Close to the beginning of this week’s Torah portion, Moses writes a Torah scroll for the people, and instructs the people to hakhel “to assemble” as follows:

“Every seventh year, the shimita year, at the Feast of Booths, when all Israel comes to appear before the Lord your G-d in the place that G-d will choose, you shall read the Torah aloud in the presence of all Israel. Assemble the people: men, women, children, and the strangers in your communities. (Deuteronomy 31:10-13)”

Since this year is the shimtta year, and that Sukkot is just around the corner, it is worth focusing on this commandment, particularly since it is no longer celebrated in our own time (like so many commandments which depend upon the existence of a Temple in Jerusalem). Why are the Jewish people commanded to perform such a ritual? Why must everyone, even little children and “strangers” be invited? What is the advantage of a public recitation of the Torah’s commandments over more intimate study sessions? And, if this is so important, why must it happen only every once in seven years?

Shlomo Ephraim Luntschitz, author of the 17th century commentary on the Torah, Kli Yakar, draws on a number of classical rabbinic texts to attempt to answer questions like these. He argues that the goal of this event is nothing short of ahdut, or Jewish unity. After all, he argues, the holiday of Sukkot is one during which Jews are already accustomed to gathering things together, thinking particularly about the four separate species which are joined together to constitute the lulav. Luntschitz here hints at a famous Midrash which equates each of the species of the lulav (and etrog) with different types of Jewish personalities. He argues that there is also significance to this ritual happening at the end of the shimita year during which Jews in Israel were to allow their fields to lie fallow. With no planting and harvesting, everyone would gather whatever fruits and herbs grew in the wild in a state of equality and unity.

We might lament the lack of hakel in our day, thinking that such displays of Jewish unity are confined to the mythic past. Yet the reading of this biblical passage on the Shabbat between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur teaches us that among the goals of the season, in addition to working on ourselves as individuals and smaller communities, must be seek the unity of the Jewish people, and indeed of all people. Jews, like Americans in general, can sometimes seem to be hopelessly divided by politics, religion, race, ethnicity, class, gender and a myriad of other identities. Hakel reminds us that, despite our differences, there is still hope that human beings can assemble, can unify.


Rabbi Noah Benjamin Bickart, Ph.D. is the inaugural Jack, Joseph and Morton Mandel Chair in Jewish Studies at John Carroll University in University Heights.