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D'varim/Deuteronomy 26:3 And you shall come to the priest that is in those days, and you shall say to him, "I declare today to the L-rd your G-d ..."
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This is almost certainly a piece of encapsulated liturgy, describing a ritual that took place year after year once the Israelites entered and took possession of the Land. It is binding on Jewish farmers or food producers living in the Land and according toIbn Ezra, "this command is obligatory as long as there is a High Priest." It is interesting to consider how it might apply in a modern context to non-agricultural producers: would they be obligated and what would they bring as firstfruits? But let's take a look at some of the commentators to see how they understand this ritual.
The first half of text - "And you shall come to the priest that is in those days" - attracts the attention of the early Sages who report that "This is what Rabbi Jose the Galilean referred to when he said: Would it ever occur to you to go to a priest who does not live in your own days? Rather, the meaning is a priest who is qualified and acknowledge in those days" (Sifrei 298). This is a multi-generational ritual that can be performed at any time as long as there is a functioning temple and priesthood. The Sages also say that you may not take it to a priest who normally lives in your own city, or to one who is a relative, but to the one who is on duty when you get there. This leads RabbiHirsch to explain that, "it is not the individual personalities of the actual priests themselves that we have to look for in the Sanctuary of G-d's Torah, but it is their symbolic character as the representative and minister of that Sanctuary, the calling that G-d has given them from birth ... that we seek to take over to them, as the representatives of the Sanctuary of G-d's Torah in our time, the first fruits of our fields and orchards. For, according to the immediately following generation, even the last one, is to come into connection with the very first original commencement of our nationality and the origin of our national calling and destiny." Any given priest is representative of the whole priesthood and so fulfills the obligation.
The next phrase - "and you shall say to him" - produces the comment that "these words are only said in Hebrew" (m. Sotah 7:2) and that "at first, anyone who knew how to read should read the passage unassisted, but one who could not read was led through the passage by the priests, but when the Sages saw that those who could not read refrained from bringing firstfruits to the temple, they ordained that the priests would lead everyone through the passage" (m. Bikkurim 3:7). The idea was that everyone should and could be involved in this ritual as a powerful mark of identity and community. TheSforno notes that, "it is proper to speak to the priest with deference since when you bring the first fruits to him, it is as if you are offering a gift to G-d, the Exalted One, who is the owner of the Land."
The opening words of the passage - "I declare today to the L-rd your G-d ..." - contain a Hebrew anomaly: the verb - the Hif'il 1cs affix form of the root , "to declare, show, tell, announce" (Davidson) - is a completed action, normally translated in a past tense, "I have declared", yet in this context clearly needs to be translated as present tense: "I declare" or perhaps even "I am declaring". Avigdor Bonchek starts by noting that "the man has already brought his firstfruits to Jerusalem (therefore the past tense of ). Bringing the firstfruits is the man's behavioural declaration that he has not only come to the Land, but that he has clearly benefited from living in the Land."1 The verbal verbal declaration may be happening in real-time in the present tense, but the physical declaration of the firstfruits is already there - they have been brought to the priest in the temple, so past tense. Jeffrey Tigay agrees, saying that, "the Hebrew can be understood in one of two ways: 'By this declaration I acknowldege ...' or 'By bringing the firstfruits I acknowledge ...' In the latter case, the act of giving the first fruits constitutes an acknowledgement: tangible proof that the farmer has entered the land. 'Tell' is used this way for actions that imply an idea." Our actions can be as much of a declaration as our actions if, on occasion, not more more. What we do profoundly matters!
Returning to the ritual that our declarative text starts, it is now time to ask another question: why do we do this? Why isn't it sufficient simply to bring the firstfruits to the temple and hand them over to a receiver of firstfruits for distribution between the priests? Or, like the wave offering brought on Yom HaBikkurim (the Day of Firstfruits, celebrated during Passover week) or Shavuot, isn't the offering ceremoniously waved beforeHaShem by the officiating priest before being eaten by the priests? What is accomplished by this ritual: the liturgical recital by the farmer - each farmer, on the first occasion only that he brings firstfruits to the temple each year? Why did the Jewish tradition enlarge this ritual by adding the elaborate ceremony described in the Mishnah involving the farmer, the priest and the basket: a carefully choreographed movement in several steps?
