Bar-Ilan University's Parashat Hashavua Study Center

Parashat Ki-Tavo 5767/ September 1, 2007

Lectures on the weekly Torah reading by the faculty of Bar-Ilan University in Ramat Gan, Israel. A project of the Faculty of Jewish Studies, Paul and Helene Shulman Basic Jewish Studies Center, and the Office of the Campus Rabbi. Published on the Internet under the sponsorship of Bar-Ilan University's International Center for Jewish Identity. Prepared for Internet Publication by the Computer Center Staff at Bar-Ilan University. Inquiries and comments to: Dr. Isaac Gottlieb, Department of Bible, gottlii@mail.biu.ac.il

 

 

Values in the Commandment of First Fruits

 

Shifra Cohen

 

Jerusalem

 

This week’s portion begins with the commandment of first fruits (Deut. 26:1-11), one of those mitzvot integrally tied to the land of Israel.   It is presented here in relatively great detail, in comparison to the reference to the same commandment in Parashat Mishpatim (Ex. 23:16, 19), no doubt because the Israelites were hearing it directly prior to entering the Promised Land. This commandment is comprised of four points:  (1) to bring one’s first fruits (verses 1-4); (2) to recite the formulation (vv. 5-10); (3) to bow before the Lord after reciting the formulation about first fruits (v. 10); (4) finally, a special addition to the commandment:  “and you shall enjoy, together with the Levite and the stranger in your midst, all the bounty that the Lord your G-d has bestowed upon you and your household” (v. 11)—to rejoice.

The commandment of bringing first fruits might be said to be the quintessential expression of the ties between the people and their land, and therefore one should emphasize the educational values in this commandment, which might be extended to the general behavior of the people of Israel in their country.  The farmer who tills his soil laboriously and is rewarded by the blessing of good rainfall enjoys a wonderful sense of satisfaction and achievement when the first fruits appear.  The grower ties a red ribbon to it to identify it as the first fruit, and proclaims:   “Behold, these are first fruits.” [1]   When the fruit reaches maturity, he packs it into his basket and brings it to the Temple.  The ritual of bringing first fruits is accompanied by recitation of a formulaic text, the first-fruits reading.  At the end of the reading, an element that does not appear in the ritual of any other offering, he places the fruits before the priest. He must bow down, prostrating himself fully, stretching out hands and feet.   This action is also unique to the ritual of bringing first fruits.

All of these actions lend expression to specific values and attributes, some of which we shall discuss here.

Reinforcing generosity

After investing so much effort in tilling the soil, the farmer values all the more strongly the fruits of his land, and feel attached to them.  When he brings precisely this produce to the priest, the act of giving strengthens his sense of generosity; for as Maimonides says, the object of giving “the first of everything to the Lord” is to “strengthen the trait of generosity and to reduce the lust for food and acquisition of wealth.” [2]   For this fine produce, the fruit of his labors, he could have eaten himself or sold; so the act of giving it away contains an element of subduing one’s yearnings and desires.   The prophet Isaiah expresses the excitement experienced upon seeing the first fruit, from which we can understand the magnitude of the sacrifice in giving it up:   “They shall be like an early fig before the fruit harvest; whoever sees it devours it while it is still in his hand” (28:4). Therefore we are commanded to bring the first fruits to the Temple.

Giving Thanks

The ability to recognize and be thankful for the good that is bestowed on us, giving thanks to the Lord for His bounty, is another aspect of personality that is strengthened by performing the commandment of first fruits.  Through this commandment we express our acknowledgment that it is not by our own might and the strength of our hands that we obtain this bounty, rather, everything is by the grace of G-d.  It is as if we bring our first fruits to the Holy One, blessed be He, in return for his having “brought us to this place and given us this land” (Deut. 6:9); but as it says in Chronicles, “all is from You, and it is Your gift that we have given You” (I Chron. 29:14).  The Lord does not need our gifts; therefore the purpose of this act is to help ourselves, strengthening our humility and our ability to acknowledge the good that is given us.

