Hakhel: Forging a Kahal

Rabbi Yosef Gavriel Bechhofer


Were the Beis HaMikdosh standing today, we would be gathering this Sukkos, upon the conclusion of the Shemittah year: men, women, children and the convert in our midst, to perform the mitzvah of Hakhel, to hear and to learn, so that we might acquire the awe of G-d, our Lord, to enable us to preserve and perform all that is written in the Torah (Devarim 31:11-12).


Although the Torah itself is not explicit on the subject, Chazal (cited by Rashi) tell us that the mitzvah of Hakhel consisted of the king reading the entire Sefer Devarim from atop a wooden platform constructed especially for that purpose.


But we have, unfortunately, no Beis HaMikdosh. We are bereft of the mitzvah of Hakhel.


We might relate a relevant Chassidic tale here. It is said that when the Ba=al Shem Tov zt@l wanted to work a yeshu=ah [salvation] for Am Yisroel he would go to a certain spot in the forest and recite a certain tefillo, and would thus accomplish that yeshu=ah. When it came time for the Ba=al Shem Tov=s successor, the Mezritcher Maggid zt@l, to beseech Hashem for a yeshu=ah, he said: AWe no longer know the tefillo to recite, but we still know the location where the Ba=al Shem Tov went to daven@ - and the Maggid would go to that spot in the forest, and the yeshu=ah would be accomplished. When the Maggid=s disciple, Reb Yisroel of Ruzhin zt@l found it necessary, in his turn, to request HaKadosh Baruch Hu=s intervention, he would say: AWe no longer know the tefillo, nor do we even know the location where my predecessors went to work their wonders, but we know how to relate the story.@ He would relate the story, and the yeshu=ah was accomplished.[1]


It is presumptuous for us to think we might accomplish the equivalent of the mitzvah of Hakhel with a discourse on some related thought. Nevertheless, we must attempt to accomplish what we can, and beseech HaKadosh Baruch Hu to provide us with some measure of that awe that He would bestow on the participants in Hakhel.


At the root of the term AHakhel@ that the Torah employs to describe this mitzvah is the word AKahal.@ The word Kahal is one of several words the Torah uses when discussing various groupings of the Jewish people. Other terms include ABnei Yisroel,@ ABeis Yisroel,@ AYisroel,@ ABais Yaakov,@ AAm,@ AGoy,@ AEidah@ - and the list goes on.



Some Rishonim believe there are multiple words with identical meanings in the Hebrew language. The great Acharonim, however, including the Malbim  zt@l and Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch zt@l have inculcated within us the other view, that there are no synonyms in Lashon HaKodesh. Thus, if the Torah uses various terms to discuss the Jewish nation, they each must possess distinct and separate meanings. It is, therefore, axiomatic, that if the Torah chooses to base the description of this mitzvah on  the word Kahal, that the mitzvah be specifically to recreate a Kahal.


The connotation is clear. In Devarim 4:10 Moshe Rabbeinu relates that Hashem Yisborach had commanded him, in gathering the nation for Mattan Torah: AHakhel li es ho=Am.@ In Devarim 9:10, Moshe calls the day of Mattan Torah: AYom Ha=Kahal.@ Obviously, the event of Hakhel is meant to be a re-enactment of Mattan Torah. Yet what is a Kahal in contradistinction to all the other terms used to describe the Jewish people?


Exploring here the full gamut of terms that we began to note above is not possible for us. Let us analyze one continuum of terms: Goy-Am-Eidah-Kahal.[2]


An inferior description of a national entity is that of AGoy.@ Moshe Rabbeinu describes the process of redemption from Egypt as Agoy me=kerev goy@ - a nation from the midst of another nation. On that phrase Chazal (Vayikrah Rabbah 23:2) comment that Athese were not circumcised and those were not circumcised.@ Obviously, the term goy connotes a parallel between ourselves and the nations of the world, and implies a national identity bereft of any national idea - an association based on some commonality, perhaps, at a minimum, the unique names, language and garb that the Israelites retained in Egypt.[3]


A notch above the term AGoy@ is the term AAm@ - a term that is, in its very spelling, related to the word AIm@ - AWith.@[4] A national idea or ideal bonds the Am. For us, Am Yisroel, that national ideal is the mission with which Hashem charged us at Har Sinai: AMamleches Kohanim v=Goy Kadosh.@ It is not enough for us to be a goy. At a minimum, we must be a Goy Kadosh. Kehuna and Kedusha are our leitmotifs.


