Devarim, 31:12: “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 will fear Hashem, your God, and be careful to perform all the words of this Torah.”
Rashi, 31:12, Dh: Vehataf: “Why did they bring them [the small children]? To give reward to those who bring them.

Every seven years, the whole nation is commanded to come to the Temple to hear the King read from the entire Torah in a ceremony known as Hakhel (literally meaning, ‘Gathering’). The Torah stresses that young children must also be brought, even though they are too young to understand anything that is taking place. Rashi writes that the purpose of bringing the children was in order to get reward. Yet, if there was no benefit in bringing them, why should there be reward for bringing them?

Rabbi Yerucham Levovits asserts that there is indeed a benefit in bringing them. Even though small children are too young to be able to consciously learn from what is happening, nonetheless, on a deep, subconscious, and level, the small children are influenced by their mere presence at such a momentous, spiritual event. He brings proof of this from the story of Rebbe Yehoshua Ben Channania. The Mishna in Ethics of the Fathers recounts that Rebbe Yochanan Ben Zakkai gave various praises to his great students. With regard to Rebbe Yehoshua Ben Channania, the praise was, “Ashrei Yoladto” – praiseworthy is the one who gave birth to him.1

The Bartenura, in his second explanation of this part of the Mishna, explains that Rebbe Yochanan meant to praise Rebbe Yehoshua’s mother for how she brought him up. He cites the Yerushalmi2 that when she was pregnant with him, she would go to all of the Study Halls in her city, and would ask the Torah scholars to pray that her baby would grow up to be a Torah Scholar. Moreover, from the day that he was born, she never removed his cradle from the Study, hall so that the only sounds that would enter his ears were the words of Torah. The question arises as to what positive effect could this have on a baby who could not understand one word of what he heard? The Kedushat Tsion3 explains that through hearing the sound of Torah, the holiness of the Torah was infused into his soul even though he did not comprehend it. This made such a deep impression on him that it greatly helped him become great in Torah when he grew up.

This approach can also explain the benefit of bringing young children to Hakhel – hearing the sound of the Torah and being in an environment of Fear of God could make a deep impression on the child’s soul that would have a long-standing benefit.

The mitzvah of Hakhel also teaches the fundamental importance of the parents’ role in bringing up the child to give him the chance to be a great Torah scholar. The parents have to go through the inconvenience of taking their children on a long, difficult journey to reach the Temple. This willingness to go through great pains to ensure the child grows up in the optimum way is essential throughout his upbringing. It is not enough to merely give him a Torah education and rely on the school to teach him Torah. Rather a parent must make great efforts to give their child every opportunity to grow in Torah.

In this vein, the story is told of a mother who lived in great poverty in Europe, and barely had enough money to put food on the table, but she was determined that her son get an optimum Torah education. In those days, this required one on one learning with a Torah teacher. Accordingly, she spent a great proportion of their money on her son’s Torah studies. However, it reached a point where she had no way to continue paying the tutor, until she decided to perform an act of self-sacrifice that is hard to comprehend. Europe in the winter was unbearably cold, and the only respite was a furnace. The mother decided to sell the furnace and suffer the bitter cold, in order to continue to finance her son’s Torah learning. This boy grew up to be the famed Ridbaz, a great Torah scholar and author of a commentary on the Talmud Yerushalmi, and he would often tell his story, noting that it was in his mother’s merit that he grew up to be Torah scholar.

Needless to say, the self-sacrifice expressed by the mother of the Ridbaz is well beyond our reach, yet it gives an idea of what we need to aspire to in order to bring up our children to be among those who fear God and for our boys to be learned in Torah. For example, it may be more expensive to send our children to the schools that would best facilitate their growth in Torah, but if a person realizes that their relationship with God is more important than everything else, then it would be far easier to view spending more money not as a burden but as an excellent investment.

The mitzvah of Hakhel teaches us that the necessity of expending great effort and time for our children begins at birth, and continues throughout our children’s lives.

  1. This can also be translated as “fortunate is the one who gave birth to him”. We will be using the interpretation above.
  2. Yerushalmi, Yevamos, 1:6.
  3. The Bobover Rebbe, cited in Darchei Avos, Chelek 1, p.279.