Parshat Nitzavim-Vayeilech: The Mitzvah of Hakhel

“And Moshe commanded them, saying, ‘At the end of [every] seven years, at an appointed time, [after] the Shemitah year, on the Festival of Succot, when all Israel comes to appear before Hashem, your God, in the place He will choose, you shall read this Torah before all Yisrael, in their ears. Assemble the people: the men, the women, and the children, and your convert in your cities, in order that they hear, and in order that they learn and fear Hashem, your God, and they will observe to do all the words of this Torah. And their children, who did not know, will hear and learn to fear Hashem, your God, all the days that you live on the land, to which you are crossing the Jordan, to possess’.” (Devarim 31:10-13)

This week’s parasha describes the mitzvah of HaKhel. This mitzvah is performed on the Succot following the Shemitah year. The nation gathers at the Bait HaMikdash – the Temple – for the festival. On the day following the first day of the festival, the entire nation gathers in the outer courtyard of the Bait HaMikdash. At this assembly the king reads to the nation major portions of Sefer Devarim.

The above passages stipulate that men, women and children are included in this mitzvah. It is unusual for children to be explicitly included in mitzvot. Presumably, the children to whom the passages refer are minors. As minors they are not obligated to perform the mitzvot. Why are they included in this commandment?

Nachmanides suggests that children to whom the passages refer are not infants. Instead, they are approaching the age of maturity and will soon be obligated to observe the commandments. They are capable of participating fully in this assembly and will benefit from hearing this impressive reading of the Torah. Therefore, it is not unreasonable for these children to be included in this commandment.

However, Nachmanides acknowledges that his interpretation of the passages does not seem to agree with its treatment by the Talmud. The Talmud asks why children are included in the commandment. The Talmud answers that children are included in order to provide a reward to their parents who bring them to Yerushalayim and to the assembly.[1]

The Talmud’s response is enigmatic. It requires further consideration. But regardless of the exact meaning of the Talmud’s response, it clearly does not correspond with Nachmanides’ interpretation of “children.” If these children were close to adulthood, as Nachmanides suggests, the Talmud should have simply responded that they are brought because they are of adequate maturity to benefit from the event. The implication of the Talmud’s response is that the children are not brought for their own benefit. They are brought in order to provide benefit – reward – to their parents who bring them. This implies that the children to whom the passage refers are youngsters who are not yet approaching adulthood.[2]

Based on this discussion in the Talmud, most authorities disagree with Nachmanides and maintain that even very young children are included in this mitzvah. As a result of this consensus ruling, Minchat Chinuch explores the minimum age at which children are included in the commandment.[3]

HaKatav VeHaKabalah offers a novel explanation of the Talmud’s comments. He explains that according to the Talmud, the children to whom the passages refer are specifically those who are very young and unable to fully grasp the event. These young children would inevitably be among the assembly. Their parents converged upon Yerushalayim and the Bait HaMikdash from all parts of the Land of Israel. They could not be expected to leave their children at home with the few individuals who are exempt from this commandment. According to HaKatav VeHakabalah, the Talmud is explaining that although these children would be present in any event – as a consequence of practical considerations – the Torah legislates their inclusion in the assembly. Through legislating their inclusion their presence becomes part of the commandment. As a result, the efforts of their parents to bring them to the assembly are not merely a response to a practical necessity. These efforts become part of the mitzvah. As part of the mitzvah, these efforts are worthy of reward.[4]

Tosefot seem to disagree with this interpretation. Tosefot’s exact comments will be explored later.

The comments of Sefer HaChinuch seem to imply a different interpretation of the Talmud’s comment. Sefer HaChinuch discusses the objective of the mitzvah of HaKhel. He explains that the Torah is essential to our lives. The HaKhel assembly was an impressive event. The massing of the entire nation to hear the reading by the king of Sefer Devarim created a strong, moving impression upon all those present. It reinforced the importance and centrality of the Torah in our lives.[5]

According to this insight, an alternative interpretation of the Talmud’s comments emerges. The young children were not included in order to provide them with instruction. They were too young. However, their presence did impact the character of the assembly as a national event. Their parents who bought them contributed to the uniqueness and immensity of the event. The Talmud is telling us that the parents receive rewards for their efforts to create this special and impressive spectacle.

