Yom Kippur: If we are the clay

If we are the clay in the potter’s hand,
may we mould of ourselves a vessel
in which to hold Your love.

If we are the stone in the mason’s hand,
may we build of ourselves a sanctuary
that You may dwell within.

If we are the iron in the blacksmith’s hand,
may we forge of ourselves a foundation
upholding truth and peace.

If we are the tiller in the helmsman’s hand,
may we steer the ship to safety
across tempestuous seas.

If we are the glass in the glazier’s hand,
may we make of ourselves a mirror,
to reflect Your boundless light.

If we are the cloth in the weaver’s hand,
may we make of ourselves a tapestry
to beautify Your world.

If we are the silver in the silversmith’s hand,
may we shed our dross in the crucible,
yet our purest essence retain.


The piyyut* – Ki Hinei Kachomer – Behold [we are] as clay in the hand of the Potter – was composed by an unknown author possibly in the twelfth century. The piyyut is based on a biblical theme which appears first in Isaiah, (64:7-8) “But now, O Lord, You are our Father; we are the clay, and You our potter; and we are all the work of Your hand.” This theme reappears in the book of Jeremiah. The prophet has been told by God to go down to the potter’s house and there to hear God’s words. He does so and sees the potter working at his wheel, and how he sculpts the clay. Then God speaks to him: “O house of Israel, can I not do with you as this potter? says the Lord. Behold, as the clay is in the potter’s hand, so are you in My hand, O house of Israel.” (Jer. 18:6).

The author of the piyyut commences with the words, “Ki hinei kachomer beyad hayotser – behold [we are] as clay in the hand of the Potter,” (the word yotser is a general word for craftsman or creator). He then continues the theme with God as a different artisan in each verse, shaping us with whichever medium the craftsman works with. The author emphasizes the helplessness and passivity of man. Each verse ends with the plea, “laberit habet, ve’al tefen layetser – look at the covenant, not at the sin.” Ostensibly, we are asking God to remember the covenant which He made with us and to overlook our sins. However, there is a play on words which hints at another meaning: the word yetser also refers to man’s inclinations (frequently yetser refers to the yetser hara – the evil inclination). In this case, the chorus could be referring to the two-way covenant: we ask God to remember His promise to us and to overlook our digressions, but we are also enjoined to remember our covenant with Him and not to turn away to the side of the evil inclination. Maybe we are being asked to be the yotser – we are each the artisan and we are to fashion ourself into a work of art: on Yom Kippur we aspire to elevate the clay of which we are formed to loftier heights.

This piyyut, considered by many one of the high points of the service, is traditionally sung on the evening of Yom Kippur, with the Ark open. All the congregation stands and sings in unison with the Chazzan. The best-known melody was composed by a Chasid from Lubavitch, Aharon Charitonov,** in the 19th century in Ukraine. Originally, he composed it as a melody with no words, but later the words of the piyyut were put to his melody.

Here is a translation of the piyyut:

Ki Hinei Kachomer – Behold as the clay

Behold as the clay in the hand of the potter,
who expands or contracts it at will,
so are we in Your hand, O God of love;
look to the covenant, overlook our sin.

Behold as the stone in the hand of the mason,
who hews or fragments it at will,
so are we in Your hand, O God of life;
look to the covenant, overlook our sin.

Behold as the iron in the hand of the blacksmith,
who forges or rejects it at will,
so are we in Your hand, O God Who sustains the poor;
look to the covenant, overlook our sin.

Behold as the anchor in the hand of the sailor,
who weighs or casts it at will,
so are we in Your hand, O good and forgiving God;
look to the covenant, overlook our sin.

Behold as the glass in the hand of the glazier,
who shapes or melts it at will,
so are we in Your hand, O gracious God;
look to the covenant, overlook our sin.

Behold as the cloth in the hand of the weaver,
who drapes or twists it at will,
so are we in Your hand, O gracious God;
look to the covenant and overlook our sin.

