Ki Tavo תשעט

In the glorious days of the Holy Temple, every week, in cities all over the Land of Israel, one of the 24 families of Cohanim, and the Levites assigned to them, would meet to travel together to Jerusalem. There were 24 “Cohen” families (Elazar and Itamar, two of Aharon’s sons, had 16 and 8 sons respectively, and each son represented one family). King David arranged that each family serve in the Holy Temple two separate weeks out of the year, alternating in a specific sequence determined by lot. King David also divided the Levites into 24 groups by lot, and each Levi group was assigned to one of the Cohen families to sing and help them in the Temple. Thus, when their week came to serve in the Temple, the family of Cohanim and Levites from each city would gather to make the journey to Jerusalem together. 

Beginning after the holiday of Shavuot and through the holiday of Sukkot, the Cohanim and Levites would often have guests travelling with them. These were the people fulfilling the mitzvah of bringing their first fruits,בכורים (bikurim) to Jerusalem. They travelled as a group because ברב עם הדרת מלך  – the more people that do a mitzvah together, the greater the honor to the King, Hashem. 

This is how this week’s portion begins (Deuteronomy 26:1,2): 

ספר דברים פרק כו

א) וְהָיָה כִּי תָבוֹא אֶל הָאָרֶץ אֲשֶׁר יְדֹוָד אֱלֹקֶיךָ נֹתֵן לְךָ נַחֲלָה וִירִשְׁתָּהּ וְיָשַׁבְתָּ בָּהּ

ב) וְלָקַחְתָּ מֵרֵאשִׁית כָּל פְּרִי הָאֲדָמָה אֲשֶׁר תָּבִיא מֵאַרְצְךָ אֲשֶׁר יְדֹוָד אֱלֹקֶיךָ נֹתֵן לָךְ וְשַׂמְתָּ בַטֶּנֶא וְהָלַכְתָּ אֶל הַמָּקוֹם אֲשֶׁר יִבְחַר יְדֹוָד אֱלֹקֶיךָ לְשַׁכֵּן שְׁמוֹ שָׁם

1) And it will be when you enter the land that Hashem your G-d gives you as an inheritance, and you possess it. 2) that you shall take of the first of every fruit of the ground that you bring in from your land that Hashem your G-d gives you, and you shall put it in a basket and go to the place that Hashem your G-d will choose to make His Name rest there. 

The elaborate and joyous process of bringing the bikurim to Jerusalem occurred as follows: 

The mitzvah of בכורים  ׂ(bIkurim) applies only to the seven fruits for which Israel was praised, viz, grapes, pomegranates, dates, figs, olives, wheat, and barley. When the new crop began to emerge and the owner saw the first fruit blossom in his orchard, he would tie a string around it to designate it as the first. Then, when that fruit fully developed, he picked it to bring it to Jerusalem. He would do this for each of the seven types of fruit that he grew. If he wanted to designate more than one of each fruit, he could. The wealthy people would place their first fruits in gold or silver bowls, whereas the poor would place them in wicker baskets. They would place each one in its own bowl, one inside the other. Barley was on the bottom, then, moving upward, wheat, olives, dates, pomegranates and figs. The top bowl would have clusters of grapes surrounding it.  They also brought doves and turtle doves with them. Two doves would be placed on the rims of the bowls, and brought as עולה  sacrifices, and two turtle doves were in their hands and given to the Cohen as a present. Those who lived close to Jerusalem brought fresh fruit, while those who lived far away brought raisins and dried figs.

Whoever had bikurim to bring to Jerusalem would bring his fruit and join the Cohanim and Leviim from his city who were travelling to Jerusalem that week. They would sleep in the streets (not entering any houses so as not to become טמא  – spiritually unclean, which would prevent them from entering the Holy Temple when they reached their destination). 

In the morning, the head of the Cohen family “on call” would gather the travelers to begin their journey with the call:

קוּמוּ וְנַעֲלֶה צִיּוֹן אֶל (בֵּית) ה’ אֱלֹקֵינוּ

“Rise and we will go up to Zion, to the house of Hashem our G-d!”

Leading the troupe was a flutist playing the flute to create merriment and draw attention to the parade of people on their way to perform the mitzvah of bikurim. Next came a cow, its horns plated with gold and a wreath of olive branches crowning its head. The cow was offered as a קרבן שלמים  , a peace offering, an integral part of the bikurim protocol. The people followed and travelled this way until they reached the outskirts of Jerusalem. As they travelled, they would sing Psalm 122, which begins, א) שִׁיר הַמַּעֲלוֹת לְדָוִד שָׂמַחְתִּי בְּאֹמְרִים לִי בֵּית יְדֹוָד נֵלֵךְ

“A song of ascents, of David: I rejoiced when they told me, ‘let us go to the House of Hashem…’”

From there they sent a messenger to the Holy Temple to inform them that they had arrived with bikurim. In the meantime, they beautified the fruit in their baskets by putting the nicest ones on top. The flute played until they reached the Temple’s outer courtyard. There they continued Psalm 122 and said, ב) עֹמְדוֹת הָיוּ רַגְלֵינוּ בִּשְׁעָרַיִךְ יְרוּשָׁלִָם  

 “Our feed stood firm in your gates, Yerushalayim.”

