The Faculty of Jewish Studies
The Office of the Campus Rabbi
Parashat Ki Thavo
The Significance of the First Fruits Recitation
Dr. Leb Moskovitz
The Department of Talmud
Parashat Ki Thavo opens with two commandments which are connected to the land: Bringing the First Fruits, Bikkurim, in verses 26:1-11, and the Elimination of Tithes, Biur Ma'asrot, in verses 12-15. It would seem, however, that these commandments have become secondary to the recitation of Biblical passages which accompany them and which are counted in their own right as positive commandments - the Recital of the First Fruits, called Mikra Bikkurim by the Rabbis, and the Confessional of Tithes, termed by the Halacha Vidduy Ma'asrot. The Bikkurim Recital begins "You shall then recite as follows" (5), the Tithes Confessional opens with "You shall declare...I have cleared out the consecrated portion from the house" (13).
Thiough both texts include declarations about the "doing" aspects of the commandments - "Wherefore I now bring the first fruits of the soil" for the commandment of Bikkurim (10) and for the tithes - "I have cleared out the consecrated portion from the house... I have done just as You commanded me" (13-14), these recitations include much more. Going beyond the actual observation of the commandments in the present, they reach out into other dimensions of time. Vidduy Ma'asrot concludes with a wish for the future, perhaps as reward for observance of the commandment in the present: "Look down from Your holy abode, from heaven, and bless Your people Israel and the soil You have given us" (15). Mikra Bikkurim on the other hand, travels into the past - to ancient times, to the dawn of the existence of the Jewish People: "My father was a fugitive Aramean" (5; see commentaries of Rashbam and Ibn Ezra), continues with a description of Jewish suffering in Egypt and the redemption and arrives at their present state - secure in the Promised Land and celebrating economic and agricultural prosperity by bringing the First Fruits to the Temple.
The prayer for a bright future in Vidduy Ma'asrot is quite understandable, the focus on the distant past in Mikra Bikkurim less so. Assuming that the main purpose of the recital of Mikra Bikkurim is to give thanks for our present bounty, is it really necessary to remind ourselves of, and recite aloud, the story of past events, particularly the harsh experiences which our forefathers had to endure?
This, it seems, is the heart of the matter and the message of Mikra Bikkurim: A clear perspective of the present demands recognition of the continuity between past and present. Full expression of gratitude, based on complete recognition of the good which the Almighty has bestowed, is not possible when severed from historical roots, especially from difficult and painful events of the past. Only one who knows the hardships of the past can show true appreciation for what the present.
This view of Mikra Bikkurim may help us understand a difficult Mishnah in Bikkurim 3,4, which describes the bringing of the First Fruits:
"The flute would play before them until they reached the Temple Mount ... when they reached the Temple Courtyard then the Levites would begin to sing: "I will praise You, O Lord, for You have lifted me up and You have not given my enemies joy over me"( Psalms 30:2).
Why did they recite this verse at the First Fruits Ceremony? At first glance there seems to be no obvious connection between chapter 30 of the Book of Psalms and the commandment of First Fruits. The Mishnah commentary Melechet Shlomo offers this explanation: "Because this [ceremony] was done in the presence of a large number of people... many would gather together and it would be similar to the occasion of the dedication of the Temple". [The superscription in Psalm 30:1 is "A Psalm; a Song at the Dedication of the House; of David"] But this is a weak connection. This is also true of the explanation he cites in the name of Tosafot (manuscript) which says that Psalm 30 is recited simply as "general rejoicing". However, this particular psalm deals not with joy but with a description of the psalmist in his time of suffering, when almost in a state of despair: "What profit is there in my blood, when I descend to the pit? Shall the dust praise Thee? Hear, O Lord, and be gracious unto me" (Psalms 30:10-11). Therefore this explanation is also less than satisfactory.
The best understanding of this Mishnah is that of the Mishnah Rishonah:
"No explanation is given in the Mishnah for the connection between this psalm and the first fruits. It seems to be that because in the confessional of the first fruits he must say "My father was a fugitive Aramean, etc." that this psalm is also recited: 'Thou hast not suffered mine enemies to rejoice over me' (30:2), that He saved our father (Jacob) from his enemy Laban" ( the traditional explanation for "A wandering [or fugitive] Aramean was my father" which we find in the Passover Haggadah).
In Psalm 30, as in the First Fruits Recital, Mikra Bikkurim, thanksgiving and joy for the prosperity of today are completely achieved only when they are accompanied by a retrospective view of the dark days of the past, for only by remembering and peering into the "deep pit" of the past can one truly and properly give thanks and rejoice at being in "an exalted place" in the present.
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