Behold as the silver in the hand of the silversmith,
who alloys or refines it at will,
so are we in Your hand, O healing God;
look to the covenant, overlook our sin.

And here is a link to a beautiful contemporary rendition of Ki Hinei Kachomer to the traditional melody.

*A piyyut (from Greek poiétḗs “poet”) is a Jewish liturgical poem, usually designated to be sung, chanted, or recited during religious services. Piyyutim have been written since Temple times. Most piyyutim are in Hebrew or Aramaic, and most follow some poetic scheme, such as an acrostic following the order of the Hebrew alphabet or spelling out the name of the author.
Many piyyutim are familiar to regular attendees of synagogue services. For example, the best-known piyyut may be Adon Olam – Master of the World, sometimes (but almost certainly wrongly) attributed to Solomon ibn Gabirol in 11th century Spain. Its poetic form consists of a repeated rhythmic pattern of short-long-long-long, and it is so beloved that it is often sung at the conclusion of many synagogue services, after the ritual nightly saying of the Shema, and during the morning ritual of putting on tefillin. Another well-beloved piyyut is Yigdal – May God be Magnified, which is based upon the Thirteen Principles of Faith developed by Maimonides.
The author of a piyyut is known as a paytan.

**Reb Aharon Charitonov of Nikolayev, Ukraine belonged to a family of ritual slaughterers and examiners of kosher animals and birds. Besides the Charitonovs’ expertise in shechitah and bedikah (ritual slaughter and examination), they also demonstrated an amazing talent for composing niggunim – sacred melodies. Many of these niggunim were extremely elaborate but even the simple ones were imbued with expression.

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Ha’azinu: Heaven and earth

Give ear O heavens, let me speak; let the earth hear the words I utter! May my discourse come down as the rain, my speech distill as the dew, like showers on young growth, like droplets on the grass. (Devarim 32:1).

You whose thoughts are flying
cloud-like, free of fetters,
dreaming of an ideal world,
gravity does not pull you back:
listen, for these words are meant for you.

And you whose thoughts are rooted
tree-like, firm and earth-bound,
despairing of a better world,
the wind does not sway you:
listen, for these words are meant for you.

May my speech drop down like dew,
like showers from the clouds
softly sprinkling trees and grass
falling on the thirsty earth,
sustaining all of life.


Sa’adiah Gaon* teaches that the “heavens” being addressed here are the angels while the “earth” refers to mortals. However, the Etz Hayim commentary of the JPS cites the Chatam Sofer who maintains that Moses is addressing the people, “Listen to me – you spiritual people whose thoughts are in heaven, and also you down-to-earth people whose concerns are more material. This message is meant for all of you.”

*Saʻadiah ben Yosef Gaon (882/892 – 942) was a prominent rabbi, Jewish philosopher, and exegete of the Gaonic period. He was born in Egypt and died in Baghdad.
The first important rabbinic figure to write extensively in Arabic, he is considered the founder of Judeo-Arabic literature. Known for his works on Hebrew linguistics, Halacha and Jewish philosophy and his philosophical work Emunot veDeot represents the first systematic attempt to integrate Jewish theology with components of Greek philosophy. He was also very active in opposition to Karaism, in defense of rabbinic Judaism.

Rosh Hashana: The Birthday of the World

This day is the birth of the world… from the Rosh Hashana Machzor.

Striations of light streak the heavens,
darkness gives way to the rays of the sun.

A dazzling white sky meets the tranquil sea,
morning sparkles on undulating waves.

Sun rays trickle through leafy lattices:
an intricate interplay of light and dark.

Flowers unfurl, spreading bright crowns,
butterflies flutter, harvesting nectar.

Lustrous dew-drops deck a spider’s web –
dangling crystals trembling in the breeze.

The first birds call, banishing slumber,
creation stirs and stretches.

Open your eyes in wonder:
today is the birthday of the world.


