Purpose of Hakhel


To Listen, Learn, Fear, and Observe

The penultimate commandment of the Torah, the ceremony of Hakhel (Devarim 31:10-13), requires the nation to gather once in seven years, on Sukkot, to participate in a public reading of the Torah:


(יב) הַקְהֵל אֶת הָעָם הָאֲנָשִׁים וְהַנָּשִׁים וְהַטַּף וְגֵרְךָ אֲשֶׁר בִּשְׁעָרֶיךָ לְמַעַן יִשְׁמְעוּ וּלְמַעַן יִלְמְדוּ וְיָרְאוּ אֶת י"י אֱלֹהֵיכֶם וְשָׁמְרוּ לַעֲשׂוֹת אֶת כׇּל דִּבְרֵי הַתּוֹרָה הַזֹּאת. (יג) וּבְנֵיהֶם אֲשֶׁר לֹא יָדְעוּ יִשְׁמְעוּ וְלָמְדוּ לְיִרְאָה אֶת י"י אֱלֹהֵיכֶם כׇּל הַיָּמִים אֲשֶׁר אַתֶּם חַיִּים עַל הָאֲדָמָה אֲשֶׁר אַתֶּם עֹבְרִים אֶת הַיַּרְדֵּן שָׁמָּה לְרִשְׁתָּהּ.

(12) Assemble the people, the men and the women and the little ones, 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; (13) and that their children, who have not known, may hear, and learn to fear the Lord your God, as long as ye live in the land whither ye go over the Jordan to possess it.'

What is the purpose of this assembly?  While verse 12 mentions four goals: יִשְׁמְעוּ, יִלְמְדוּ, וְיָרְאוּ, וְשָׁמְרוּ (listen, learn, fear, and observe), verse 13 mentions only three verbs, omitting the final verb relating to observing the commandments.  Is this just an abridgment or is there some significance to the difference?  Either way, what is the relationship between the various actions?  Are they means to an end or goals in and of themselves?  Moreover, how will a once in seven year gathering suffice to teach proper observance of the commandments, or even instill a fear of God in the listeners?

Why Children?

The commandment of Hakhel is unique in its all inclusive nature; men, women, children and sojourners are all supposed to assemble.  The young are specifically highlighted.  Verse 12 stipulates "הַטַּף", while verse 13 mentions "וּבְנֵיהֶם אֲשֶׁר לֹא יָדְעוּ" ("and their children who did not know"). It is unclear whether these terms are synonymous, or to what age group they refer.  Are "טַף" infants or older children?  If the former, what possible benefit could be gained by their attending?  What is it that the children "do not know"?  Have they simply not yet learned Torah, or does this refer to their not having witnessed Hashem's miracles?1  Either way, why does the verse single them out and emphasize what they stand to gain from the Hakhel ceremony?2

Additional Questions

  • A septennial ceremony – Why does the ceremony occur only once in seven years, rather than annually, or even during every pilgrimage festival?  Would it not be beneficial to read the Torah more regularly? 
  • "בְּמֹעֵד שְׁנַת הַשְּׁמִטָּה בְּחַג הַסֻּכּוֹת" – Is there any significance to the fact that the ceremony takes place around Shemittah?  Why was Sukkot specifically chosen?  Were these times picked simply for their convenience3 or for a more fundamental reason?
  • What is read?– The verses direct that "הַתּוֹרָה הַזֹּאת" be read.  Does this refer to the entire five Books of the Torah or to a particular section?  If the latter, which part is supposed to be read and why?
  • Who reads?– The Torah does not stipulate who is supposed to read for the nation, instructing simply "תִּקְרָא".  Is anyone allowed to read?