Still, both Goy and Am are abstractions: They describe the status of the people as a nation, and do not address the conduct of the people at a given time. For that purpose the Torah uses the terms Eidah and Kahal.


AEidah@: A group convened for a specific purpose (the Malbim says that "Eid" in the Torah always connotes two witnesses  because the two witnesses are a mini‑eida, and Rabbi S. R.Hirsch[5] postulates that they connect  to "yo'ad" ‑ designation). Nevertheless, an Eidah can be an "Eidah Ro'oh." The term defines a lower form of gathering, and thus related to the word AEider@ - a flock or herd.


AKahal@: A group convened in a religious or refined manner.[6] The purpose of many mitzvos is to transform AAdas Yisroel@ into a Kahal Hashem, or AKahal Adas Yisroel.@[7] The purpose of Hakhel was to forge, again, that Kahal.[8]


So where does all this leave us? Well, this year, Hakhel would occur upon the evening of the second day of Sukkos, the first evening of Chol Ha=Mo=ed in Eretz Yisroel. Some of those lucky enough to be in Eretz Yisroel this Sukkos may find some alternate way to commemorate Hakhel. The overwhelming majority of our nation, however, will find itself with but themselves and their thoughts. We must emulate Reb Yisroel of Ruzhin in this respect. Perhaps, as we sit in our respective Sukkos, we might go through a thought process roughly as follows:


Klal Yisroel starts as a Goy. A nation among nations. Endowed, albeit, with great potential from the Avos, but externally undifferentiated. At Har Sinai, Hashem assigned us our national mission: We became an Am. An Am amongst seventy other Amim, with whom we relate in ways symbolized by the seventy plus one parim sacrificed during Sukkos (Sukkah 55b), and in the verse that concludes the Hoshanos: ASo that all the nations of the world will know that G-d is the L-rd, there is no other.@


Sometimes we are not acting in complete accordance with this lofty destiny: Then the Torah calls us an Eidah. We strive for the high level of achievement that the term Kahal connotes. To attain that level requires unity. The unity that Sukkos implies in the combination of the four species representing the four types of Jews, and in the Gemara Sukkah 27b that all Yisroel might sit in one Sukkah. A unity that could only emerge from a year-long hiatus from cultivating even the holy soil of Eretz Yisroel, a Shemittah year immersed in Torah and Avodas Hashem.[9] That unity includes all believing Jews: The one who is a little too Litvish, the one who is a little too Chassidish, the one who is a little too Yekkish; the one who is a little too Hungarian; and the one who is a little too Sefardi. The one who is a bit too modern; and the one who is a bit too farfrumpt. The one who talks too much in Shul, and the one who is too strident with those who talk a little in Shul. The one who lived through the Holocaust, and his or her great-grandchildren.


Were there to be a Beis HaMikdash, we would all be standing together - men, women and children - reenacting Kabbolas HaTorah Ak=ish echad b=lev echad.@[10] We would be hearing our king, representing our unity, intoning the words that comprise the basis of our unity.