Tradition teaches that Rosh Hashana is actually the day believed to be the anniversary of the creation of Adam and Eve, the first man and woman. God then told them of their role in His world. Their creation was the culmination of the work of the five preceding days.
In the Midrash (Kohelet Rabbah 1 on Ecclesiastes 7:13) we read, “When God created the first human beings, He led them around the Garden of Eden and said: ‘Look at my works! See how beautiful they are – how excellent! For your sake I created them all. See to it that you do not spoil and destroy My world; for if you do, there will be no one else to repair it.'”

Selichot: Angels of mercy

The gleam from lofty windows
lights the midnight shadow.
The congregation streams inside
waiting silently.

Voices rise into the dark,
bearing pain and love.

And in the blackness of the night
a ladder stretches forth,
and rung by rung
the prayers are borne
from earth’s terrain to God.


In the Selichot* service, there is a prayer composed by Amram Gaon (821-875) which begins, “Machnisei rachamim – Angels of mercy” and translates as follows:
“Angels of mercy, may you usher in our [plea for] mercy, before the Master of mercy. Angels of prayer, may you cause our prayer to be heard before the One who hears prayer. Angels of outcry, may you cause our outcry to be heard, before the One who hears outcry. Angels of tears, may you usher in our tears before the King Who is reconciled by tears. Intercede for us and multiply supplication and petition before the King, God, exalted and most high. Mention before Him the Torah [that is kept] and the good deeds [performed] by those who dwell in the dust. May He remember their love and keep their children safe, so that the remnant of Jacob will not perish…”

The usual biblical word for angels (or messengers), “mal’achim” does not actually appear in the prayer, which addresses “ushers of mercy; ones who cause prayers and outcry to be heard before God; ones who bring our tears before God.” Clearly we are asking intermediaries who are understood to be angels, to intercede for us.

In his volume Selichot: Authorised Hebrew and Edition for the Whole Year, translated and annotated by Rabbi Abraham Rosenfeld, R’ Rosenfeld notes, “Many a commentator abstained from translating this prayer, objecting to the idea of praying to angels. They overlooked the beautiful description of Jacob’s Ladder; most commentators agree that “prayer” is a Jacob’s Ladder joining earth to heaven…Various symbolic ideas have been read into the the imagery of the ladder and the angels upon it. One view is that it represents the vehicle by which one’s prayers ascend to heaven and through which salvation descends from heaven. The most acceptable interpretation, however, makes the ladder symbolise the link between celestial and terrestrial spheres, the angels being intermediaries, as it were, carrying messages from one to the other.”

(Even today, there are shlichei tsibbur who change the words slightly so as not to be perceived as praying to angels).
Here is a link to a contemporary rendition of Machnisei Rachamim by Odeliah Berlin https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yXgW8j48NqA.

*Selichot are Jewish penitential poems and prayers, especially those said in the period leading up to the Yamim Nora’im and on Fast Days. God’s Thirteeen Attributes are a central theme throughout these prayers.
Selichot are usually recited between midnight and dawn. Some recite them at night after the evening service or in the morning before the morning service due to the convenience of synagogue attendance at these times.
Arguably the most important and certainly most popular night of Selichot in the Ashkenazi tradition is the first night, when many members of the congregation attend the late-night service on Saturday night. The chazzan wears a kittel and sings elaborate melodies. In some congregations, it is not unusual for a choir to participate in this first night’s service. This night also has more Selichot than any other night prior to Rosh Hashanah eve. The other nights are more sparsely attended and those services are often led by a layperson, rather than a trained musician, and with melodies that are less elaborate than the first night.
These ancient prayers for forgiveness are already mentioned in the Mishnah. A later Midrashic legend associates King David with the establishment of a special service for forgiveness when he discovers that the Temple will be destroyed. “How will they reach atonement?” he asks God and learns that the people will recite the Selichot prayers and then be forgiven.

 

Vayelech: Lost, unsought

And I, I will surely hide My face on that day… (Devarim 31:18).

The child crouches, weeping,
sheltered by the grey stone wall;
the Rebbe hears her sobbing
and gently asks her why.

She was playing hide-and-seek,
she says, and hid herself too well;
her friends despaired of finding her,
gave up and went away.

