There are a lot of firsts in the Torah. Not only firsts, but also ראשית, which is the word used by the Torah to denote beginnings. Specifically, in this dvar Torah, we will discuss mitzvot which relate to ראשית , one example of which is found at the beginning of this week’s parsha.
The Torah tells us that on entering the land we are required to take מראשית פרי האדמה , from the first fruits of the land, our bikkurim, bring it to the Bet Mikdash, and partake in a ceremony there.
We are familiar with other mitzvot by which we are required to donate or to dedicate the initial product of our labors. These include the first wool sheered from our sheep, the challah dough, the Omer sacrifice and terumah, produce given to the Kohen.
However, there are several unique aspects to the mitzvah of bikkurim which are not found in connection with the other mitzvot of ראשית. First of all, most of the above mitzvot are performed outside of the Beit Mikdash whereas the first fruits must be brought specifically there. Furthermore, on bringing the basket with the bikkurim to the Kohen, the owner is required to recite the מקרא ביכורים, a short history of Am Yisrael. This is not required in any other of the similar mitzvot. In addition to the above, the bikkurim are only brought by someone who owns the land on which the fruit has grown, and only from the seven species specific to Eretz Yisrael – the שבעת המינים.
Before we examine how these unique aspects of this mitzvah help us understand it a little better, let us try to imagine what it means for a farmer to donate the “first fruits” to the Kohen. The owner/farmer has labored throughout the winter and spring on his crops. He has watered them meticulously, he has pruned the trees, tended the branches, protected the new buds from insects and birds. Then, in late spring, early summer he notices that all his efforts have been rewarded; the first fruit appears on his tree. What excitement; what a wonderful feeling. Elated, he runs to tell his family, his co workers – we have fruit!
And then, as an halachic Jew, he carefully attaches a red string to the bud of the new fruit and once it has ripened he will take this very fruit to the Bet Hamikdash. Neither he nor his loved ones will eat this particular fruit – it will be donated to the Kohen and thus dedicated to Hashem.
Like the other mitzvoth listed above which relate predominantly to agriculture, the Torah is determined to remind the farmer that he is not the sole reason for the success of his crop or other material endeavors. The farmer, and indeed us all, need to understand Hashem’s role in our success. For this reason, we must first give of our produce, our dough, our wool to the Kohen, who is the emissary of God. This way we internalize our partnership with Hashem in achieving these material milestones.
The mitzvah of bikkurim emphasizes this notion in two further ways. The ceremony takes place at the Bet Hamikdash thus providing extra support for the idea that the fruits are dedicated to God, in God’s “house”. Secondly, the owner of the land declares out loud that Hashem took us out of Egypt, Hashem brought us to this land, and I am now bringing the first of the fruits which Hashem has given me. There is no clearer indication of the nature of this mitzvah.
Rambam in Moreh Nevuchim (3:39) states that all the mitzvot of ראשית teach us the trait of generosity and the mitzvah of bikkurim also teaches us humility. Yes, we labored on these first fruits, but we attribute that achievement to Hashem.
As we stated above, as opposed to other similar mitzvoth, the Bikkurim are only brought from the שבעת המינים. It is thereby clear that this mitzvah relates specifically to our gratitude to Hashem not just for our material abundance but also for our life in Eretz Yisrael. This connects to the declaration discussed above. It is only in this mitzvah, when, on dedicating the produce to the Kohen, the owner is obligated to thank Hashem for bringing us to the land of Israel.
The mishna, in discussing the mitzvah of bikkurim uses a somewhat unusual phrase:
כיצד מפרישין את הביכורים: יורד אדם לתוך שדהו, ורואה תאנה שביכרה, אשכול שביכר, רימון שביכר; וקושרן בגמי ואומר, הרי אלו ביכורים.
This describes the process of designating the first fruits as those which are to be brought to the Mikdash. The mishna chooses three fruits as examples, figs, grapes and pomegranates and describes them as תאנה, אשכול, רימון. This threesome should be familiar to us from another episode in the Torah:
וַיָּבֹאוּ עַד-נַחַל אֶשְׁכֹּל, וַיִּכְרְתוּ מִשָּׁם זְמוֹרָה וְאֶשְׁכּוֹל עֲנָבִים אֶחָד, וַיִּשָּׂאֻהוּ בַמּוֹט, בִּשְׁנָיִם; וּמִן-הָרִמֹּנִים, וּמִן-הַתְּאֵנִים.
This verse describes the wanderings of the spies in Eretz Yisrael and the fruit which they took back to show the nation. They chose grapes, figs and pomegranates. The words used to describe them are the same as found in the mishna above. The use of the words רימון and תאנה are not uncommon but the word אשכול employed by the mishna, along with the mishna’s choice of these three specific fruits would seem to be a direct reference to the passuk about the meraglim.
We suggest that the mishna is denoting a further message of the mitzvah of bikkurim. Our ancestors saw the beautiful fruit, a demonstration of the bounty of the land towards which they were marching, but they elected to reject that very land. They chose not to enter Eretz Yisrael and died in the wilderness as a result of that decision.
The farmer who too witnesses the beauty of these fruits, the very fruits which signify the blessing of our special land, reacts very differently. He makes a pilgrimage to the Bet Mikdash, declares his gratitude to Hashem, both for his crop and his life in Eretz Yisrael, and dedicates the fruits of his very own labors to Hashem. If only our ancestors would have reacted like this, our history may have turned out very differently.
So who will we choose to emulate? The jury is still out….
Shabbat shalom, Rav Yonatan