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D'varim/Deuteronomy 26:2 And you shall take from the first of all the fruit of the ground that you bring in from your land
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This is part of the block of verses 26:1 - 11 that make up the instructions to the Israelites to bring their first fruits each year beforeHaShem and affirm the continuity of covenant and His goodness in bringing our people to Eretz Yisrael. It therefore contains an implication of certainty: there will be a harvest, there will be fruit and there will be Jewish residents in the Land to bring their first fruits to the L-rd. This was spoken by Moshe to the Israelites on the plains of Moab, before they entered the Land to possess it, so for the command to make sense, it clearly has a prophetic quality to it.
The mitzvah, however, is quite unspecific both as to the amount that should be taken, when it should be taken and even which fruit or crops are included. The Sages addressed each of these issues. Starting with which fruit or crops, they said, "Bikkurim are brought only from seven kinds, but none from dates grown on hills, or from valley-fruits, or from olives that are not of the choice kind" (m. Bikkurim 1:3). What are the seven kinds? This is a reference to the list of species for which the Land is praised: "a land of wheat and barley, of vines and fig trees and pomegranates, a land of olive trees and honey" (D'varim 8:8, ESV), further qualified with the comment that olive trees produce olive oil, while honey is made from dates rather than by bees. TheBaal HaTurim confirms that the text has only the seven species in view by pointing out that the gematria of the word - and you shall take - is 544, which is the same as the expression - "in/of the seven species". Further confirmation is found in a discussion (b. Menachot 84b) over the word order: does 'all' mean "all the first fruits" or "first fruits of all"? Rabbi Hirsch concludes that this means "not all the first fruits, but from the first fruits of all, because not all fruits of the soil are liable, only the seven kinds of fruit for which the Jewish Land was celebrated, and of these the choicest, the first fruits of which had to be brought". Rashi points out, however, that the obligation to bring the first fruits of the Land only applies to the Land of Israel; fields and crops outside the Land are not obligated.
As to quantity, the early sages taught, "These are things which have no measure: the corners of the field, first fruits, appearance offerings1 and deeds of charity" (m. Pe'ah 1:1). Samuel said that "one grain of wheat frees the whole stack", but a minimum quantity of one sixtieth was set by rabbinic dictum (b. Chullin 137b); this was deemed equal and fair for all people regardless of their degree of wealth or poverty. Quality was also an issue of concern, so that theSforno comments "'The choicest of all the fruit of the ground' (using 'choicest', rather than 'first'); this is an explanation of 'The best of the firstfruits of your ground' (Shemot 23:19); when the Torah says 'choicest first fruits', the intent is that you bring the first of the choicest fruits of your land, namely from the seven species for which it is praised".
The Baal HaTurim, commenting on the ancient practice of tying a straw or thread around the very 'first' fruit to form on a bush or in an orchard so as to fulfil this commandment literally, says that "every first thing is dedicated to HaShem 'Honour the L-RD with your wealth, with the best of all your income' (Proverbs 3:9, JPS), so 'You shall also give [the priest] the first fruits of your new grain and wine and oil, and the first shearing of your sheep' (D'varim 18:4, JPS) and 'Israel was holy to the L-RD, the first fruits of His harvest' (Jeremiah 2:3, JPS). Jericho - the first conquest in the Land - was dedicated to HaShem (Joshua 6:17-19) and when a child first learns to speak, his father should teach him Torah: 'When Moshe charged us with the teaching as the heritage of the congregation of Ya'akov' (D'varim 33:4, JPS) and 'when [a minor] is able to speak, his father must teach him Torah and the reading of the Sh'ma' (b. Succah 42a)".
Lastly, with regard to timing, which the text again omits, Jeffrey Tigay explains that "the context suggests that farmers brought their first fruits individually. No date is specified for bringing them and it probably varied for different farmers, depending on their workload, the species that each grew and the date of the harvest of each species in each part of the country. Conceivably, farmers living close enough to the temple brought each species in its own season. The Qumran Temple Scroll (11QTemple 1:81-99) prescribes that the first barley, wheat, wine and oil be brought on different dates, at fifty-day intervals."
We can see, therefore, that throughout history since the giving of this command, there has been debate over exactly how and when it is to be carried out and a strong concern to carry it out well: to bring the best of the right fruits or crops to the L-rd at the right time. Ancient Israel was an agrarian economy, so the produce of crops from the ground and fruit from the trees was appropriate spiritual as well as physical currency. The question for us today is what should we do now? How do we bring our "first" or "choicest" to HaShem?
Since the original offerings were without size or limit and were not offered at a specific time, this would seem not to be in the tithing genre of offerings; although there was certainly a monetary or currency system in those days - the silver shekel, by the sanctuary shekel, used in other offerings - this is not about finance. Although the rabbis of Israel felt the need over time to assign a minimum quantity - after all, what was the Temple to do with one strawberry or a single handful of barley grains - the earlier commentators and the text itself are more concerned with the quality than the quantity of the offering. Without a Temple and a priesthood, all physical offerings are problematic. The writer to the Hebrews picks up the theme of 'fruit' to offer an explanation: "Through Him then let us continually offer up a sacrifice of praise to G-d, that is, the fruit of lips that acknowledge His name" (Hebrews 13:15, ESV).
The prophet Hosea makes a direct substitution for animal sacrifice: "Take words with you, and return to ADONAI; say to him, 'Forgive all guilt, and accept what is good; we will pay instead of bulls [the offerings of] our lips'" (Hosea 14:3, CJB). In this case, the words are words of repentance and a request for forgiveness. The Psalmist offers another perspective, coupling freewill offerings with learning or study: "Accept my freewill offerings of praise, O L-RD, and teach me Your rules" (Psalm 119:108, ESV). Another psalm links thanksgiving with proclamation: "Let them bring songs of thanksgiving as their sacrifice. Let them tell in joyful songs what He has done" (Psalm 107:22, GWT). Although there are many places, in both the Hebrew and Greek Scriptures where actions are called for, either in their own right, or as a practical outworking of our relationships with G-d, the sense here seems to be that praise and thanksgiving are and must be a critical part of the way we bring our offerings and our lives to Him.
In line with traditional values and concerns, this isn't a question of volume, a particular day or time, language or culture, one person or a whole roomful, any of which may or may not be helpful. It is a question of hearts and lips dedicated to expressing genuine praise and thanksgiving to our G-d, the G-d who has saved and rescued each one of us, who has personally paid the ransom for our sins and now lives in each of us. This command is not optional; it is not simply part of an ancient Israelite cultic ritual; it is an essential and mandatory part of each of our lives in G-d.
1 - offerings brought to the Temple at the pilgrimage festivals, where the Israelites are told: "They shall not appear before the L-RD empty-handed. Every man shall give as he is able, according to the blessing of the L-RD your G-d that He has given you" (D'varim 16:16-17, ESV).
Further Study: B'Midbar 18:15-21; Ephesians 5:20
Application: Do you struggle with praise and thanksgiving in your life? Remember that G-d never asks us to do anything that He has not already enabled us to do, with His help. Why not set some time aside today to bring Him even the smallest offering and then make it a habit!
© Jonathan Allen, 2011
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