The Rebbe sighs and ponders,
hearing strains of God’s lament:
I hid My face, and now
My children search for Me no more.


This story is told of Rabbi Dov Ber (the Maggid) of Mezeritch* who was a disciple of the Baal Shem Tov. He perceived the child’s friends who gave up on her because she was so well-hidden, as a metaphor for God’s people who give up looking for Him and start to live their lives without Him. And God is pained when they no longer seek Him out.

Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel** was one of the leading Jewish theologians and Jewish philosophers of the 20th century. Much of his work sought to free Jewish theology from the constraints of Maimonides’ philosophical concept of an absolutely transcendent God who is independent of humanity. Rabbi Heschel counterposed the concept of divine pathos, that is, of a God who searches for man, who is in need of man. He emphasized the interdependency of the divine and the human. He held that Judaism is so commandment-oriented precisely because God’s kingship is realized on earth through the fulfillment of the commandments. He noted the striking rabbinical concept that it is human witness that makes God real, often citing the midrashic gloss to Isaiah 43:12, ” ‘So you are My witnesses,’ declares the Lord, ‘and I am God,’ meaning: “When you are my witnesses, then I am God, but when you are not my witnesses, then I am, as it were, not God.” [1]

Based on the phrase, “Va’anochi haster asteer panai – And I, I will surely hide My face on that day,” the Ba’al Shem Tov teaches that the repetition of the word “I” means that even in the hardest times of (God’s) concealment, the “Anochi – I” will still be there. That, he says, is God’s promise, that He will not desert us in times of trouble.

The Chiddushei HaRim teaches on the same phrase, that if we know and feel that there is hiddenness, it is not really hiddenness. The tragedy, he says, is not so great, because then come the longings and yearnings to reveal the Shechina – the Divine Presence. These break through all barriers – and there is no greater repentance than this. However, he says, “The trouble is when the hiddenness is itself hidden, and we do not even realise that God’s face is hidden. No-one looks for God, and for His supreme loving-kindness and for heavenly radiance.” The Chiddushei HaRim interprets this phrase as “I will hide the hiddenness (from them),” meaning “I will dull their hearts and blunt their senses so they will not even feel that they are missing the yearning for God.”

The Etz Hayyim commentary of the JPS, says on the concept of God concealing His face, “To understand the Shoah, Martin Buber,*** who fled Germany for Palestine when the Nazis came to power, fastened on this image of God’s hiding. God is always present, but sometimes turns aside and hides the Divine countenance. Terrible things happen when God’s countenance is hidden, when God’s attention is turned away.”

[1] Excerpted from First Things, the theology of Abraham Joshua Heschel by Reuven Kimelman. http://www.firstthings.com/article/2009/12/the-theology-of-abraham-joshua-heschel

*Rabbi Dov Ber ben Avraham of Mezeritch (1700/1704/1710 – 1772) was a disciple of Rabbi Yisrael Baal Shem Tov, the founder of Chassidic Judaism, and was chosen as his successor to lead the early movement. Rabbi Dov Ber is regarded as the first systematic exponent of the mystical philosophy underlying the teachings of the Baal Shem Tov, and through his teaching and leadership, the main architect of the movement. He established his base in Mezeritch (in Volynia), which moved the center of Chassidism from the Baal Shem Tov’s Medzhybizh (in Podolia), where he focused his attention on raising a close circle of great disciples to spread the movement. His inner circle of disciples, known as the Chevraia Kadisha (“Holy Brotherhood”), included his son Rabbi Avraham HaMalach (The Angel), Rabbi Nachum of Czernobyl, Rabbi Elimelech of Lizhensk, Rabbi Zusha of Hanipol, Rabbi Levi Yitzchak of Berditchev, Rabbi Baruch of Medzhybizh, Rabbi Aharon (HaGadol) of Karlin, Rabbi Menachem Mendel of Vitebsk, Rabbi Shmuel Shmelke of Nikolsburg and Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Liadi. These disciples, being themselves great Talmudic authorities and well-versed in Kabbalah and Chassidic philosophy, were successful in turning Chassidut into a vast movement. After R’ Dov Ber’s death, avoiding the unified leadership of the first two generations, this third generation of leadership took their different interpretations and disseminated across appointed regions of Eastern Europe. Under the inspiration of their teacher, this rapidly spread Chassidism beyond the Ukraine, to Poland, Galicia and Russia.
His teachings appear in his own books and in the works authored by his disciples.

**Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel (1907 – 1972) was a Polish-born American rabbi and one of the leading Jewish theologians and Jewish philosophers of the 20th century. He was descended from preeminent European rabbis on both sides of his family. After a traditional yeshiva education and studying for Orthodox rabbinical ordination semicha, Rabbi Heschel pursued both a doctorate at the University of Berlin and a liberal rabbinic ordination, studying under some of the most eminent Jewish educators of the time. He joined a Yiddish poetry group and in 1933, published a volume of Yiddish poems. In late October 1938, while living in a rented room in the home of a Jewish family in Frankfurt, he was arrested by the Gestapo and deported to Poland. He spent ten months lecturing on Jewish philosophy and Torah at Warsaw’s Institute for Jewish Studies. Six weeks before the German invasion of Poland, he left Warsaw for London. His mother and three of his five siblings were murdered by the Nazis (his father had died when Heschel was nine). He reached New York City in 1940 and in 1946 took a position at the Jewish Theological Seminary of America (JTS) in New York City, the main seminary of Conservative Judaism. He served as professor of Jewish Ethics and Mysticism until his death.
Heschel explicated many facets of Jewish thought, including studies on medieval Jewish philosophy, Kabbalah, and Chassidism. According to some scholars, he was more interested in spirituality than in critical text study.
Heschel believed the teachings of the Hebrew prophets were a clarion call for social action in the United States and worked for African Americans’ civil rights and against the Vietnam War.
Heschel is a widely read Jewish theologian whose most influential works include Man Is Not Alone, God in Search of Man, The Sabbath, and The Prophets. At the Vatican Council II, as representative of American Jews, Heschel persuaded the Roman Catholic Church to eliminate or modify passages in its liturgy that demeaned the Jews, or referred to an expected conversion to Christianity. His theological works argued that religious experience is a fundamentally human impulse, not just a Jewish one. He believed that no religious community could claim a monopoly on religious truth.

***Martin Buber (1878 – 1965) was an Austrian-born Israeli Jewish philosopher best known for his philosophy of dialogue, a form of existentialism centered on the distinction between the I–Thou relationship and the I–It relationship. Born in Vienna, Buber came from a family of observant Jews (he was a direct descendant of the prominent 16th century rabbi, R’ Meir Katzenellenbogen, known as the Maharam of Padua) but he broke with Jewish custom after a personal religious crisis: he then started reading Kant, Kierkegaard, Nietzsche. The latter two, in particular, inspired him to pursue studies in philosophy. In 1896, Buber went to Vienna to pursue secular studies in philosophy. In 1902, he became the editor of the weekly Die Welt, the central organ of the Zionist movement, although he later withdrew from organizational work in Zionism. In 1923, Buber wrote his famous essay on existence, Ich und Du (later translated into English as I and Thou), and in 1925, he began translating the Hebrew Bible into the German language.
In 1930, Buber became an honorary professor at the University of Frankfurt am Main, but resigned in protest from his professorship immediately after Adolf Hitler came to power in 1933. He then founded the Central Office for Jewish Adult Education, which became an increasingly important body as the German government forbade Jews to attend public education. In 1938, Buber left Germany and settled in Jerusalem, receiving a professorship at Hebrew University and lecturing in anthropology and introductory sociology.

