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Parashat Shemini Atzeret: Counting the Mitzvot

How many mitzvot are there? I am not referring to how many we fulfill or should fulfill, as some argue that there are mitzvot related to the offerings of the Beit HaMikdash, the Great Temple in Jerusalem, which we are not obligated to fulfill after its destruction. Similarly, there are opinions suggesting that many mitzvot should be observed only while in the Land of Israel, exempting us from numerous obligations. However, there is an almost universal consensus that there are 613 mitzvot.


Nevertheless, an interesting perspective on this topic exists. Noticing that there are 613 commandments and that the numerical value of the word "Torah" is 611, one might understand that Moses actually gave us 611 commandments. The remaining two – "I am the Lord your God" and "You shall have no other gods before Me," (the first two of the Ten Commandments) – the Israelites received not from Moses but directly from God.


The sages could have made a different distinction. Moses gave us 611 commandments, and towards the end of his eternal discourse in front of the People of Israel, which resulted in the book of Deuteronomy, he gave two commandments about the commandments. These are Hakel, the commandment to gather the people every seven years for a public reading of the main sections of the Torah, and "Now, write for yourselves this song." Deuteronomy 31:19, which tradition interprets as the commandment to write or take part in the writing of one's own Torah scroll.


These two commandments are set apart from all the others. They were given after summarizing the entire Torah in the book of Deuteronomy, the blessings and curses, and the ceremony of the renewal of the covenant. The laws exist to ensure that the Torah will never grow old, that it will be rewritten in every generation, that it will never be forgotten by the people, and that it will never cease to be their active constitution as a nation. The nation will never abandon its founding principles, its history, identity, the memory, and the valuation of the past, and the responsibility for the future.


Observe the beautiful complementation of both commandments. Hakel, the national assembly, is directed at the people as a whole. Writing a Sefer Torah is directed at the individual. This is the essence of the covenantal politics. We have individual responsibility and collective responsibility. In Judaism, the state is not everything as in authoritarian regimes. Nor is the individual everything, as in the current radically individualistic democracies.


A covenant society is built when each person accepts responsibility for everything, but also when each individual, in particular, commits to the common good. Hence, the Sefer Torah, our written constitution as a nation (which is why the State of Israel has no other constitution), must be renewed in the life of the individual through personal writing (or delegating that mitzvah to someone who writes it for you) and the individual possession of a Sefer Torah (commandment 613) and of the nation framed in the mitzvah of Hakel that I mentioned above (commandment 612).


The Torah describes the mitzvah of Hakel as follows:


"At the end of every seven years, in the year for canceling debts, during the Festival of Tabernacles, when all Israel comes to appear before the Lord your God at the place he will choose, you shall read this law before them in their hearing. Assemble the people—men, women, and children, and the foreigners residing in your towns—so they can listen and learn to fear the Lord your God and follow carefully all the words of this law. Their children, who do not know this law, must hear it and learn to fear the Lord your God as long as you live in the land you are crossing the Jordan to possess." Deuteronomy 31:10-13


Maimonides describes the ceremony as follows:


“Trumpets would sound throughout Jerusalem to gather the people, and a raised platform made of wood was brought to the center of the Women's Court. The King would ascend there and sit so that his reading could be heard... The synagogue reader would take a Sefer Torah and hand it to the chief official of the synagogue, who in turn would give it to the assistant priest of the High Priest, who would give it to the High Priest, to honor him through the service of multiple people... The King would read the mentioned portions until he reached the end. Then he would roll up the Sefer Torah, saying the blessing after the reading, just as it is done in the synagogue... Proselytes who did not know Hebrew were asked to turn their hearts and listen with the utmost respect and reverence, as on the day the Torah was given at Sinai. Even great scholars who knew the entire Torah were asked to listen with the utmost attention... Each person had to consider himself as if he were carrying the Torah for the first time, as if he had heard it from the mouth of God since the King was an ambassador proclaiming God's words.” Mishneh Torah Haggah 3:4-6


Maimonides suggests that Hakel is the reconstruction of the giving of the Torah at Sinai – "as on the day the Torah was given," "as if he had heard it from the mouth of God" – and therefore would be a ceremony for the renewal of the covenant.


How did he arrive at that idea? Most likely from Moses' description of the Giving of the Torah in Va'etchanan:


"The day you stood before the Lord your God at Horeb, when the Lord said to me, 'Assemble (hakel) the people before me to hear my words so that they may learn to revere me as long as they live in the land and may teach them to their children.'" Deuteronomy 4:10


It is Moses himself who turns the mitzvah of Hakel into a collective renewal of the covenant.


What happened to Hakel in the almost two thousand years that Israel had no king or its own country, no Temple or Jerusalem? Some scholars have made the curious suggestion that the minhag Eretz Israel, the custom of Jews in Israel that lasted until the 13th century of concluding the Torah reading not once a year but every three or three and a half years, was to create the seven-year cycle, so that the second reading would end at the same time as Hakel, meaning that the celebration of Simchat Torah would be every seven years, coinciding with the mitzvah of Hakel.


Today, we still celebrate Simchat Torah once a year, even though the reading cycle lasts one year or 3, or 3 and a half years. The reading of the Torah every Shabbat morning has gained, especially in the diaspora, a significant meaning of gathering (Hakel) for ritual or study. And there are customs that we maintain at those times that remind us of the mitzvah of Hakel:

  • The Torah is read as the King did during the Hakel ceremony and as Ezra did in his own public gathering, standing on a Bima, separate and even elevated from the rest of the congregation.

  • During the Torah reading, the reader is never alone. He is accompanied by at least two people, the Sgan or Gabai, and the person called to his Aliyah, representing the Kadosh Baruch Hu, Moses, and the People of Israel, present at the Hakel assembly.

There is almost a unanimous agreement that the reading of the Torah is what we call chovat tzibur, a collective obligation or responsibility, while the study itself of the Torah is chovat yachid, an individual obligation or responsibility. The duality of individual and collective commitment applied to the Torah.


It is our mitzvah of Hakel, not every 7 years, not even every year with Simchat Torah as tomorrow night, but every Shabbat, every week.


I look forward to seeing you tomorrow at 7:15 pm to reaffirm and celebrate together our attachment to the Torah and our People of Israel.


Shabbat Shalom and Chag Sameach!


Rabbi Gustavo Geier

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