These virtues also follow from the passage that is recited in the ritual of first fruits.   In this brief proclamation, the person bringing the first fruits mentions the history of Israel before we became a people, going back to the time when “my father was a fugitive Aramean,” and to the bondage in Egypt.   Only someone who has experienced hardship knows that nothing is to be taken for granted, and in order to feel grateful for one’s current condition, the hardships of the past must be recalled. [3]  

Acknowledging Hardship

Giving thanks is not merely a question of manners, of fulfilling an obligation; rather, a person feels great joy at being able to give thanks for well-being.  The passage, “my father was a fugitive Aramean,” is also recited at the Passover Seder, for the same reason – to bring alive for us that which we underwent, and then we can achieve a true sense of gratefulness to Him who performed all these miracles for us.  It should be noted that the commandment to recite this passage when bringing first fruits is put as follows:  “You shall respond and say,” meaning you should recite out loud (Rashi).  The person who brings the first fruits must himself hear this proclamation.

The statement, “I acknowledge this day … that I have entered the land that the Lord swore to our fathers to assign us,” expresses identification with our people, with our ancestors, as if we ourselves had been brought to the land that the Lord swore to give to our ancestors.  This sense of personal identification also contributes its share to the sense of gratitude.

There are other commandments associated with the ritual of bringing first fruits which are not explicitly spelled out in this week’s reading, rather are relayed to us in the Mishnah (Tractate Bikkurim).   Among them are commandments that serve to remind us that all human beings are equal before G-d – namely, the obligation to receive the gift of the poor person with love and respect, just as the gift of the wealthy; not to embarrass the illiterate person, which is why the formulary text is to be recited in the presence of all those who bring first fruits, as well as other commandments.   All of these are educational values of paramount importance.

After the recitation, comes prostration before the Lord, an act that signifies total abnegation of the self and one’s own ego.  The ability to bow down is a key element in the relationship between man and G-d.   As long as a person is immersed in self-centered thought, he maintains a barrier separating him from G-d; bowing down before the Lord is meant to bring down this barrier.   In the ritual of bringing first fruits to the Holy One, blessed be He, bowing down also expresses the idea of absolute giving and acknowledgment that everything comes from the hand of the Lord.

Rejoicing

The fourth component of the commandment of first fruits is the rejoicing that accompanies performance of this commandment:  “And you shall enjoy, together with the Levite and the stranger in your midst, all the bounty that the Lord your G-d has bestowed upon you and your household.”   This is not a promise that performing the deed will bring you joy, or a recommendation to make bringing first fruits a joyous occasion; rather, the rejoicing is an essential part of the commandment, and the celebrant who brings the first fruits is obliged to share his rejoicing with the others mentioned here – the Levite and the stranger.

Rabbi Hayyim Vital writes (in Sha’ar ha-Kavanot) that when we perform a commandment sadly we are like a servant who serves his master with a sad and displeased countenance.   This is unworthy behavior even between one person and another, and all the more so between a person and the Lord.   Sadness causes the Divine Presence to absent itself – the Divine Presence does not dwell among us in sadness, nor does prophecy come to us in sadness. [4]   Worshipping the Lord must be done in joy.  But what does it mean to be in a state of true rejoicing?  Most of the things that we are accustomed to call “joyful” do not necessarily express true rejoicing.

Between Rejoicing and Mindless Pleasure

I have heard Rabbi Aaron Soloveitchik quoted as saying [5] that modern society invests greatly in achieving happiness, namely, in what we call entertainment:  restaurants, cafes, clubs, theatres, movies – a veritable industry.   But can all these bring a person true joy?  Whence comes all the hatred, frustration, despair, drug abuse, and all the evil that we find in society?   In his opinion, all of the things we have mentioned are a way of fleeing from reality; at best they give us momentary happiness.  People are consumed by fear of death, sometimes also by fear of life, and all this variety that is offered on the market is designed to engulf the person and help him forget these fears.  This sort of “happiness,” aimed primarily at the baser qualities of human beings, in most cases achieves the opposite.  True rejoicing, in contrast, is not an act of fleeing from reality; it is a way to connect to a different reality; the reality of the Divine that is above us and the spiritual that is in us.

All the values listed above – generosity, gratefulness and humility, doing away with egocentrism, not standing on one’s honor and insisting on one’s rights as if to say, “I deserve…” – which find expression in the commandment of bringing first fruits, ought to be doubly reinforced during the month of penitence and forgiveness, prior to the New Year.  “All who act with forbearance are forgiven all their sins.”

                                                                                                                                         



[1] Tractate Bikkurim 3.1.

[2] Guide for the Perplexed III, ch. 39.

[3] Cf. Maimonides, loc. sit.:  “So that a person remember his hour of need and hardship, when the Lord grants him ease.”

[4] Tractate Pesahim 117a.

[5] Orally relayed by his son.