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[An essay by Rabbi Yosef Marcus, adapted and summarized from the writings of the Lubavitcher Rebbe.]

"At the end of each seven years, at the time of the Sabbatical year, on the festival of Sukkos…you must read from this Torah before all Israel….Gather the nation, men, women, children and proselytes…" [Deut. 31:10-13]

The mitzvah of Hakhel-"Gather"-is observed on the second day of Sukkos on the year following the Sabbatical year of Shemitah. Men women and children gathered in the Holy Temple where they would listen as the king read various sections of the Torah.

An obvious question arises when reading the Torah's description of Hakhel as occurring at the "end of seven years." The purpose of Hakhel is to inspire the nation. Shouldn't such inspiration be provided at the beginning of the seven year cycle? The answer is that the Shemitah year serves as a prelude to Hakhel, and without which the message of Hakhel cannot truly be absorbed. This relationship is apparent from the sections of the Torah read during the Hakhel ceremony, Shema, Vihaya and Ahser Ti'ahser.

These three sections mirror the three aspects of respite experienced during Shemitah:

Human respite--The person must not work the fields at all and must rather spend his time in prayer and Torah study. This emphasizes the fact that man is "owned" by G-d. He is reminded of his raison d'?tre, which is to serve his Creator, a notion easily forgotten during the six years working the field.

Respite of the land--This emphasizes G-d's ownership over the land, including its natural properties, since the produce of the sixth year must miraculously provide for three years.

Respite of the fruits--During the year of Shemitah all produce is deemed ownerless, hefker. Nobody has any claim on it. It is free for all. This brings home the notion that all of man's possessions essentially belong to G-d. The Jew carries this thought with him throughout the six years when his produce ostensibly does "belong" to him, realizing that he is merely a caretaker of G-d's possessions and that he must appropriate them accordingly.
These three lessons are reiterated in the three sections of the Torah read by the king in the Hakhel ceremony:

Shema--This section corresponds to the respite of the person and addresses the enhancement of his spiritual life that ensues: acceptance of the yoke of Heaven; study of Torah; fulfillment of mitzvos (tefillin, mezuzah).'

Vihaya--This section emphasizes G-d's control over nature ("If you listen…I shall give the rain of your land in its time…and you shall gather your grain…[But if you stray,] there will not be rain…and the earth will not yield its fruit…").

Ahser T'iahser--This section speaks of the mitzvah of tithing, giving of one's possessions to charity. This emphasizes that man is merely a caretaker of his possessions and that he must channel them towards G-dly ends.

The year of Shemitah, then, serves to condition the Jew and enable him to absorb the message that would be reiterated to him by the king of Israel at the gathering of Hakhel.


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