Nitzavim: Woodcutters and Waterdrawers

nitsavim wood water


In the beginning of Parashat Nitzavim, Moses asserts that all of the community will enter into the covenant with God. He continues with a list of all those present, in descending order of social status, ending with menial laborers, represented here by the woodcutters and water drawers. The mention of these specific workers has aroused the interest of commentators through the generations. Are these merely two similar examples and is there also some deeper meaning? In the former case, we are talking about simple, unlearned folk, at the bottom of the social pyramid. Rabbi Baruch of Medzhybizh* teaches that the whole of the community is greater than the sum of its parts, and although each Israelite might be flawed, all together their strengths and good qualities are magnified. The message then is that each individual member of the community is personally committed to the Covenant (not through the action of someone superior) and that each is equally worthy. Chassidic lore abounds with stories in praise of poor and simple folk who are valued as much as their wealthier, more learned peers.
The Nachalat Yitchak** commentary on the phrase “mechotev etsecha ad sho’ev maymecha – [literally] from the hewer of your wood to the drawer of your water,” notes that whenever we see “fromto,” the meaning is from the greatest of the great to the smallest of the small. He brings several proof texts (as in Shemot 11:5, “From Pharaoh’s firstborn to the firstborn of the maidservant,” and others). So the Nachalat Yitzchak wonders what is the distance here between the woodcutter and the water drawer – as both of them are ostensibly of equal status. He suggests, in the name of Rabbi Meir Shenipsker** who cites the Sifrei,*** that although the month of Elul is a time of grace for repentance, more so than the rest of the year, it is hinted here that one shouldn’t even wait until Elul proper but rather try to repent early, from halfway through Av. This is derived from the Talmud (Ta’anit 31) regarding Tu be’Av – the fifteenth – or halfway through Av). This is the implication of “from your woodcutters” – because on 15th Av the time that the cutting of the wood for the main altar in the Temple was completed for the year. Significantly, this is when the nights – traditionally the ideal time for Torah study – lengthen again after the summer solstice, permitting more study. It is taught that increased Torah learning should intensify repentance and good deeds. As to “until your water drawers,” we learn that this refers to Hoshana Rabba which marks the end of the water drawing and water libation ceremonies (which took place during the intermediate days of Sukkot). Hoshana Rabba is traditionally the last day one can still alter the verdict for the New Year.
An interesting idea is raised by Rabbi David Nelson in an article on Nitzavim entitled, An All-inclusive Covenant, http://www.myjewishlearning.com/texts/Bible/Weekly_Torah_Portion/nitzavim_clal.shtml. He notes that when Moses lists the categories of people, we find most can be sorted into pairs of opposites: young/old; men/women; leaders/strangers. The menial workers – water drawers and woodcutters do not seem like opposites – both were menial, not highly-regarded workers. Rabbi Nelson suggests that we free-associate. “Perhaps these jobs are meant symbolically rather than literally. Woodchoppers are literally “choppers of your trees.” The image of trees has echoes of the Tree of Life, the Torah. To “chop” such a Tree is to question, or reject Jewish tradition. On the other hand, the image of “water-drawers” is reminiscent of the verse “u-sh’avtem mayim b’sasson mima’ayanei ha’yeshua – you shall draw water joyfully from the wellsprings of salvation.” (Isaiah 12:3). The image is of one who drinks deeply from the wellsprings of Torah.” Rabbi Nelson concludes, “Understood this way, Moses is declaring the covenant to be inclusive of all, the pious and the rebellious, the faithful and the confused. The text warns us never to be so complacent about our commitment or devotion, or so sure of our faith, that we see the covenant of Israel as closed to those who are not convinced of its value or sure of its feasibility. Rather we must learn from the later verses of the parashah and approach such Jews with the assurance that the Torah, in its broadest sense, “… is very close to you, in your mouth and in your heart.” (Devarim 30:14).
Dr Aviad HaCohen, in a D’var Torah on Parashat Nitzavim from 2005 http://www.kipa.co.il/jew/pash/85/7049.html, brings a variation on the contrast between woodcutter and water drawer. He cites various commentators: the S’forno who says there is a hierarchy in every society so even in this lowest social stratum, there is a pecking order, “from the first of the woodcutters to the last of the water drawers.” Rashi and Ramban believe that these were Canaanites who came to convert in the days of Moses and even though they were yesterday’s “other”, having accepted the covenant, they came to stand before God with all of Israel. However, Dr HaCohen quoting his late uncle Rabbi Shmuel Avidor in his book, Likrat Shabbat, suggests that there is an important difference between the work of these two laborers. The woodcutter, he says, uproots and destroys, damaging Nature and its beauty. The water drawer brings up water from the deep springs, which nurtures man, as well as the flora and fauna. He adds that even the body movements of the two laborers is significant. Whereas the woodcutter bends away from the tree as he increases the power of the blow, the water drawer bends forwards towards the well or spring as he tries to bring living water to nourish the world. Dr HaCohen concludes that the difference then, is not one of stature but of essence. The former represents those who would destroy and uproot, while the latter represents those who nurture and enhance the world. Both, he says, come before God on the Day of Judgment and must give an accounting of their actions.