The answer is that this ritual performs a critical role in being an Israelite. Drazin and Wagner explain that "a public declaration is made so that others can hear a profession of gratitude that G-d has fulfilled His promise to our forefathers," as typically expressed to Avraham in 'I assign the land you sojourn in to you and your offspring to come, all the land of Canaan, as an everlasting holding' (B'resheet 17:8, NJPS)." This, then, is taken as a piece of teaching liturgy: by reciting the liturgy, the participant learns - or reminds himself - an important behavioural pattern, as identified byMaimonides in his Guide to the Perplexed: "The first of everything is to be devoted to the L-rd: and by doing so man accustoms himself to being generous and to limit his appetite for eating and his desire for property" (Guide 3:39). The Akedat Yitzkhak explains in more detail: "The essence of acknowledging Divine sovereignty lies in man's gratitude to the Creator as the source of all the good, and his appreciation that man himself is, in no way, responsible for all that the might of his own hand has accomplished. Failure to realise this implies repudiation of the yoke and fear of heaven and all the evil consequences that flow therefrom."
This ritual is a piece of what anthropologists would call ritualised narrative. Dru Johnson explains that "ritualised practices are prescribed for the sake of specific dispositions to interpret history, places and new events correctly. In other words, not only is the body directly associated with knowing in general, even more, placing the body into scripted rite expressly disposes Israelites to know. Remembering is done locally, in the body, through the rites of Israel. Whether in pilgrimage to the tabernacle and temple, gatherings at Mizpah, or the home-based rites, knowing is instilled through local collectives of skilled knowers."2 The question that lies behind the Passover question asked by children, "when your children ask you, 'What does this rite mean to you?', then you shall say, 'It is a Passover sacrifice to the L-RD ...'" (Shemot 12:26-27). The children do not ask, "What does G-d mean by this rite?", but "What does it mean to you." You are doing it, here, now and in this way; why and what does it mean? The Pesach Hagaddah insists that each person attending a seder must consider themselves to have personally come up from Egypt. So with the firstfruits ritual: each farmer, each head of a household, every productive unit within the economy, acknowledges that he has been brought into the Land, given an inheritance and a living, and that this has been done by G-d in fulfillment of the promise He made to the patriarchs of Israel.
As creatures of habit, we do in order to believe, we do in order to know. The Scriptures are replete with instructions for events and actions that are to be "a permanent statute", from the keeping of Shabbat - "The sons of Israel shall observe the sabbath, to celebrate the sabbath throughout their generations as a perpetual covenant" (Shemot 31:16, NASB) - to remembering Yeshua's death and resurrection: "As often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord's death until He comes" (1 Corinthians 11:26, NASB). We learn and internalise these patterns so that they become a part of who we are and we do them both to remind ourselves and to affirm our knowing. We know for ourselves and we pass on that knowledge to other generations by inviting them to join us in doing so that they too may know. Our doings may not be perfectly faithful representations of the original events, if a truly historical record ever existed on which we could model a re-enactment, but they contain enough key elements - often simplified and stylised - for everyone to know exactly what is being remembered. What matters is that they are done and - like the Israelite farmers of long ago - a public witness is maintained of the ritual and what they mean to us.
1. - Avigdor Bonchek, What's Bothering Rashi, Volume 5: Devarim, New York, Feldheim, 2002, page 160.
2. - Dru Johnson, Knoweldge by Ritual: A Bibllical Prolegomenon to Sacramental Theology, Eisenbrauns, 2016,page 138.
Further Study: Joshua 4:6-9; Mark 13:21-23
Application: Are you involved in the performance of public rituals to remember and reinforce your faith? How could you deepen or intensify that doing so that knowing becomes even more a part of who you are?
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© Jonathan Allen, 2018
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