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.


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