*Rabbi Baruch of Medzhybizh (1753–1811), was a grandson of the Baal Shem Tov. He was the first major “rebbe” of the Chassidic movement to hold court in Medzhybizh in his grandfather’s hometown and Beit Midrash, which he inherited.
R’ Baruch was known for his melancholy, fiery temper, and uncompromising strong will. His teachings were the subject of great debate among the Chassidic leadership of his generation. He was the first Chassidic leader to accumulate great wealth from his devotees through the practice of petek and pidyonot. In other words, he obtained donations and gifts for personal requests or prayers. He claimed to his followers that he had supernatural powers derived directly from his blood-connection to the Baal Shem Tov. His followers numbered in the thousands when he died.
**Nachalat Yitchak, Rabbi Meir Shenipsker are both cited in Itturei Torah, on this verse. I cannot find any information about either.
***The Sifrei refers to classical Jewish Biblical exegesis, based on the biblical books of Bamidbar and Devarim.

Ki Tavo: First Fruits

When you enter the land that the Lord your God is giving you as a heritage, and you possess it and settle in it, you shall take from every first fruit of the soil, which you harvest from the land that the Lord your God is giving you, put it in a basket and go to the place where the Lord your God will choose to establish His name…You shall go to the priest…and say to him, “I acknowledge today, before the Lord your God that I have entered the land that the Lord swore to our fathers to give us.”
The priest shall take the basket from your hand and set it down in front of the altar of the Lord your God.
You shall then recite as follows before the Lord your God: “My father was a fugitive Aramean. He went down to Egypt with meager numbers and sojourned there; but there he became a great and very populous nation. The Egyptians dealt harshly with us and oppressed us; they imposed heavy labor upon us. We cried to the Lord, the God of our fathers, and the Lord heard our plea and saw our plight, our misery, and our oppression. The Lord freed us from Egypt by a mighty hand, by an outstretched arm and awesome power, and by signs and portents. He brought us to this place and gave us this land, a land flowing with milk and honey. So now I bring the first fruits of the soil which You, O Lord, have given me.” You shall leave it before the Lord your God and bow low before the Lord your God. And you shall rejoice, together with the Levite and the stranger in your midst, in all the bounty that the Lord your God has bestowed upon you and your household. (Devarim 26:1-11)

We descend to the field to seek the first cluster,
the promise of harvest blessed by the Source.

We enter before You, basket borne shoulder-high
as once we bore dough when we hastened from Egypt.

We remember how, homeless and trapped in tight straits,
we called out to You and You answered our cry.

Your arm reaching out, and Your powerful hand
wrought wonders and miracles, bringing us home.

We set down the hamper and open our hearts
to the Levite, the stranger, the poor and bereft.

The sparks that we gathered and bore in the basket,
tendered like first fruits, soar back to the Source.