Contemplating these thoughts, you might gaze up at your Schach, and remind yourself of the Ananei HaKavod, the clouds of glory that, according to one opinion, the Sukkah represents.[11] Those clouds likely connect to the clouds that enveloped Har Sinai at Kabbolas HaTorah. They encompassed all the nation then, and throughout the forty years in the Midbar. Perhaps you might just imagine all of our collective Schach intertwining, as if we were all united in person, forging the Kahal ha=Kadosh that the Hakhel accomplished. Doubtless the thought will then cross your mind: AMe k=Amcha Yisroel Goy echod bo=oretz.@



Rabbi Yosef Gavriel Bechhofer, a frequent contributor to these pages, and his family recently moved from Chicago to Monsey, and Rabbi Bechhofer will be the Rosh Yeshiva of Beis Medrash Horav Shmuel Yaakov, a cooperative venture of the IDT Corporation and Touro College in Newark, NJ. Rabbi Bechhofer would like to use the opportunity of this paragraph to inform the JO readership that a corrected and expanded Hebrew version of his most recent essay, written in conjunction with Rabbi Ari Zivotofsky (March, 2000), on the Rabbi Sa=adia Gaon - Rabbi Aharon ben Meir Calendar Controversy, will appear in the forthcoming volume of the Yeshurun Torah journal. Rabbi Bechhofer would also like to inform the readership that just before leaving Chicago, the Shiur in Daf Yomi Yerushalmi that he wrote about in the Nov. >97 issue, successfully completed Talmud Yerushalmi (tapes of the entire cycle are available), and a siyum, under the auspices of the Daf Yomi Comission of the Agudath Israel of America was held in July.


[1]We might also apply here the principle of AU=neshalma porim sefoseinu@ -  Yuma 86b.

[2]An indispensable tool for the amateur linguist and philologist is the AYa=ir Or - HaCarmel,@ two works generally bound together, the former by the Malbim himself, the latter a compendium of his comments, culled from all of his writings, on the definitions of words and the differences between synonyms. Much of what we propose here (and much more than we have proposed here) may be found under the various relevant entries in the HaCarmel, although we have deviated from the Malbim=s explanations.

[3]Perhaps AUmmah@ and ALashon@ and other even Alower@ terms are based on commonalities in only some of these areas.

[4]This is one reason why Dr. Isaac Breuer zt@l, the subject of one of our earlier essays here, preferred the term Am Yisroel to that of Klal Yisroel, inferring, as it does, our national mission and destiny. While explaining why specifically the king reads the parashiyos at Hakhel, Rabbi Shlomo Fischer shlita writes (Derashos Beis Yishai vol. 1, siman 14):


This issue is readily understood based on a major principle of the Torah, although one, for some reason, not enumerated by the Rambam among the Thirteen Principles in his Commentary on the Mishna Perek Cheilek.It is, in truth, the most fundamental principle of our belief, and it is built on solid foundations, explicit in Torah, Nevi=im, Kesuvim, and throughout Chazal in the Talmud and Midrashim, in prayers and in blessings, in kedushos and in havdolos, all of which were formulated by Chazal... and, it is that HaKadosh Baruch Hu chose us to be a unique nation, as it is said: AAnd you shall be for Me a holy kingdom, a nation of priests.@ As we say in the Birchas HaTorah: AWho chose us from amongst all the nations and gave us His Torah.@ If so, the Torah is not the purview of individuals, but the Torah of the Klal of the Jewish people.


This is a wonderful matter: That an entire nationality [AUmmah@], men, women and children, smart and dumb, together form a holy nation [AGoy@], and every member of the Jewish people is a limb in the body [AShiur Kommah@] of Knesses Yisroel that in turn comprises the Shechinah [Divine Presence]. This is the reason why all Jews are responsible for one another...


Thus, the Rashba (in a responsum), the Ikkarim (4:40), and the Maharsha in Kiddushin 39b all write regarding the principles that there is no reward for mitzvos in This World, and that a Tzaddik may suffer a bitter fate while a Rasha enjoys a good lot, that all this pertains only to individuals. It is concerning Klal Yisroel, that  the Torah and the Nevi=im, and [especially] the second paragraph of Shma are explicit, that when the Jews fulfill Hashem=s will He rewards them in This World - and that when they sin He punishes them in This World. For Klal Yisroel, reward and punishment in This World are natural consequences.

[5]At the begriming of the twelfth chapter of Shemos, where the Torah juxtaposes Kahal, Eidah, Yisroel. The Artscroll Stone Chumash cites Rabbi Hirsch there as well.

