On the holiday of Sukkot, once every seven years, in the year after Shmita, the celebration of Hakel takes place. This is a very emotional occasion. The whole nation "the men, the women, and the small children, and your stranger who is in your cities" gathers in the Temple. The Torah describes Hakhel in a very moving way (Deutoronomy 31: 10-13):
(10) Moses commanded them, saying, "At the end of seven years, at the time of the Sabbatical year during the Sukkot festival,
(11) when all Israel comes to appear before G-d, your L-rd, in the place that He will choose, you shall read this Torah before all Israel, in their ears.
(12) Gather together the people – the men, the women, and the small children, and your stranger who is in your cities – so that they will hear and so that they will learn, and they shall fear G-d, your L-rd, and be careful to perform all the words of this Torah.
(13) And their children who do not know – they shall hear and they shall learn to fear G-d, your L-rd, all the days that you live on the land to which you are crossing the Jordan, to possess it.
What is the purpose of this gathering? Is the purpose to learn Torah? If so, then why do we also bring little children (see Chagiga 3a)?
From the verses it becomes clear that there is an important purpose to this occasion "so that they will hear and so that they will learn, and they shall fear G-d, your L-rd". On this occasion we receive the fear of Heaven. This sentence repeats itself twice "they shall hear and they shall learn to fear G-d, your L-rd". The first time, there is hearing and learning, and this leads to fear of Heaven. The second time, they will learn fear of Heaven "they shall learn to fear G-d". On this occasion there is learning Torah as well, but the essence is fear of Heaven.
However, it turns out that there is an additional central point. Maimonides (Chagiga 3:6) explains that the occasion of Hakel is a form of reconstructing the giving of the Torah:
Everyone receives the Torah anew. Everyone needs to be there. There are those who hear and understand and there are those who do not understand. However, all as one, the whole Nation of Israel, stands and hears the Torah, stands and accepts the yoke of the kingdom of Heaven.
It is possible that Hakel today is a biblical commandment (if there is no fundamental connection between it and Shmita) or it is possible that it is a rabbinical commandment (just as Shmita is rabbinic). Indeed, even if it is neither biblical nor rabbinic, it still is something meaningful as a remembrance of Hakel, in which all of Israel joins together in Jerusalem, and the great one reads the Torah.
In 1945 (two years before the founding of the State) Rav Herzog initiated the first modern Hakel. A special train left Tel Aviv for Jerusalem for the Hakel occasion.
After the founding of the State (1952) Hakel was celebrated, but not at the Kotel, since the city was divided but on Har Zion. It remained that way until 1967.
On Sukkot 1973 – the Kotel was already ours, and preparations were being made for a large and meaningful Hakel. However, on Yom Kippur, war broke out and Hakel was canceled. Since then, Hakel has taken place. At the end of Shmita 1987 there was a large Hakel gathering, and President Chaim Herzog read the Torah. (There are Rishonim who count the gathering itself as a commandment, and the reading as a separate commandment. The Lubavitcher Rebbe thought that the essence of Hakel is strengthening Torah among the Nation, and not specifically by the king, and he thought that gatherings for strengthening the Torah should be done that year).
We are required to carefully think how to insure that the gathering of Hakel is both grand and serious. We must think how we can connect different types among the Nation of Israel. Through this, we will also create a unity surrounding the Torah.
Why is Hakel Celebrated Following the Shmita Year?
Chizkuni (Deutoronomy 31:12) explains that since we are not gathering the crops now (since we did not plant during Shmita), the nation is available during the Harvest Festival, and instead of gathering the crops they can hear words of Torah.
It seems we can say it in a slightly different way: this commandment specifically takes place following the Shmita year. At the end of Shmita, after a full year in which there was a disengagement from the material, a year of spiritual elevation, a year of moral, ethical and social building, a year of tremendous strengthening in faith, we need to stop, to think and to see, how this year will influence the next six years, how we will make sure that the regular work years will be infused with holiness and purity, morality and ethics. We pray that they will be years in which G-d is the center of everything.
The Hakel celebration has the ability to express the spiritual significance of Shmita which completed the seven years prior to it. However, it also has the ability to encourage us to think about the upcoming six years. It can be the opening to better, more correct, more spiritual and more ethical years.