Parashat Ki Tavo opens with a description of one of the most beautiful ceremonies of Temple times: the bringing of the “bikurim – the first fruits.” The rite is first mentioned briefly in Sefer Shemot (23:19 and 34:26) but in Ki Tavo, it is described much more fully. The Mishna in Masechet Bikurim, portrays the festive observance of this mitzva in Temple times. The description starts with the farmer noticing the first cluster of grapes or figs, marking it with a band and declaring, “These shall be for first fruits…” and concludes when he leaves the Temple having brought his offering. The Rambam, in his Laws of First Fruits, adds further details. One of these is that the first fruits can be conveyed in any manner, but once the Temple Mount is reached, the presenter himself must carry the basket on his shoulder, even if he is the king. In his book, Passages:Text and Transformation in the Parasha, Rabbi Michael Hattin addresses the significance of carrying on the shoulder. He brings other biblical examples: Rebekka at the well; the Levites carrying the holy vessels of the Mishkan during the wandering in the wilderness; and most strikingly, the children of Israel carrying their dough and their kneading troughs, wrapped in their garments when they hastily departed Egypt. Rabbi Hattin suggests that when carrying on the shoulder is described in the Torah, it is associated with a situation in which the load must be borne aloft until a suitable resting place is found. He says, “In the context of the first fruits, then, the significance of carrying the basket is not simply to convey it from one’s field to the Temple, but to actually relive the existential journey from homelessness to settlement! We must carry the bikurim because we are symbolically re-experiencing the dispossession of our ancestors who had no land. We bear the basket on our shoulder because we are recalling their condition of anxious destitution, of having meager possessions and nowhere to rest them.” Rabbi Hattin further points out that the word “tenneh – basket” appears only four times in the Tanach, all of them in this parasha, as opposed to the more common word, “sal” which occurs fifteen times. He says tenneh is etymologically related to the Aramaic word for burden or load.
Much has been written about the declaration which each person bringing the bikurim is obligated to make. This declaration, the “mikra bikurim – the declaration made over first fruits,” includes the section which begins, “My father was a fugitive Aramean…” and has become one of the best known passages in the Torah because, although originally said on Shavuot, which is “Chag HaBikurim – the Festival of First Fruits,” in post-biblical times it became a central element of the Haggadah on Seder night. The mikra bikurim is essentially an encapsulation of the nation’s history, and each person is enjoined to remember the affliction of slavery and disenfranchisement, and then to rejoice in the liberation by God and the gift of the land of Israel. The final part of the declaration mentions enjoying the God-given bounty with the stranger and the Levite.
Rabbi David Bigman, in his book, The Fire and the Cloud, Contemporary Readings on the Weekly Torah Reading (actually on Parashat Ki Tetzei) compares the two proclamations which the farmer is to make: the mikra bikurim; and the “vidui ma’asrot – the confession of tithes.” (Devarim 26:12-13). The former is from a man standing before his God, while the latter is chiefly concerned with the fulfillment of one’s obligations towards society’s weaker members – the stranger, the orphan, the widow. Rav Bigman says, “The process begins with the farmer standing before God, and ends with him standing before his fellow beings. It seems that the entire process leads up to the moment when one person comes out of himself toward another…Mikra bikurim leads to vidui ma’asrot, which forms the heart of the spiritual journey.”
In his book, Orchard of Delights, The Ohr Chadash Torah Commentary, Rabbi Avraham Arieh Trugman, quoting Rashi who describes a man going down into his field and spotting the first fruits of that year, says that on a mystical level, this refers to a person’s soul descending to enter a physical body in order to fulfill his purpose, declaring, “This is the first fruits.” Rabbi Trugman comments that this is a fundamental Chassidic concept, that the soul must descend in order to ascend. Taking the first fruits up to the Temple represents the elevation of the physical world. He adds, “The Ba’al Shem Tov compares gathering and preparing the first fruits with redeeming sparks of holiness scattered throughout reality as a result of the breaking of the vessels. Furthermore, he explains that bringing the sparks up to Jerusalem symbolizes returning the sparks to their Divine source.” Rabbi Trugman draws a parallel between the farmer’s declaration describing exile and redemption, with the scattering and redemption of the holy sparks in Kabbalistic thought.