not only societal significance.   The king presides because his role at this ceremony is substantive, not merely technical.  The gathering conveys the message that every seven years the people of Israel receive the Torah anew, as a nation in its own land, with the Temple at the center.  The commandments of the Torah were given to each person as an individual, but the observance of some of the commandments requires participation as a people in the land of Israel, especially with the establishment of a state that has its own governmental leadership.  The fact that the king reads the Torah at Haqhel before this mass gathering of all Israel indicates an undertaking by the leaders and the residents to shape their way of life in the state in the light of the Torah, justly and equitably, so that all “revere the Lord your G-d as long as they live in the land that you are about to cross the Jordan to possess” (Deut. 31:13).

                                                                                                                                         



[1] Maimonides, in Hilkhot Hagigah, writes to this effect in his introduction:  “The people are to be convened on the Feast of Tabernacles, at the end of the year of remission,” and in chapter 3 there he deals with the halakhic rules of Haqhel.   In rules 1-2 he deals with defining the commandment and its objectives, its timing, those obligated and those exempt, and only in rule 3, where he deals with the component details of the ceremony, does he note that it is the king who reads the Torah.   Likewise, in Sefer ha-Hinukh, commandment 612. 

[2] Also Tosefta Sotah , 7.13-17 [Lieberman ediiton] focuses on the king, although it is not as well-ordered and detailed as the Mishnah.   The Tosefta prominently cites verses describing a similar event to Haqhel which was held by Ezra at the beginning of the Second Temple period (Nehemiah).

[3] In another source and a different context, these verses are also called the Portion of the King:  “Rabbi Yose says:  All that is mentioned in the Portion of the King is permitted” (T. Sanhedrin [ Zuckermandl ed.] 4.5; Babylonian Talmud, Sanhedrin 20b).  Also the verses stating what sacrifice is to be brought by a chieftain who has sined unwittingly (Leviticus 4:22-26) are called the Portion of the King (Jerusalem Talmud, Megillah 1.2: 72a;  Jerusalem Talmud, Horayot 3.2: 47c; [Babylonian Talmud, Horayot 10a]).

[4] Another reference to Haqhel in tannaitic writings pertains to postponement of the event if it falls on a Sabbath:   Haqhel is postponed, not moved up” (Mishnah, Megillah 1.3).   Here, too, the ceremony is not called the Portion of the King, because the subject matter does not revolve around the verses that are read, rather the gathering itself.

[5] Regarding Ecclesiastes being read at the Haqhel gathering, see my book, Mo‘adei Yehudah ve-Yisrael, “Ma‘amad Haqhel vi-Keriat ha-Torah be- Veit ha-Knesset,” Merkaz Shapira 2004, pp. 170-195.

[6] Rabbi Eliezer of Metz, Sefer Yere’im, par. 266 (in the older edition, 289).

[7] Loc. sit., par. 433 (in the older edition, 290).    He was preceded by Rabbi Simeon Kayara, Sefer Halakhot Gedolot, positive command 162, and Rabbi Saadiah Gaon, positive command 17.  Rashi, for one, identifies the various names of the event with each other:   “The Portion of the King … is the Portion of Haqhel” (commentary on Sotah 32a).

[8] Looking closely at Maimonides’ Hilkhot Hagigah, chapter 3, Hilkhot Haqhel, we see that he changed his position from that formulated in the Mishnah and focused less on the king.  For example, in the Mishnah it says, “they prepared for him …   a platform” (Sotah 7.8), the emphasis being on the word “him.”  Maimonides, however, wrote:  “A large platform is brought” (Hilkhot Hagigah 3.4), omitting the word “him.”  If the date for the ceremony falls on the Sabbath, it is postponed, since blowing trumpets in order to gather the people is prohibited on the Sabbath (loc. sit. 7), and not on account of the king’s platform crowding the Temple court (Rabad, loc. sit.).   Rabbi Tzvi Yehudah Kook expanded on Maimonides’ approach, “Le-Beirur Mahutah shel Mitzvat Haqhel,” Le-Netivot Yisrael, Jerusalem 1979, 2, pp. 100-102; see also Rabbi Shlomo Aviner, “Haqhel u-Malkhut,” Sefer Haqhel (ed. Yehudah Zoldan), Kefar Darom 2001, pp. 341-356.