The First Fruits Ceremony

Think back to when you had to learn formulas and equations in school. Did you find this learning meaningful or was it just boring, rote memorization? Is there anything to be gained from the learning and recitation of statements?

The sole example of a biblical formula recited by someone occurred on Shavuot. In Parshat Ki Tavo, it lists that when the Israelites enter the Promised Land, they should take their first fruits and give them to the Kohen to offer to G-d. They should then recite a formula which begins הִגַּדְתִּי הַיּוֹם לַיהוָה אֱלֹהֶיךָ, כִּי-בָאתִי אֶל-הָאָרֶץ, אֲשֶׁר נִשְׁבַּע יְהוָה לַאֲבֹתֵינוּ לָתֶת לָנוּ. ‘I profess this day unto the LORD your God, that I am come unto the land which the LORD swore unto our fathers to give us.’ [1]

The formula continues with a passage very familiar to us from the Passover Haggadah: אֲרַמִּי אֹבֵד אָבִי, וַיֵּרֶד מִצְרַיְמָה, וַיָּגָר שָׁם בִּמְתֵי מְעָט; וַיְהִי-שָׁם, לְגוֹי גָּדוֹל עָצוּם וָרָב., “My father was a wandering Aramean who sojourned down to Egypt and lived down there few in number and there became a great, numerous nation.”[2] The formula recited goes on to discuss our suffering under slavery, how G-d saved us and then how G-d brought us into the land of Israel “וַיְבִאֵנוּ, אֶל-הַמָּקוֹם הַזֶּה; וַיִּתֶּן-לָנוּ אֶת-הָאָרֶץ הַזֹּאת, אֶרֶץ זָבַת חָלָב וּדְבָשׁ.” “And G-d brought us to this place and he gave us this land, a land flowing with milk and honey.”[3] Now that we are in Israel the person bringing the fruit should joyously proclaim “וְעַתָּה, הִנֵּה הֵבֵאתִי אֶת-רֵאשִׁית פְּרִי הָאֲדָמָה, אֲשֶׁר-נָתַתָּה לִּי, יְהוָה; וְהִנַּחְתּוֹ, לִפְנֵי יְהוָה אֱלֹהֶיךָ, וְהִשְׁתַּחֲוִיתָ, לִפְנֵי יְהוָה אֱלֹהֶיךָ.” “And now I have brought my first fruits which G-d has given me,”[4] setting it down before G-d and prostrating oneself before G-d.

I imagine our ancestors waiting with bated breath for the opportunity to reach Israel, arrive at the Temple in Jerusalem, recite these words before G-d and then give up something which is theirs for the Kohen, G-d’s emissary, to consume. Mishnah Bikkurim teaches that our ancestors would hold the barrel of fruit on their shoulders during their pilgrimage to the Temple. Upon arrival before the Kohen, they would lower it from their shoulders to literally bite on its handle. The Kohen would place his hand under the basket and lift it up, thus symbolizing his taking over ownership of the basket.[5]

What relevance does this have for us today? We do not live in Israel, nor do we offer fruit as a sacrifice of gratitude before G-d. However, what we continue to do is to look for ways to demonstrate our appreciation for all that we have. We recognize the humble beginnings of our parents and grandparents who came before us, many of whom were immigrants to the United States and who sacrificed so much of themselves so that we have what we have today. Similarly, our ancestors endured the hardships of crossing through the desert in order to give this generation the opportunity to worship G-d in the Land of Israel.

Shavuot is an additional time to appreciate our bounty: that we are Jewish, that we have been given the Torah and that we have found so much blessing in the land in which we live. We should never take this for granted, recognizing instead the great cost and sacrifices it took for us to reach where we are today. A ritual like the First Fruits, though it has fallen into desuetude, is yet another example of showing gratitude and graciousness for all that we have. I hope that we find in our daily lives opportunities to make room for rituals like it, having moments of consciousness for all of our blessings. Ken Yhi Ratzon, may it be our will to do so.

[1] Deuteronomy 26:3

[2] Deuteronomy 26:5

[3] Deuteronomy 26:9

[4] Deuteronomy 26:10

[5] Mishnah Bikkurim 3:6

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