Bar-Ilan University's Parashat Hashavua Study Center

Parashat Bemidbar/Shavuot 5770/ May 19, 2010

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

 

 

Shavuot– The Festival of the Land of Israel

 

Rabbi Meir Gruzman

 

Department of Talmud

 

Name of the Holiday

The Feast of Weeks (Shavuot) is also known as the Festival of Receiving the Torah (Yoma 4b) as well as the Festival of First Fruits [1] (Ex. 34:22). But while the name Hag Matan Torateinu is deeply ingrained in the consciousness of observant Jews and finds expression in the rules and customs associated with the festival, the second theme, the Festival of First Fruits (Hag Ha- Bikkurim), remains in the dark, with no practical expression given to it among the devout Jewish community.  When the Jews were exiled, the commandment of pilgrimage to the Temple for the festivals ceased to be observed, the roads to Jerusalem became abandoned, and practical activities surrounding the commandment of first fruits came to an end. With these, apparently any vestige of awareness of this aspect of the holiday also disappeared from public consciousness and from the laws and customs surrounding the holiday.  Perhaps those who study Tractate Bikkurim [First Fruits] in the Mishnah near or on the festival are the only ones who do this commandment any justice.   Even though this tractate deals with historical events from the Temple period and could possibly arouse longing for performance of this commandment, generally nothing is done to lend it actual expression.

Perhaps the reason lies in the roots of the commandment, its objective and restrictions.  The commandment of first fruits is not practiced except “at the Temple (when it is standing), and no fruits except those of the Land of Israel, Syria and the Transjordan may be brought, and then only of the seven kinds” (Maimonides, Sefer ha-Mitzvot, positive commandment 125).   Therefore, this commandment can no longer be observed.  When we add the view that this commandment was entirely for the purpose of giving thanks to the Lord for the produce given to the Jewish people dwelling in their land, “because its fruits and all other beneficence comes from Him” (Sefer ha-Hinukh, commandment 91), when the land was lost and the nation was exiled, we can understand why the magnificent processionals, ceremonies, and customs accompanying this commandment disappeared, leaving nothing more than a reference to them in the Musaf service and in the maftir of the Feast of Weeks.

A New Perspective

A fresh look at the passage on bringing first fruits (Deuteronomy 26) can lead us to an additional, different understanding of the content and essence of this commandment, enabling us to conclude that the object of bringing first fruits was to give thanks to the Lord for giving us a land and for bringing us to it, and for the fact that we are dwelling here, living in the land and tilling its soil and enjoying its fruits.

The passage of first fruits has an unparalleled assertion, the like of which is not found in a single one of the commandments that are dependent on living in the land of Israel.   Regarding the commandment of the sabbatical year, Scripture says, “When you enter the land that I assign to you,” (Lev. 25:2); regarding the commandment of taking hallah, it says, “When you enter the land to which I am taking you” (Num. 15:18); regarding orlah, “When you enter the land” (Lev. 19:23).  But regarding the commandment of first fruits, it says, “When you enter the land that the Lord your G-d is giving you as a heritage, and you possess it and settle in it” (Deut. 26:1).  This verse emphasizes coming to the land, the land being given to the people of Israel, settling it, possessing it, and dwelling in it.  There is, indeed, a similar verse in the passage on setting a king over the people – “If, after you have entered the land that the Lord your G-d has assigned to you, and taken possession of it and settled in it” (Deut. 17:14) – but one important word is missing there:   nahalah = as a heritage.  From this we may conclude that the object of the commandment of first fruits has a vitally strong connection not only with taking possession of the land, but also with receiving it as a heritage.

The idea of the land and the Lord’s promise, and the roots n-t-n (=give, assign) and b-w-‘ (=come, enter) are repeated a number of times in this passage.  For example, “which you harvest from the land” (Deut. 26:2); “that the Lord your G-d is giving you” (ibid.); “I have entered the land that the Lord swore to our fathers to assign to us” (Deut. 26:3); “which You, O Lord, have given me” (Deut. 26:10), and more.  These can be viewed as expressing a leitmotif indicating that, although the commandment of first fruits is dependent on bringing fruits to the Temple (see Tosephta Rosh Ha-Shanah 1.12), it expresses thanks not only for agricultural produce, but also, perhaps primarily, for the good land that the Lord swore to our forefathers He would give to our people.

Moreover, when the farmer bringing his first fruits presents himself before the priest with a basket in his hands, he recites two formulations.  First he says, “I acknowledge this day before the Lord your G-d that I have entered the land that the Lord swore to our fathers to assign us” (Deut. 26:3), and then he says, “My father was a fugitive Aramean…” (Deut. 26:5).  The first statement makes no mention of fruit, produce, or yield of the land, but it does contain a declaration that he, the one bringing the first fruits, has come to the land promised to the patriarchs. Were the object to give thanks to the Lord only for the harvest that the field produced for this farmer, we might expect the following sort of proclamation:  “I acknowledge this day before the Lord your G-d that I have brought the first fruits of the land which You have given me” (as indeed he says further on, after “My father was a fugitive Aramean”).   But the proclamation which we have here speaks for itself, attesting to the primary object of the commandment of first fruits (see Nahmanides' commentary on Deut. 26:3).

Now we come to the recitation about first fruits.   After the priest takes the basket containing the fruits from the farmer’s hands and sets it down in front of the altar of the Lord, the farmer begins his second recitation:   “My father was a fugitive Aramean.”   First he tells about Laban the Aramean, who wanted to do in our patriarch Jacob, who lived with him for two decades.  Then he tells about Jacob’s descent to Egypt, the great natural increase of the Israelites, and the terrible suffering they experienced until the Lord freed them “by a mighty hand, by an outstretched arm and awesome power, and by signs and portents” (Deut. 26:8), and brought them to this place, and “gave us this land, a land flowing with milk and honey” (Deut. 26:9).

When reading this recitation one cannot help but wonder about the juxtaposition of these two stories with the rite of presenting a basket full of first fruits.  What connection is there between the suffering of Jacob and of the Israelites in Egypt and the toil of the farmer, living in his land and bringing his first fruits to Jerusalem?   If the object of the commandment is to give thanks to the Lord for the good yield the land has produced, then these two historical narratives are out of place.  However, in the light of what we have said above regarding another, perhaps primary object of this commandment, these two passages are certainly germane.  These two stories attest to the children of Israel having suffered  when in exile, enslaved to their foreign “hosts,” to their having been beaten and tortured, to their lives having been in danger.  Jacob suffered thus when he was with Laban, and the Israelites suffered thus when they were in Egypt.   Here, however, in the land of Israel, dwelling in the land and enjoying the fruit of our labors, we are no longer at danger and at another’s mercy.  The people of Israel are working their land, and it responds favorably, giving milk and honey and good crops.  It is the contrast between a dark and threatening life in exile and a good life in a land that yields its fruits which instill this passage with significance.   The two historical narratives lend expression to the negative aspects of exile, while bringing first fruits serves to give thanks to the Lord for our living in a good land.

Now we can understand why “first fruits are brought only from the seven varieties.”  Only fruits with which the land of Israel is especially blessed can represent the land, can lend expression to our gratefulness for receiving this land, and can express its uniqueness.   Therefore, it is fitting to say that the Feast of Weeks as the Festival of First Fruits is primarily the festival of the land of Israel.

                                                                                                                                           



[1] Shavuot marks the beginning of the time for bringing first fruits.   These were brought throughout the summer, until the Feast of Tabernacles, and sometimes even until Hanukkah (Mishnah, Bikkurim 1.6).