[6]The Sidduro shel Shabbos at the end of Shoresh 6 Anaf 1 explains the statement in Tehillim "Tehilaso b'Kahal Chassidim" that through Kahal, the gevuros become chasadim. He explains that in KH"L the H = the five gevuros, and the K-L = the five chasadim (5x26 [Shem Havaya"h] = 130. Note the significance of other 130's, such as "Tzam@ - fasts turn gevuros into chasadim). He alludes to the custom during davening, (at least) of clasping one's left hand with and enveloping it in the right one - enveloping gevuros in chasadim.


If we may be permitted to digress, and indulge in some Afree association@:


We may identify the central theme of Purim as the idea of "NiKHaLu ha'Yehudim" as the fundamental idea of Purim. Many incidents in the Megilla took place in various forms of "chatzer.@ The first place in Tanach that Adar is mentioned is in Parashas Mas'ei: "Chatzar Adar.@


The Chatzer is the Outer World, removed from the direct presence of the King ‑ whether it is Achashveirosh or the King of Kings.


Chatzer also tells us how to deal with the Hester Panim inherent in that distance from Hashem. The R represents ARah,@ the Evil that springs from the concealment of Hashem's presence. CHaTZeR = Chetz Rah, split the Rah in half. Half Rah = Kahal (270/2 = 135). The response to Rah, and the manner in which one breaks through that concealment, is by unifying the Kahal (135) in Tzom (136), Kol  (136), Mammon (136) ‑ the KHL plus the agent of yichud (known in gematriyah as the "kollel").

[7]It is beyond the scope of our discussion to get into all possible applications, but we should note several areas that allow for additional analysis: The difference between Hashem=s brocho to Yaakov Avinu in Parashas Vayishlach, where Yaakov is blessed to have a AKahal Goyim@ vs. his relating of that brocho to Yosef in Parashas Vayechi, where Yaakov restates it as AKahal Amim@; the differences between the places where the Torah speaks about Einei Ha=Eidah vs. Einei Ha=Kahal; the differences between the penalty of Kareis from the midst of the Am vs. Kareis from the Kahal; the superficial redundancies of Bamidbar 10:3 vs. 10:7, both of which describe the process of gathering the people via the trumpets, but one of which uses Eidah while the other uses Kahal; and, the interplay of Eidah and Kahal in the parashiyos of Adas Korach, and, especially, Mei Merivah; and, finally (for now), the rarity of the verb form of Eidah vs. the frequency of the verb form of Kahal.

[8]While we must be cautious extrapolating from English translations, it is interesting to note that the English translation for Eidah is Aassembly@ while the translation of Kahal is Acongregation.@


Through the miracles of modern technology (and the DBS Torah CD-Rom Library), we may now know that the Ramchal zt@l in Adir ba=Marom vol. 2, Bi=ur Chalom Daniel classifies the three levels as Kahal, Eidah, Yisroel, and has them correspond (in reverse order) to Nefesh, Ruach, Neshomo, which, in turn, are linked to Mo=ach, Lev, Kaveid, the acrostic of which is MeLeKh. Elsewhere (Taktav Tefillos 91, 178, 483) he draws correspondences to the three Avos, to Kohanim, Levi=im and Yisroelim, and more.

[9]Indeed, Rabbi Shlomo Fischer (ibid.) proposes that it is not that Hakhel follows Shemittah, rather, the entire Shemittah year serves as preparation for Hakhel.

[10]Rashi, Shemos 19:2. If you have a bit more time, please consider this: Hakhel (in the Sefer HaChinuch=s listing) is the penultimate mitzvah; the ultimate mitzvah is the writing of a Sefer Torah. We have a mesorah that there are 600, 000 permutations of the Torah=s letters, and that Yisroel is an acrostic: AYesh Shishim Ribbo Osi=os LaTorah.@ It seems that the two mitzvos are linked.

[11]A good idea in any event, as made explicit right at the beginning of Messeches Sukkah.