Jerusalem—The annual celebration of Sukkot is always a magical experience in Israel’s capital. Between haggling for the arba minim (four species) in the shuk, joining Chasidic simchat bet hasho’eva celebrations in Me’ah She’arim, attending the annual birkat hakohanim (priestly blessing) along with thousands of Jews at the Western Wall, and dancing at huge communal hakafot on Simchat Torah, the fall holiday code-named Zeman Simchateinu (The Time of our Happiness) simply comes alive, and the happiness and joy are felt from every corner of the city. However, this year, Sukkot in Jerusalem will be even more unique as it will feature an international event which takes place once every seven years: the Hakhel ceremony.
Hakhel, which comes from the Hebrew root of “gathering in,” is a biblical command dating back to Mt. Sinai. On the first day of Chol Ham’oed Sukkot following the end of the shemitah (ritual sabbatical) year, the King of Israel is commanded to get up in front of the Jews who made the triannual pilgrimage to Jerusalem, ceremonially receive the Torah scroll from several high profile Jewish leaders including the Kohen Gadol (High Priest) and read several passages from the Torah. These readings, which included the two paragraphs of Shema, the command to bring ma’asrot (tithes) on produce, and regulations on Jewish rulers, were followed by seven special blessings which were only said at Hakhel. Even in the time of the Temples, when korbanot (offerings) were consumed by divine fires on a daily basis, the ceremony of Hakhel was considered unique and exciting, and the crowds who attended were so large that the Torah simply writes that it is as if “the entire nation” was there.
After the destruction of the Second Temple over 2,000 years ago, Hakhel itself was discontinued, as there was very little to do without the correct personnel and setting to conduct the ceremony. Rabbi Menachem Schneerson, the last Lubavitcher Rebbe, very famously called upon Jews to conduct their own “mini-Hakhel” gatherings in public places around the world, in order to build unity and encourage the virtues that the Jewish kings read about during the ceremonies.
However, with the founding of the State of Israel and the return of Jewish rulership to the Land of Israel, one of the first issues to return was that of Hakhel. As Jews had been keeping track of shemitah years throughout the exile, it was no secret when to do Hakhel. When the city of Jerusalem was reunited in 1967, and the Jewish people regained free access to the Western Wall, the “where” of Hakhel became a possibility, too. However, it wasn’t until 1994 that the Chief Rabbinate of Israel instituted an official Hakhel gathering at the Wall, with the chief rabbis, the president of Israel and others in attendance. The following Hakhel, in 2001, even found President Moshe Katzav, in his role as de-facto Jewish king, reading those portions. To date, there have been three official Hakhel ceremonies, each featuring thousands of Jews gathering at the Western Wall to hear the president of Israel read portions of the Torah before his people.
This year, Israelis and visitors alike will have the opportunity to take part in history by joining the fourth Hakhel gathering at the Western Wall. Even though details are not yet finalized, the ceremony is expected to take place on the second day of Chol Hamoed Sukkot (Wednesday, September 30) around 5 p.m., and President Reuven Rivlin is expected to officiate at the Hakhel.
Whether one is into religious events, large gatherings of people or being part of Jewish history, Hakhel will be the place to be on the second day of Chol Hamoed for anyone who will be in the Jerusalem area. Stay tuned to the Western Wall Heritage Foundation’s website (english.thekotel.org) closer to the holiday, in order to get more updated and final details on this historic ceremony.
By Tzvi Silver, JLNJ Israel