The Little Ones*

by Eliezer Segal

Deuteronomy 31

10 Moses commanded them, saying, At the end of every seven years, in the set time of the year of release, in the festival of booths,11when all Israel is come to appear before the Lord your God in the place which he shall choose, you shall read this law before all Israel in their hearing.12 Assemble the people, the men and the women and the little ones, and your sojourner who is within your gates, that they may hear, and that they may learn, and fear the Lord your God, and observe to do all the words of this law;13 and that their children, who have not known, may hear, and learn to fear the Lord your God, as long as you live in the land where you go over the Jordan to possess it.

This passage describes a kind of Torah-reading on steroids. Of course, we conduct partial readings through the year in our individual congregations, at which we read sections from the law of Moses, and these are crucial vehicles for instilling the teachings in our ears, hearts and minds. But the ceremony described here is infinitely intense: Every woman, man and child in Israel are to gather together once in seven years in order to have the Torah read to them. There is no difference in the words; they are the same ones that they have heard in their local synagogues. But the occasion itself has a power of its own that derives from the infrequency of its scheduling and the inclusiveness of its audience.

This very inclusiveness has been puzzling to some of our sages. After all, what advantage is there to inviting children? They are unable to understand what is being recited, and are likely to turn into distractions, defeating the whole purpose of the gathering.

In a famous d'rashah delivered in Yavneh by Rabbi Eleazar ben Azariah, he posed this question, and offered the solution, that the purpose of bringing children to the ceremony was in order to grant reward to those that bring them. This interpretation (which is also cited by Rashi to the verse) seems to imply that the children who attend were unlikely to learn anything, but their parents would score extra points in their mitzvah account for the extra work involved in bringing them.

Some rabbis in the Talmud were so impressed with this explanation that they were moved to declare that it was a precious jewel.

Some of our commentators were not so impressed with Rabbi Eleazar's discourse. For one thing, it seems to contradict the words of the Torah itself, which states clearly (in verse 13) the expectation that their children, who have not known, may hear, and learn to fear the Lord your God. According to this, the reason for bringing children to the Hakhel gathering is because they themselves are capable of benefiting from the experience. It will, in some way, enhance their religious characters and their spirituality.

Don Isaac Abravanel was utterly indignant at the suggestion that children could not derive direct benefit from the hakhel experience. He therefore suggests that we may have misunderstood Rabbi Eleazar ben Azariah's comment about granting a reward for those who bring the children to Jerusalem. This is not some simplistic scoring of brownie points, extra credits or celestial air miles for performing actions that have no inherent usefulness. Quite the contrary: The Torah assumes that young children are perceptive enough to be influenced by their participation in the momentous occasion of the Hakhel. What Rabbi Eleazar ben Azariah is pointing out is that the parents, who are responsible for the proper education of their offspring, will thereby be benefiting from the profound pedagogic advantages that their children receive by attending the Hakhel.

In this crucial way, they enjoy a reward for bringing their children.

I myself attach great value to the traditional childhood as a time for play, and do not think that we should be grooming our two-year-olds for a scholarly careers, whether at Harvard or at a prestigious Yeshivah. Nevertheless, it is clear that they are capable of considerably more intelligence and responsibility than we often give them credit for.

The special mystique of the Hakhel ceremony goes beyond the recitation of the words of the Torah. This dimensions was astutely noted by the author of the Sefer Ha-Hinnukh. It was the immensity and the momentousness of the occasion that created an indelible impression on all its participants. Being part of an event in which the entire nation--men, women and children--were united in one place for the sake of hearing the words of the Torah was a fundamental experience that would remain with them for the rest of their lives, even for those who could not appreciate its full significance at the time.

I belong to a generation that was deeply shaped--maybe even defined--by various mass gatherings and demonstrations in which it participated: events like Martin Luther King's march on Washington, Woodstock, rallies in support of Israel Soviet Jewry, and others, have become inseparable parts of who we are. I know people who were decisively affected by their participation in the funeral of a great Torah scholar, or in the celebration of the conclusion of the Daf Yomi cycle. The lasting effects that these events exert on our spirits transcend the specific words of the speeches and songs that are heard there. The impact of such a gathering is not lost on children--sometimes even more powerfully than adults.

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*Delivered at Congregation House of Jacob - Mikveh Israel, Calgary, October 8, 2005.