Bar-Ilan University's Parashat Hashavua Study Center

Parashat Ki Tavo 5765/ September 24, 2005

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,




“You Shall Then Recite As Follows”


 Menahem Ben Yashar


Institute for the History of Jewish Bible Study


And Ashkelon College


This week’s reading opens with two formal “speeches” that are to be recited when performing two commandments that are integrally related to the land of Israel.   The first recitation is to be said when bringing first fruits (Deut. 26:5-10), and the other is the avowal or viddui said upon bringing one’s tithe, at the end of a three-year cycle (Deut. 26:13-15).  This pair of commandments comes at a transitional point between two other bodies of mitzvot:   one is comprised of many assorted commandments in Chapters 12-26, which incidentally also includes a formulaic statement (yibbum, 28:8-9); the unit which follows the avowal of the tithe and the passage of first fruits deals with the covenant (26:16–30:10), an important component of which is the blessing and the curse (27:11–28:68).  

Both these commandments –a formulaic text on bringing first fruits, and reciting an avowal on bringing one’s tithe – are also based on the motif of the covenant.  The second of them, the tithe text, concludes with a request that the Lord bless the people of Israel and the soil of its land, in view of G-d’s oath to our forefathers, which was a berit or covenant, and in view of having observed the commandments. The first fruits passage as well pertains to the same motif, as we shall show below.

Recitation in Hebrew

Chapter 7 of Mishnah Sotah lists those formulations which must be recited in the holy tongue, i.e., in Hebrew, and according to the wording in the Torah.  Among them is the passage on first fruits. In contrast, the avowal of the tithe is one of the things that may be said in any language.  The amoraim explained this difference on the basis of a midrash halakha derived from the specific wording of the biblical texts, [1] but one can also think of pragmatic reasons for this: [2]   the text for first fruits is a religious proclamation, and such a declaration ought to be made in the holy tongue; the avowal of the tithe, although also a religious declaration, nevertheless contains details of halakhah on tithes: “I have cleared out the consecrated portion from the house” ((26:13), especially the second tithe (ma’aser sheni ), and the person who says it ought to understand what he is saying and therefore must be permitted to say it in any language that he understands.  

In actual practice, however, during the later generations of the Second Temple period, when Aramaic and Greek had become more widespread among the Jews of the land of Israel, the confession on tithes was no longer recited, as we learn from the last chapter of Mishnah Sotah (9.10):   “Johanan the High Priest abolished the Avowal of the Tithe.”  The person to whom the Mishnah referred was the Hasmonean ruler Johanan Hyrcanus, who also served as High Priest. [3]   He conquered Samaria and apparently also part of the Galilee, thus incorporating into the Judean community the Jews who lived there.   These Jews, having until that time been cut off and far from Jerusalem, were not well-versed in the laws of tithes.   Johanan Hyrcanus also converted the Edomites who lived in the highlands of Hebron, and they surely did not immediately become expert in the details of Jewish law.  Were all these groups to have recited the Avowal of the Tithe, their tongues would surely have tripped them up into pronouncing lies before the Lord, in the Temple itself.   Therefore, it was best to abolish the practice.

The subject matter of the Avowal of the Tithe is clear, and was summarized by the Sages in the following words:  “We have performed that which You decreed on us; You fulfill your promise to us.” [4]   The thrust of the formulation of first fruits is less self-evident.  We might expect that here, too, the person bringing the first fruits would say:   I have fulfilled the commandment, I thank You, my Lord G-d, for the blessing of these crops; please continue in this fashion to bless my soil, my people and my land.   However, none of this is written in verses 5-10.  What does appear there is an overview of Israelite history, from the days of the patriarchs through the conquest of the land.

