In just about a month, we would have the opportunity for the mitzvah of hakhel, on Chol Ha-Mo’ed Sukkot of the Shemittah year. Well, according to Ibn Ezra, anyway. I was startled to discover that Ibn Ezra, against pretty much everyone else, says that Hakhel was performed during the Shemittah year itself, and not the year after Shemittah.

During my little bit of research, I came upon several different ideas regarding what Hakhel was intended to accomplish, and, consequently, why it was performed when it was. First, the verses themselves:

דברים פרק לא

(י) וַיְצַו מֹשֶׁה אוֹתָם לֵאמֹר מִקֵּץ שֶׁבַע שָׁנִים בְּמֹעֵד שְׁנַת הַשְּׁמִטָּה בְּחַג הַסֻּכּוֹת:
(יא) בְּבוֹא כָל יִשְׂרָאֵל לֵרָאוֹת אֶת פְּנֵי יְדֹוָד אֱלֹהֶיךָ בַּמָּקוֹם אֲשֶׁר יִבְחָר תִּקְרָא אֶת הַתּוֹרָה הַזֹּאת נֶגֶד כָּל יִשְׂרָאֵל בְּאָזְנֵיהֶם:
(יב) הַקְהֵל אֶת הָעָם הָאֲנָשִׁים וְהַנָּשִׁים וְהַטַּף וְגֵרְךָ אֲשֶׁר בִּשְׁעָרֶיךָ לְמַעַן יִשְׁמְעוּ וּלְמַעַן יִלְמְדוּ וְיָרְאוּ אֶת יְדֹוָד אֱלֹהֵיכֶם וְשָׁמְרוּ לַעֲשׂוֹת אֶת כָּל דִּבְרֵי הַתּוֹרָה הַזֹּאת:
(יג) וּבְנֵיהֶם אֲשֶׁר לֹא יָדְעוּ יִשְׁמְעוּ וְלָמְדוּ לְיִרְאָה אֶת יְדֹוָד אֱלֹהֵיכֶם כָּל הַיָּמִים אֲשֶׁר אַתֶּם חַיִּים עַל הָאֲדָמָה אֲשֶׁר אַתֶּם עֹבְרִים אֶת הַיַּרְדֵּן שָׁמָּה לְרִשְׁתָּהּ:

And Moshe commanded them: At the end of seven years, during the time of the Shemittah year, on the festival of Sukkot, when all of Israel comes to appear before God at the place that He will choose, you shall read this Torah before all of Israel, in their ears. Gather the nation – men, women, children, and immigrants who are in your midst in order that they hear and in order that they study, and they will fear the Lord, your God, and they will observe the performance of this whole Torah. And your sons who did not know will hear and learn to fear the Lord, your God, as long as you live on the land that you are crossing the Jordan in order to inherit. (Devarim 31:10-13)

  • Ibn Ezra, ad loc, states that this was supposed to take place during the Shemittah year itself. He says that, like Shabbat, the purpose of Shemittah is to provide an opportunity to turn away from mundane pursuits and to engage in more spiritually edifying endeavors. Hakhel, which comes at the outset of Shemittah, is a sort of inaugural Shemittah kick-off event whose purpose is to get everybody – even children and non-Jewish immigrants – engaged in Torah. Incidentally, the phrase ‘mi-ketz sheva shanim’ can be interpreted either as during or after Shemittah – see Devarim 15:10
  • The traditional interpretation (Gemara, Rashi, et al) is that Hakhel occurs during the eighth year. It is called Shemittah because it is still being observed de facto in that there’s really not much for a farmer to do then. Perhaps this is why that time was chosen – it’s convenient for everybody, and doesn’t interrupt any farm work. Thus, as indicated in several Rishonim (Rasa”g, Chinukh), the choice of the eighth year is simply coincidental. There should be a gathering of the entire nation every seven years in order to read the Torah publicly and transmit it to those who were not familiar with it, and in order that people hear it and continue to learn it. The choice of Sukkot, a pilgrimage festival, and the eighth year, when there was little, if any, ‘gathering’ taking place in the field, was for convenience.
  • Rabbeinu Bachya provides a rationale which links Hakhel directly to the post-Shemittah year. He relates the seven-year Shemittah cycle, as well as the seven-day Shabbat cycle, to a grater, cosmic Creation cycle in which the world exists for seven ‘millenia’ (purposefully in parentheses), six of ‘creation’ and one of ‘destruction’. The beginning of the first year after Shemitta represents the beginning of a new creation cycle. Therefore, the Torah, which is the world’s blueprint, is read at the site of the Temple, from where the world was created. Thus, according to Rabbeinu Bachya, Hakhel is a mythic re-enactment of the world’s creation after its symbolic destruction during the Shemittah year.
So we have three explanations – the educational, the practical, and the mythic. I think that each one provides a valuable perspective on this mitzvah and, indeed, on the mitzvah of Shemittah as well.

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