Maimonides does not speak directly to this issue. However, he does discuss a series of related questions which provides an insight into his position regarding the inclusion of young children.

The king read from Sefer Devarim in Ivrit – Hebrew. Among those required to be present are converts who may not even understand Ivrit. Why are those who cannot even understand the reading required to be present? Maimonides adds that even great scholars who are thoroughly versed and committed to the teachings of the Torah must participate in the assembly. Why must these individuals include themselves? Finally, in an assembly of this size, it is inevitable that a significant portion of those present will not be able to hear the king’s reading. What expectation does the Torah have of these individuals? How are they to participate?

Maimonides responds that although all of these groups cannot directly benefit from hearing the king’s reading, they are required to attentively focus on the reading. He continues to explain that the objective of this assembly is to strengthen our commitment to the Torah. We are to attend to the reading – even if we cannot hear or understand it – in awe and as if we are reliving the Revelation at Sinai. In other words, serious, attentive participation in the event is an end in itself. The experience of this participation is achieved regardless of whether the participant can fully understand, or even hear, the reading.[6]

It is notable that according to Maimonides, the essential element of the event is not actually hearing the reading and understanding it. The very participation in the event is designed to make a strong emotional impression upon those assembled. From this prospective, it is not necessary for a child to be intellectually mature or approaching adulthood to benefit from the event. The emotional impact of the event will be felt even by younger children. The message of the Talmud is that parents are required to provide this moving emotional experience for their children.

Let us now consider Toesfot’s comments. Tosefot comment that from the mitzvah of HaKhel we learn that it is appropriate to bring young children to synagogue.[7] As noted above, Tosefot apparently do not accept the HaKatav VeHaKabalah’s interpretation of the Talmud’s comments. Unlike the instance of HaKhel, the children could be left at home. There is not a practical imperative to include young children in the assembly in the synagogue. These comments seem to indicate that even though young children could be left at home, it is preferable to bring them to synagogue.

However, Tosefot’s comments are completely understandable from Maimonides’ perspective. Although young children may not be capable of intellectually appreciating the beauty of the prayers, they can experience the emotional impact of a community assembling in order to offer prayers to Hashem and hear the reading of His Torah.

When my children were young, they regularly accompanied me to synagogue. One Shabbat morning I walked home with an elder member of our congregation. He asked me if I required my children to stand by my side during services so that I could carefully supervise them. I was cautious in my response. I assumed that this gentleman – like many others – was annoyed by the sometimes noisy and distracting behavior of the young children in our congregation. I explained that I did try to supervise them but that I probably was guilty of lapses. To my surprise, he admonished me to not supervise them too carefully or with too heavy a hand. He commented that synagogue attendance can have a powerful impact on children. But for this impact to occur, the children must feel a sense of joy and excitement at the synagogue. He said, “Let them run up to the bimah or the aron. Don’t be overly restrictive.” Once I recovered from the shock of this exchange, I realized that this was an important insight.

It seems that this wise gentleman’s advice is reflected in Tosefot’s comments. Tosefot contend that we are encouraged to bring our young children to synagogue in order to share with them the experience of synagogue attendance. Of course, our children will not appreciate or experience the services in the same way as their parents. But nonetheless, we must endeavor to provide them with the emotional impact of the experience of participating in an assembly devoted to prayer and Torah.

[1] Mesechet Chagigah 3a.

[2] Rabbaynu Moshe ben Nachman (Ramban / Nachmanides), Commentary on Sefer Devarim 31:13.

[3] Rav Yosef Babad, Minchat Chinuch, Mitzvah 612, note 4.

[4] Commentary HaKatav VeHaKabalah on Sefer Devarim 31:12

[5] Rav Aharon HaLeyve, Sefer HaChinuch, Mitzvah 612.

[6] Rabbaynu Moshe ben Maimon (Rambam / Maimonides) Mishne Torah, Hilchot Chagigah 3:6.

[7] Tosefot, Mesechet Chagigah 3a.

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