Philosophy of History

Behind every historical account lies a bias; every historiography has its historiosophy.  Let us examine what the historical account in the formulation of first fruits seeks to say.   It begins with Arami oved avi – “My father was a fugitive  [alternative rendering: wandering] Aramean” (Deut. 26:5).  My first ancestor (whether referring to Jacob, the father of the tribes or to all our patriarchs collectively) came to Canaan from Aram, and in Canaan was a wanderer-fugitive, [5] i.e., a landless shepherd with no rights of citizenship.   However even as such he did not remain in Canaan, but “went down to Egypt.”   There too he did not have the status of a citizen, rather he “sojourned there,” he and his children, as aliens dependent on the kindness of the lords of the land.   In other words, we did not have a sovereign land of our own.  Demographically, we arrived in Egyptwith meager numbers,” and there we became “a great and very populous nation,” notwithstanding the plots against us, as described in verse 6.   Verses 6-8 describe the people’s utter helplessness, troubles so terrible that all they could do was cry out to the Lord, so totally dependent were they on the Lord’s deliverance.   The Lord heard their voice and redeemed them with a mighty hand.  Verse 9 says that it was the Lord who led us back from Egypt to Canaan, and that it was He who gave us the land of Canaan. [6]

“The Land He Gave to Us”

Thus this proclamation can be summarized as follows:  we did not become a nation in a natural, organic way as other nations, rather by miracles; we became populous miraculously while in bondage, and we were delivered from bondage miraculously.  We are not indigenous to our land, nor did we inherit it from our patriarchs, for they were foreigners without landed property.   We did not conquer the land by force of arms; rather the Lord gave it to us.  This historiosophic summation naturally leads to the conclusion uttered by the person bringing first fruits:  Wherefore I now bring the first fruits of the soil which You, O Lord, have given me” (26:10).  Since everything that we have, all our land and its fruits, comes from the Lord, it is fitting that we return all the produce to the Lord, for it is His.  But that is not the Lord’s will; it is His will that we eat and satisfy our hunger on the good produce of the land.  Therefore, symbolically we bring to the Lord’s altar the first of our fruit, as a portion representing the whole, just as a tenant farmer brings the owner of the farm the beginning and choicest of his crops.

Since the land and its produce belong to the Lord, each generation necessarily receives them anew from the Creator.  This is indeed what the person bringing first fruits declares; when he appears at the entrance of the Temple court he says to the priest:  “I acknowledge [higgadeti ] this day before the Lord your G-d that I have entered the land that the Lord swore to our fathers to assign us” (26:3), meaning:  in bringing my first fruits I hereby declare that it is as if I myself have come to the land and received it from the Lord.  Thus, in every generation a person must view himself and comport himself as if he himself has come to the land and received it from the Lord, just as in every generation a person must demonstrably view himself as if he came out of Egypt, according to the similar verse to the one cited above:   And you shall explain [ve-higgadeta ] to your son on that day, ‘It is because of what the Lord did for me when I went free from Egypt’” (Ex. 13:8).

In both of these statements a person from a later generation identifies himself with an earlier generation:  with the generation that was brought out of Egypt, as if to say:   The Lord brought me out of bondage to Pharaoh and therefore I am now His servant; and with the generation of the conquest of Canaan, as if to say:  The Lord gave me this land, therefore I must thank Him and serve him, so that I can continue to dwell on the land and enjoy its produce.

Motif of the Covenant

Returning now to the motif of the covenant, we observe that both the formulation of first fruits and the Avowal of the Tithe are rooted in the covenant between the Lord and Israel, a central motif of which is the land of Canaan being given to Israel as an everlasting holding.

Both obligatory proclamations that appear in the beginning of this week’s reading express the reciprocity in the covenant:  we, Israel, performed the commandments; therefore You, the Lord, gave us the land and blessed it; and so we perform the commandment of bringing our first fruits.

The Passover Haggadah

The commandment of bringing first fruits (bikkurim ) to the Temple is no longer observed today.   Due to our sins we cannot go on pilgrimage and stand before the Lord in the Temple court.   We are, however, familiar with the words of the formulation of first fruits which begins “Arami oved Avi” from the Passover Haggadah.  Above we dwelled on the parallels in the mitzvah of the declaration for the first fruits and the declaration about the Exodus which father must tell to son. But why did the Sages give these verses from the first fruits recitation pride of place in the commandment of recounting the story of the exodus from Egypt?  

