The mitzvah of Hakhel is unique in many ways. Hakhel occurs septennially in the post Shmittah year during the Succos pilgrimage. The king reads the Torah to the men, women, and children. The Talmud explains the presence of each group. Men attend to learn, and women to listen but why must the children be present? To provide a reward for those who brought them.
The connotation of Hakhel is gathering or assembly. Moreover the causative construct of Hakhel doesn’t mean gathering but “cause to gather”. This seems a rather peculiar name for the indicated commandment. Why is it not called as one would expect “learning” or “studying”?
“The menfolk come to learn and the womenfolk to listen” This is consistent with the Halachah that women are exempt from the mitzvah of learning Torah, it therefore follows they aren’t mandated to come and learn. What concept underpins their coming to hear the reading of the Torah?
The questions seem to point to the fact that this mitzvah is not so much about Torah as it is about gathering. The Torah is a unifying force in the nation, it our most potent consolidating tool. From the perspective as a “unifying Mitzvah” many of the above queries become moot. The name “cause to gather” is far more appropriate than “studying”. The purpose is not the gathering or the learning, it is the cohesion that we can attain. Listening to Torah solidifies all genders of the nation as we resolve to make the Torah the fulcrum around which our lives revolve.
We may further propose to shed light on the timing of the Mitzvah. After the Sabbatical year is the ideal time to schedule this event. Post Shmittoh the people return to till their own plots and harvest their own orchards, threatening the cohesiveness of the nation. Therefore we reaffirm our connections by having the most central person in the nation – the king, communicate our common bond – the Torah.
Torah besides for being our instruction manual is also our unifier.
Choni Ha’maegel – Choni the Circle-Drawer (1st century BC) was a scholar prior to the age of the Tannaim. Once Choni sat down to have a meal and sleep overcame him. As he slept a rocky formation enclosed him, which hid him from all sight. He continued to sleep for seventy years.
He then went to his house and enquired, “Is the son of Choni the Circle-Drawer still alive?”. The people answered him, “His son is no more, but his grandson is still living”. Thereupon he said to them: “I am Choni the Circle-Drawer”, but no one would believe him.
Devastated, Choni went to the Beis Hamedrash trying to find acceptance and connect to his brethren with Torah. On arrival he overheard the scholars say, “This teaching is as clear to us, as in the era of Choni Ha’maegel” for whenever he came to the Beth Hamidrash he would settle any difficulty that the scholars had. Whereupon he called out, “I am he” – I am Choni, but the scholars would not believe him, nor did they give him the honor due to him. This hurt him greatly. Unable to connect to his people through Torah he prayed for “mercy” and he died.
There is a custom not to have group learning on Shabbos between Mincha and Mariv.