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'Hakhel': Bring the Kids

reprinted from The Jerusalem Post
Oct. 14, 2008

by Haim Sabato

At the end of a charming talmudic anecdote, the preeminent Rabbi Yehoshua scolds two students, "Such a precious pearl you had, and you wanted to keep it from me?" What was that precious pearl, and why the rebuke?

Earlier R. Yehoshua had asked the students, "What novel interpretations have you heard in class today?" He had to pull teeth to elicit from the students an account. Out of deference to their teacher, they responded that it was not their place to teach him Torah: "We are your students and study at your feet."

R. Yehoshua then queried them, "It is impossible to have a study session without some novel interpretations. Whose turn was it to teach this Shabbat?"

"It was R. Eleazar ben Azariah's turn."

"And what was his theme?"

"The topic was hakhel, the passage from Deuteronomy which says: 'Read this Torah before all Israel... Assemble, hakhel all the people - the men, the women and the little ones.'"

"And what did he say about that verse?"

"He taught: The men came to study; the women came to listen; and the little came to enable those who brought them to be rewarded for bringing them."

"Such a precious pearl, and you wanted to keep it from me?"

THE MITZVA of hakhel they refer to is described in the Torah portion read last Shabbat (Deuteronomy 31). The Bible commands hakhel only once in seven years, and this year is that once-in-seven. Although discontinued after the destruction of the Temple, it has been revived since 1945 in a symbolic framework at the end of the seventh or shmita year. Two such ceremonies will take place this week: today at 4:30 p.m. at Gan Hatekuma in the Jewish Quarter of the Old City, sponsored by the Temple Institute (www.temple.org.il); tomorrow, Thursday, at 3:30 p.m. at the Western Wall with the participation of past and present chief rabbis. In its original form, the ceremony is first described thus:

At the end of seven years, at the time of the shmita [sabbatical year] during the Succot festival, in the place that He will choose, you will read this Torah before all Israel. Assemble [hakhel] all the people - the men, the women, and the little ones [taf], and your stranger who is in your cities - so that they will hear, learn and fear the Lord. And their children [bneihem] who do not know - they will hear and learn to fear the Lord.

This question - why young children are brought - is not so simple. The Torah itself specifies the reason for bringing children at the end of the above passage. The parents must bring "their children who do not know - they will hear and learn to fear the Lord." It is puzzling why two different terms are used to refer to children: taf and bneihem. Nachmanides, for example, equates taf with bneihem, understanding both terms to mean children of an educable age. The earlier talmudic sages, however, differentiate between the two terms, defining taf as infants or toddlers and bneihem as preschool age children and older.

Commentators have noted the difficulties raised in R. Eleazer's insightful comment regarding the bringing of very young children to hakhel to hear the king read the Torah. If the infants indeed benefit from the hakhel, then why did R. Eleazar not specify this? On the other hand, if the infants do not benefit from attending, then why should the adults be rewarded for bringing them?

R. Yehoshua implies that while these very young children may not directly benefit from it, the true purpose for bringing them is to awaken the parents' sensitivity to the importance of the Torah reading at hakhel. The reward is therefore for the thought that even infants deserve a taste of this experience that embodies the fear of heaven and reinforces love of the law. It is this intention to educate future generations that is worthy of reward. This is R.Yehoshua's "precious pearl."

THE MALBIM, writing in the 19th century, resolves this conundrum very differently. He maintains that it is precisely because infants and toddlers have not yet begun formal learning that their souls are still malleable - a concept somewhat similar to the tabula rasa of Locke and Rousseau. Therefore, the mass assembly at hakhel for spiritual purposes would have an even greater effect on infants. The Malbim describes, with deep psychological insight, the impression this event makes on a small child's soul.

This refers to the very small children, and to giving them a taste of Torah. Since they will not understand the meaning of the words read out, they will not be distracted by the message. They are not jaded, and are still unspoiled by the vanities and burdens of this world, thus their imagination is very powerful. They will not benefit in the manner of adults, who seek to savor every morsel of Torah. Rather, they will benefit in a more powerful way than the adults, because this experience will remain in their minds' eye all their lives.

They will directly experience the awesome sight of millions of Jews standing united for hours, transported beyond commonplace concerns and focused with all their beings on their sole purpose: to hear the lessons that the king is reading from the book. They will understand that in a similar way they must listen and learn from their teachers. As they watch the immense crowds standing in fear and trembling before the Lord, the reverence that the king inspires will add to that awesomeness. The indelible impression of what they witnessed in their infancy will remain with them their entire lives.

This concept motivates many people today to bring their little ones briefly to exceptionally large prayer services or Torah gathering. Despite, or because of, the fact that toddlers may not understand a thing, they will be impressed with the immensity, the focus on Torah and prayer, and the solemnity (as long as they do not disturb the decorum).

The expression "assemble," hakhel, that has become the name for this mitzva, is specifically used to describe another event, the giving of the Torah on Mt. Sinai (Horeb). "The day that you stood before the Lord, your God, at Horeb, when the Lord said to me, "Assemble [hakhel] the people for Me."

It is mistaken to think that the hakhel of Mt. Sinai and the hakhel once in seven years are events consigned to the past. In a sense, we recall the experience of Mt. Sinai every week in the public reading of the Torah. These assemblies of Jews all over the globe are a kind of miniature hakhel. The weekly synagogue readings reflect the giving of the Torah and hakhel in several ways. The source of the directive that the Torah readers in synagogue must stand is found soon after the giving of the Ten Commandments: "But as for you, stand here with Me" (Deuteronomy 5:28).

In another reference to Mt. Sinai, Jewish law requires that three people (the reader, the one called for the reading and an additional person) stand on the platform while the Torah is read, recalling how Moses was a "mediator" transferring the Law from God to the children of Israel. The Torah reader must grasp the Torah scroll during the blessings and reading as if he had just received it from Mt. Sinai.

The last two mitzvot of the Torah are hakhel and the commandment to write a Torah scroll. They focus not on private matters, but rather on deepening the public experience of Torah. The mitzva of writing a scroll of Torah, which applies to each individual Jew, intensifies the entire Jewish people's connection to the Torah. The mitzva of hakhel observed in an attenuated form in Israel this week (and not again for another seven years) recapitulates the communal experience of receiving the Torah at Sinai.

Translated and adapted from Rabbi Haim Sabato's Ahavat Torah by Jessica Setbon and Shira Leibowitz Schmidt. Sabato is the co-founder of the yeshivat hesder in Ma'aleh Adumim and the author of the novels Dawning of the Day, Adjusting Sights and Aleppo Tales.

 

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