“All are obligated in the mitzva of appearance,” (Hagigah 2a)
Our masechet begins with the axiom that everyone is obligated to come to Jerusalem for the three major festivals, Pesach, Shavuot and Sukkot. After that follows a long list of those exempt from this obligation: women, small children, slaves, deaf people, etc. It seems that except for those explicitly listed as exempt, everyone else must show up in Jerusalem at the Temple three times a year. This visit is called aliyah laregel, literally a journey by foot but also connected to the Hebrew name for the holidays, regel. The Gemara will also include the idea that one has to be capable of walking, using your feet, in order to be obligated in aliyah laregel.
The obligation to visit the Temple also included a set of sacrifices: an olah and two different types of shelamim. The difference between these sacrifices is that an olah is burnt completely on the altar while shelamim are shared between the altar, the priest and the bringer of the sacrifice. They are meant to be your meal and so the amount you bring can vary widely (see Mishnah 1:5). One set of shelamim are called שלמי חגיגה, festival offerings, hence the name of our tractate, Hagigah.
Aliyah laregel was a huge phenomenon in Second Temple times. It was an opportunity for the Jewish people to gather together from all parts of Israel and the Diaspora, to study Torah, take part in political events, express their pleasure (or usually displeasure) with the leadership and of course have a heightened spiritual experience. The mass pilgrimage was also enormously important for Jerusalem’s and the Temple’s economy, with money flowing in from all directions. There are estimates that whatever Jerusalem’s population was normally, it doubled during holiday times. The Temple was considered to be one of the most awe-inspiring buildings in the ancient world and even non-Jews came as tourists. Jerusalem was a hot spot that drew people from all over, as seems clear in our Mishnah – everyone is obligated.
But one element seems to be missing in the Gemara’s analysis of this obligation – the distance that someone had to travel to reach Jerusalem. Diaspora Jewry in the late Second Temple period encompassed communities in Egypt, Syria, Asia Minor (Turkey of today), Rome, and of course Babylonia. Travel to and from Jerusalem was very time consuming. Even someone coming from the Galilee would have to travel at least 3 days in each direction. From Babylonia it would take a minimum of two weeks. Did Jews really make that journey three times a year?
There were Jewish communities all around the Mediterranean as well as in Babylonia (Google maps)
It seems clear that the answer is no, at least from a practical perspective. Anyone who came to Jerusalem from Babylonia for Passover would have to turn around and come back for Shavuot pretty much as soon as he got home. It is more likely that aliyah laregel was similar to the Hajj, the Muslim pilgrimage to Mecca. It is good to go, all Muslims are obligated to go at least once, but very few make the pilgrimage on a yearly basis.
Do we have textual proofs for this approach? Professor Zeev Safrai in his Mishnat Eretz Yisrael for Hagigah suggests that we do. First he reminds us that the halacha clearly states that if one is בדרך רחוקה , far from Jerusalem, he does not have to bring the Passover sacrifice. The mishnah defines this distance as past Modiin, only a half day’s journey away from Jerusalem. If one does not have an obligation to bring the Passover sacrifice, a commandment that is punishable by karet, when he is relatively close, it seems likely that he also does not have the obligation of showing up for the three festivals.
Professor Safrai also draws a distinction between ראיית פנים , showing up in Jerusalem, and קרבן ראייה , the sacrifice you bring when you come. He defines the obligation in the Mishnah as the sacrifice, not the visit. Everyone who comes must bring a sacrifice but not everyone has to come! The Yerushalmi clearly emphasizes that distinction and it appears in this Mishnah as well:
“These are the things that have no definite quantity: The corners [of the field]. First-fruits; [The offerings brought] on appearing [at the Temple on the three pilgrimage festivals].”(Mishnah Peah 1:1)
The Yerushalmi explains that while there is no amount specified in coming to Jerusalem, ראיית פנים, there is a minimum requirement for the sacrifice you bring, the קרבן ראייה , as Bet Hillel and Bet Shammai discuss in the second mishnah here in Hagigah. So it seems that when you come you have certain minimum requirements but there is no minimum (or maximum) on the number of times you have to come altogether. You can come to Jerusalem as often as you want but you are not obligated to come all the time.
Professor Safrai adds that by doing a quick calculation of available space for sacrifices, there is no way that there could have been more than one hundred thousand sacrifices on the altar at one time. He gets a similar number for those participating in the Passover sacrifice. One hundred thousand Jews is an impressive number but it was only a small percentage of the Jewish world in the first century. There are scholars who think that the Jewish community numbered one million or more in the first century CE. Therefore it seems that many stayed home. Those who came performed a mitzva but those who could not come were not censured.
And yet, we still want to think that everyone participated in some way in aliyah laregel. Fortunately, there was an institution that allowed all men to participate, wherever they may have been in the Jewish world. Everyone was obligated to contribute the מחצית השקל, the half shekel tax, and thus be part, even in a small way, of the great mitzva of visiting the Temple. While you may not have gotten there in person, your donation was used to purchase the sacrifices given on behalf of the entire Jewish people. The special coins that were used for the half shekel have been discovered in archaeological excavations in Jerusalem and other places around the country, testifying to the people’s loyalty to this Temple tax. Everyone wanted to be part of the Temple service, even if they lived far away.
Half shekel coins of Tyrian silver (Wikipedia)