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Hak’hel: The Torah Reading of the King

  • Rav Binyamin Tabory
Parashat Vayelekh
Moses commanded them, saying, “At the end of seven years, at the time of the Shemitta (sabbatical) year, during the festival of Sukkot, when all of Israel comes to appear before Hashem, your God, in the place that He will choose, you shall read this Torah before all of Israel, and they shall hear it.” (Deut. 31:10–11)
            While Moses clearly demands a public reading of the Torah, he does not identify who should read it. The Bekhor Shor and izkuni claim that Moses was directing his charge to Joshua, who essentially became the king of Israel. Therefore, the obligation was forever incumbent on future kings. From this perspective, the role of the king is fundamental to the mitzva of hak’hel. In contrast, Maimonides (Sefer HaMitzvot, Aseh 16) enumerates the commandment “to gather the entire nation…to read some portions of [Torah],” but does not mention who is to read them. Similarly, in Hilkhot agiga (3:1), he writes that “there is a positive commandment to gather all men, women, and children…to read portions [of the Torah] that encourage them to perform mitzvot and strengthen their commitment to the true religion.” The fact that the king reads the Torah does not appear for another two halakhot, implying that it is a mere detail of the law, rather than central to it.
            The Sefer Hainnukh (612) generally follows Maimonides in his formulation of mitzvot, and quotes Maimonides in this mitzva almost verbatim. Yet, he adds that “any man or woman who does not come at this time to hear the words of Torah transgresses [this law]. So, too, a king who does not want to read has neglected his commandment.” Thus, while like Maimonides he formulates this mitzva as focusing on the assembling of the nation, he highlights that the king’s role is critical, something that does not emerge from Maimonides. It is almost as if the role of the king and the role of the people are two separate mitzvot!
            Indeed, the Yere’im counts two separate mitzvot – the gathering of the people (Mitzva 433) and the reading of the king (Mitzva 266), the latter being an obligation that applies to the king alone. As proof, he points to several pesukim (II Kings 23:1–2) in which King Yoshiyahu gathered many of the people and read “the book of the covenant that had been found in the house of Hashem.” This mitzva even precedes the mitzva of the people to gather together.
Another interesting question that is discussed is whether the king is to stand or sit during hak’hel. The Semag (Aseh 230), based on the Mishna (Sota 7:8), writes that when the king was given the Torah scroll he had to stand. However, he did not have to stand when he read the Torah, but if he does so, this is meritorious. This is based on the Mishna’s record of the Sages’ praise for King Agrippas for standing when he read the Torah during hak’hel. The Tiferet Yisrael (Yakhin, Sota 7:54) asks why this would be considered meritorious. In general, anyone who does an action from which he is exempt is considered a hedyot, a fool (Y. Berakhot 2:9). He answers that Agrippas was not legally fit to be king. Thus, he was obligated to stand in the Temple; only proper kings of the Davidic line are allowed to sit. Therefore, Agrippas was following the letter of the law rather than going beyond it. From this analysis it follows that a proper king should specifically sit rather than stand during hak’hel. This, however, seems to contradict Maimonides, the Semag, and the innukh.
            The To’afot Re’em (266:1), a commentary on the Yere’im, notes this difficulty in the explanation of the Tiferet Yisrael and suggests an alternative. He cites the Vilna Gaon (Shenot Eliyahu, Berakhot 1:3), who explains that someone is only criticized for doing something he is not obligated to do if the action is not inherently valuable. However, there are some actions that are fundamentally valuable, but the halakha does not obligate us to do them. However, if someone does do them, as he would be doing something that is a mitzva, he is praised rather than censured. Noting that the Gemara (Megilla 21a) claims that ideally one should always stand when studying Torah, the To’afot Re’em argues that standing for hak’hel is a mitzva and praiseworthy, even if not required.
            Why is there no rabbinic mitzva in commemoration of hak’hel, as there is regarding many other mitzvot? Rabbi Eliyahu David Rabinowitz-Teomim (known as the Adderet), father-in-law of Rabbi Kook, published an anonymous pamphlet entitled Zekher LaMikdash in which he suggests two reasons: hak’hel fundamentally requires the presence of the entire Jewish people in Israel, and it also requires the laws of Shemitta to be in place. Today, neither is true, as most Jews do not live in Israel and most posekim rule that Shemitta is in effect only rabbinically. (In his time this was the case. Now, it is unclear whether the majority of Jews live in Israel or in the Diaspora. We are definitely reaching the halfway point, if we have not already passed it.)
Rabbi Shlomo David Kahane (in the above pamphlet) adds two more reasons: First of all, we are not able to go to the section of the Temple Mount where the Torah must be read (it is beyond the scope of this article to discuss the question of where on the Temple Mount it is permitted to walk). Additionally, we do not have a king, and, as we have seen, it is possible that the obligation fundamentally applies to him. The Adderet rejects this, arguing that even if this were to be the case, the nation might be able to fulfill their obligation by hearing the Torah from a different leader, especially if they have a separate mitzva from that of the king, as suggested by the Yere’im (above).