From the Holy Temple came a group of Cohanim and sextons of equal number to greet them and escort them to the Temple. As they proceeded down the streets of Jerusalem making their way to the Temple, all the workmen they passed would interrupt their work, stand up, and greet the troupe saying, “Welcome travelers from so and so! You have come in peace!” 

That the workers were required to interrupt their work to greet the group exemplifies how truly important the people bringing bikurim were. The general rule is that workers engaged in their work are not even allowed to stand up for a Torah Sage, because their stopping work, even for a moment, will cause a loss of work to their boss! Yet, for bikurim, they are obligated to cease work and stand up. 

The owner of the fruit would then put his basket of fruit on his shoulder and bring it into the outer sanctuary where the altar was. While they traveled, anyone was permitted to carry the bowl or basket of bikurim, but only its owner was permitted to carry it into the Temple. As he carried the fruit from the outer courtyard to the Sanctuary, he would sing Psalm 150, the last Psalm, 

א) הַלְלוּיָהּ הַלְלוּ אֵל בְּקָדְשׁוֹ הַלְלוּהוּ בִּרְקִיעַ עֻזּוֹ

“Halleluyah! Praise Hashem in His Sanctuary, praise Him in the firmament of His Power…” repeatedly reciting the Psalm until he reached the gates of the Sanctuary where the altar was. He would complete the last verse of the Psalm as he entered the Sanctuary. 

ו) כֹּל הַנְּשָׁמָה תְּהַלֵּל יָהּ הַלְלוּיָהּ

Let all souls praise Hashem, Halleluyah!

 As soon as he entered the Sanctuary, the Leviim would begin to sing from Psalm 30.

ב) אֲרוֹמִמְךָ יְדֹוָד כִּי דִלִּיתָנִי וְלֹא שִׂמַּחְתָּ אֹיְבַי לִי

 “I will exalt You, Hashem, for you have drawn me up, and not let my foes rejoice over me.” All the singing that was done was mandatory and part of the mitzvah. The goal of the singing was to rejoice with the fruit and sing Hashem’s praises.

 With the basket of fruit still on his shoulder, he would begin the mandatory reading for one who brings bikurim. The reading is as follows (Deuteronomy 26:5-10): 

ה) וְעָנִיתָ וְאָמַרְתָּ לִפְנֵי יְדֹוָד אֱלֹהֶיךָ אֲרַמִּי אֹבֵד אָבִי וַיֵּרֶד מִצְרַיְמָה וַיָּגָר שָׁם בִּמְתֵי מְעָט וַיְהִי שָׁם לְגוֹי גָּדוֹל עָצוּם וָרָב

ו) וַיָּרֵעוּ אֹתָנוּ הַמִּצְרִים וַיְעַנּוּנוּ וַיִּתְּנוּ עָלֵינוּ עֲבֹדָה קָשָׁה

ז) וַנִּצְעַק אֶל יְדֹוָד אֱלֹהֵי אֲבֹתֵינוּ וַיִּשְׁמַע יְדֹוָד אֶת קֹלֵנוּ וַיַּרְא אֶת עָנְיֵנוּ וְאֶת עֲמָלֵנוּ וְאֶת לַחֲצֵנוּ

ח) וַיּוֹצִאֵנוּ יְדֹוָד מִמִּצְרַיִם בְּיָד חֲזָקָה וּבִזְרֹעַ נְטוּיָה וּבְמֹרָא גָּדֹל וּבְאֹתוֹת וּבְמֹפְתִים

ט) וַיְבִאֵנוּ אֶל הַמָּקוֹם הַזֶּה וַיִּתֶּן לָנוּ אֶת הָאָרֶץ הַזֹּאת אֶרֶץ זָבַת חָלָב וּדְבָשׁ

י) וְעַתָּה הִנֵּה הֵבֵאתִי אֶת רֵאשִׁית פְּרִי הָאֲדָמָה אֲשֶׁר נָתַתָּה לִּי יְדֹוָד וְהִנַּחְתּוֹ לִפְנֵי יְדֹוָד אֱלֹהֶיךָ וְהִשְׁתַּחֲוִיתָ לִפְנֵי יְדