"At the end of every seven years, at an appointed time, in the festival of Succot, after the sabbatical year (shemittah) ... assemble the people: the men, the women, and the children, and the stranger in your cities, in order that they hear and… they will observe all the words of the Torah” Deuteronomy 31:10-12
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This week’s portion describes the commandment of hakhel, meaning gathering. During hakhel, the King of Israel would read the book of Deuteronomy to the entire people in order to inspire the nation and stimulate love and fear of God.
Hakhel would occur at the beginning of the seven-year agricultural cycle, where the land was worked for six years and left fallow on the seventh year, known as the shemittah year (Leviticus 25:2).
Since each year of the cycle begins on Rosh Hashannah (Mishnah Rosh HaShanah 1:1), hakhel would take place shortly after the completion of the shemittah year.
Rabbi Zvi Hirsch Kalischer, the 19-the century Zionist, noted that during the shemittah year farmers who were forbidden to work the land would now be able to spend their time studying Torah. The Shem Mishmuel (Rabbi Shmuel Bornstein, who died in 1926) argued that as the shemittah year gave an opportunity to so many to learn Torah, it would have been logical to arrange hakhel during that year, not on the following year. Yet he explains that the potential spiritual benefits of hakhel were so great, it required a year of preparation and introspection through Torah study.
As we stand only days before Yom Kippur, the most intense and potentially uplifting day of our calendar, it would be prudent to devote some time preparing ourselves through introspection and self-scrutiny, so that we too can gain the greatest benefit from the most holy of days.