The Torah’s account of the bondage and redemption covers approximately the first third of the book of Exodus, from chapter 1 thru chapter 13 (or 15), and this would have been too long a passage, especially as it is aimed primarily at “your son,” at children.  Therefore it is fitting to read a synopsis of the story of the exodus from Egypt.   Aside from the passage at hand, Scripture contains other such synoptic passages about the Exodus in Joshua 24:4-7, [7] Nehemiah 9:9-11; and poetic accounts in Psalms 78:42-53 and 105:23-38.

In view of all this the Sages established the practice of reciting the formulation of first fruits at the Seder for several reasons:  1)  It is a passage from the Torah itself.  2)   In the time of the Temple many of the common folk were well-versed in this passage, reciting it when they brought their first fruits.  It must be born in mind that at that time there were no written or printed Passover Haggadahs.   3)  Being a five-verse passage, it is not overly long.   4)  It is quasi-poetic, containing a repetition of ideas in the form of parallelism, so that each parallel strophe can be applied or linked to one detail in the Exodus story of bondage and redemption in a kind of intertextual study.  Indeed, the succinct narrative given in our parasha is not sufficient for fulfilling the obligation of retelling the story of the exodus from Egypt.   Therefore, the Sages instructed that at the Seder one must explain from My father was a fugitive Aramean until one concludes the whole portion” (Mishnah Pesahim 10.4).  This requirement is a further elaboration, following the halakhic homilies in Sifre Deuteronomy (par. 301) and Midrash Tanna’im on this text. [8]

The Mishnah stresses, “and he explains ... until he concludes the whole portion,” i.e., including the last verse.  Indeed, the midrash halakhah mentioned above explains:   “‘He brought us to this place’ (Deut. 26:9), namely the Temple ... ‘and gave us this land,’ namely the land of Israel.”   Generations of Jews in the diaspora ceased saying these two interpretations in the Haggadah, which were no longer relevant to them.  A hint of them remains in the two liturgical poems of praise, Dayyenu and Al Ahat Kamah ve-Khamah , that conclude the section of the Haggadah which interprets the biblical text.  These liturgical poems conclude with the words, “brought us into the land of Israel” and “built us the Temple.”

[1] Cf. Jerusalem Talmud, Sotah 7.1; 21a-b; Babylonian Talmud, Sotah 32b-33b.   The Tosefot, 33a take issue with this, see s.v. ve-anita.  Also see Maharsha on the same.

[2] Cf. Jerusalem Talmud, Sotah 7.1, end of 21b.

[3] On him and his conquests, cf. M. Stern, “Johanan Hyrcanus,” in Encyclopedia Ivrit 19 (1968), pp. 353-354.

[4] Sifre on Deuteronomy, end of par. 303.

[5] In the context of the Passover Haggadah, which has no territorial interest, but only a personal-national interest, “My father was a wandering Armean” is interpreted as follows:  Laban the Aramean sought to wipe out my ancestor Jacob [playing on the root a-b-d which in context means “wandering” but in the Piel stem means “to wipe out”].  

[6] A similar direction is taken by the interpretations of Rashbam, Sforno and Abarbanel.  Among the newer commentators, cf. Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch.   Also cf. Martin Buber, “Bikkurim,” in Darko shel Mikra, Jerusalem 1964, pp. 82-87.

[7] The beginning of this speech by Joshua, which summarizes the story of the patriarchs (Josh. 24:2-4) was inserted into the Passover Haggadah as an introduction to the interpretation of the formulation of first fruits.   In antiquity it might have been customary to read the entire passage, verses 2-7 or even more, on Passover eve.  See Haggadah shel Pesah, D. Goldsmith, ed., Jerusalem 1960, pp. 17-18.

[8] All the extant versions of Sifre Deuteronomy, including manuscripts and printed editions (see Horowitz-Finkelstein ed., p. 319) shorten the formulation, only presenting explanations of the words through the middle of verse 7, and at that only partially.  In copying the text was shortened, relying on what is written in the Passover Haggadah.