This week’s Parsha begins by describing the process of bringing the Bikurim, the first fruits, to the kohen in the Beit HaMikdash. There are, in fact, two separate mitzvoth which make up the mitzvah of Bikurim. The first is the actual bringing of the Bikurim to the Mikdash, and the second is “Mikra Bikurim”, reciting the passukim in our Parsha (26:3-10). These are counted as two separate mitzvoth by the Rambam, both in Sefer HaMitzvoth and in the Mishneh Torah, as well as in the Sefer HaChinuch.
The most widely quoted explanation for the mitzvah of Bikurim can be found in the Rambam’s Moreh Nevuchim (3:39). The Rambam suggests that the Mitzva is coming to create perspective for the farmer who is bringing his first fruits to Yerushalyim. We are all familiar with the idea that the first fruits of any endeavour have a special meaning to their owner. How many store owners proudly display the first banknote that they received as payment for goods or services rendered in their business? Is an author not especially proud of his first published work, and how common is it for a baseball player to hold on to the first ball he hit for a home run or as momento of his first victory as a pitcher?
For a farmer, the first fruits carry all this significance and more. The Gemara in Yevamot (63:a, all translations based on the Schottenstein edition) captures the love hate relationship that the farmer shares with his land. Rabbi Eliezer says: “Any man who does not own land is not a proper man” while several lines later the Gemara records a different statement of Rabbi Eliezer “You have no livelihood more lowly than the cultivation of the land”. (For possible reconciliation of these apparently contradictory statements see Tosafot, dibbur hamatchil “shain lecha”). The Gemara continues with the following statement: “Rava said If one has a hundred zuz invested in business, he could have meat and wine every day. But with the same amount invested in farmed land he will eat salt and immature sprouts, and not only that, but he lie down on the earth” (i.e. sleep on the ground to protect it at night).
After all this effort and sacrifice, the harvest creates a sense of joy and satisfaction. The farmer now knows that he is financially stable for the year that he can pay off his debts, invest in the future and enjoy what is left. It is precisely at this point the farmer needs to be reminded of his humble beginnings, of the hard work and uncertainty which accompanied the planting and care of his crop and which brought him to this point. The process of bringing the Bikurim, and reciting Mikra Bkurim reminds him, and others that what has been accomplished has only been achieved through the help of Hashem. By creating this perspective, argues the Rambam, the mitzvah strengthens an individual’s sense of giving on the one hand, while serving as a damper or brake on a person’s natural inclination toward materialism on the other.
Rav Elchanan Samet, in his work Iyunim B’Parshat HaShavua, first series, suggests a different reason for the mitzvah. Rav Samet points out that one would expect that the passages of Mikra Bikurim would provide the basis for the mitzvah. When examining the passukim, the major theme that emerges is not a testament to the fruits of Eretz Yisrael, but rather a historical survey of the events which brought Bnei Yisrael to Eretz Yisrael. The inescapable conclusion that one must draw from this is that Mikra Bikurim, and the mitzvah of bringing Bikurim are both tied to the idea of thanking Hashem for having given us the land of Israel. This Mitzva gives the individual farmer the opportunity to thank Hashem for giving him his parcel of land in Eretz Yisrael. (In truth, this idea of Mikra Bikurim being a way to thank Hashem for the land can already be found in the Seforno, 26:3. The Seforno suggests that the bringer of Bikurim is admitting that he was a resident of different country, and is a resident of Eretz Yisrael only by dint of the fact that Hashem has given it to him as gift. Thus, we bring the Bikurim as our gift to the One who gave the land as a gift. Rav Samet himself quotes extensively from Martin Buber, who suggested a similar idea.)
Rav Samet points out that by adopting this approach we can explain a number of differences between the mitzvah of Bikurim and other mitzvoth, such as terumot and maasrot which also require that we first tithe before we eat from the new crops. Firstly, the mitzvah of Bikurim only applies to shivaat haminim, and there is not even a rabbinic decree to bring Bikurim from anything else. This is because the seven species are the species which specifically reflect the beauty of Eretz Yisrael. It is most logical that a mitzvah which specifically comes to express our gratitude for having been given Eretz Yisrael would be fulfilled through th especial fruits of Eretz Yisrael.
Bikurim is considered a “mincha”, an offering to Hashem, and not a standard matanat kehuna, like teruma. Given Rav Samet’s explanation, this is also quite logical. We bring the Bikurim as an offering to Hashem since we are thanking Him for having given Eretz Yisarel to us. (The fact that the kohen eats the Bikurim afterward in no way detracts from this. The kohen eats from many korbanot; the question here is by what authority, mincha or matana, does he have the right to eat this.)
The obligation to bring Bikurim lies only with the owner of the land. Unlike terumot umaasrot, if one owns the fruit without owning the land (for example a tenant farmer), then he does not bring the Bikurim. Once again, according to Rav Samet’s approach this makes perfect sense. Since the Mitzva is celebrating the fact that Hashem gave us the land, only those who actually own the land would have the obligation to bring the first fruits.
As we mentioned at the beginning of our analysis, there are two distinct mitzvoth that we fulfill, bring Bikurim and Mikra Bikurim, declaring that we have brought the Bikurim. The Rambam codifies the mitzvah of Mikra Bikurim in his Mishna Torah in Hilchot Bikurim (3:10). He also quotes the Mitzva in Sefer HaMitzvoth Mitzvat Aseh 132. Rav Avraham Feintuch, in his commentary to the Sefer Mitzvoth, “Pekudei Yesharim”, points out that the formulation of the mitzvah differs between the two sources. While in the Mishna Torah the act of Mikra Bikurrim is described as “viduy” (to declare), in Sefer Hamitzvot the Rambam says that we are commanded to tell or recall (l’saper”) the wonderful things Hashem has done for us. Not only that, but this telling is to be done simply when one brings the Bikurim as opposed to being an integral part of the process. In the Mishna Torah however, the formulation is different. There the Rambam syas that the declaration (viduy) must be made “al HaBikurim”, literally on or part of the Bikurim.
In order to reconcile the two sources R. Feintuch suggests that Mikra Bikurim serves twin purposes. On the one hand, we are declaring our recognition of the good that Hashem has done for us and asking Him to continue doing so in the future. This must be done on the Bikurim themselves, as this part of the mitzvah is parallel to viduy maaserot, declaring that we have brought all our Maaser.
There is, however, another aspect to Mikra Bikurim, which the Rambam stresses in Sefer Hamitzvoth. That is to recall the wonderful things that Hashem has done for us. This need not be done on the Bikurim themselves, but merely when we bring Bikurim. And why is this?
As we have already seen, we bring Bikurim to thank Hashem for fulfilling his promise to give us Eretz Yisrael. We now expand upon this theme by recalling other promises that Hashem made and kept. There is no setting that is more appropriate forthis than the time of Bikurim, when we recall the greatest gift of all, the fact that we have been given our land, Eretz Yisrael.