Among the holidays of the Hebrew calendar, Sukkot has been endowed with more than its share of rituals and ceremonies. We are all familiar with its rustic booths, the lulav and etrog, and with the solemn Hoshana processions around the synagogue.
There is however a momentous biblical precept associated with Sukkot that has been largely forgotten. This ceremony, known as the Hakhel ["gather together"], is described in the book of Deuteronomy:
At the end of seven years, in the solemnity of the year of release, in the feast of tabernacles. When all Israel is come to appear before the Lord thy God in the place which he shall choose, thou shalt read this law before all Israel in their hearing. Gather the people together, men, and women, and children, and thy stranger that is within thy 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.
Though the Torah seems to be ordaining the ceremony for the septennial Sabbatical year, the Jewish oral tradition understood that it was to take place at the beginning of the eighth year, that is to say, in the year following the sabbatical.
As for the date upon which the Hakhel should be convened, rabbinic sources confront us with an array of contradictory and confusing traditions about which of the eight days of Sukkot the Torah had in mind. The Babylonian Talmud understood that it should be on the second day (that is, the first day of Hol ha-Mo'ed), and this interpretation has been accepted as normative. However, according to accurate manuscripts of the Mishnah, the ceremony actually took place after the completion of the festival, on the night following Sh'mini Atzeret or the following day, when the full complement of pilgrims were assembled in Jerusalem and had not yet begun their homeward journeys. The gathering was attended by men, women and children alike.
The prevailing tradition declared that it was the king who should read the Torah to the people, and tells of one such ceremony in which king Agrippa did the reading. A special platform was constructed for the occasion and trumpets were sounded. The pageantry was heightened as the Torah scroll was passed around among the various Temple officials until the High Priest handed it to the monarch. On this occasion, Agrippa was so moved by the scriptural reading that he began to weep and to question his own right to the throne of Israel, since he was descended from the Herodian line of Idumean converts. The people cried out "Do not fear, Agrippa! You are our brother, you are our brother."
It would be reasonable to expect that the practice of Hakhel would cease with the loss of Jewish sovereignty and the destruction of Jerusalem. And yet we find that aspects of the Hakhel continued to be observed even when the Temple lay in ruins. Thus, there is evidence that it was carried out in the academy of Yavneh, the main centre of Jewish spiritual leadership in the generation following the fall of Jerusalem. The rabbis of the time transferred to their own institutions, such as the courts, synagogues and academies, several of the functions that had hitherto been the prerogatives of the Temple and its priesthood.
It is probable that the ideal of the Hakhel also played a crucial role in shaping the rhythms of the Torah reading in the Land of Israel.
It has long been recognized that the Jews in the Holy Land, during the talmudic and early medieval eras, divided the weekly readings from the Torah according to the "triennial cycle." In actuality, the complete reading of the Torah was completed over a span of three and one half years. Recent scholarship has argued persuasively that this system was designed so that two cycles could be completed in exactly seven years. It was at the conclusion of this double cycle that a "Simhat Torah" would be celebrated on the date that coincided with the Biblical Hakhel gathering. When the Babylonian Jews introduced their own one-year Torah-reading cycle, they also arranged it so that it would conclude and recommence at the end of Sukkot, the date on which we still celebrate Simhat Torah.
Even during the Middle Ages the Hakhel did not cease. The observance of a Hakhel ceremony with great pomp and ceremony was attested as late as the eleventh century. At this time, the Jewish presence in Jerusalem was enjoying a revival such as it had not known since the days of the Second Temple, and the holy city again played host to the rabbinical academy of the Land of Israel.
When the Muslims liberated Jerusalem from the Byzantine Christians, the Jewish community was quick to purchase rights to the Mount of Olives. The Biblical character of Sukkot as a time of pilgrimage was reinstated, as Jews from around the world flocked to their capital, a development that helped fortify the ties between Israel and the diaspora communities.
Documents from this time describe a solemn gathering that was convened on the Mount of Olives at the end of Sukkot. To the accompaniment of song, the pilgrims would march around the gates of Jerusalem and then proceed to the Mount of Olives for prayer. The occasion was also used to issue official proclamations regarding rabbinical appointments, the religious calendar (at a time when Palestinian Jewry was reclaiming its ancient prerogative over the determining of the sacred calendar) and other matters of public interest. Elaborate prayers were recited for the welfare of the academy's benefactors, even as grave maledictions were directed at the Karaite heretics. The imposing proportions of the event were not lost on Christian and Muslim chroniclers who describe it with great interest.
It is difficult not to be amazed by the sheer tenacity of this ancient rite, and by our ancestors' determination to keep it alive for so long after the destruction of the Temple. Though there are many possible reasons for the phenomenon, I feel that much of the Hakhel gathering's attraction stemmed from the way in which it gave tangible expression to that most evasive of ideals: the unity of the Jewish people.
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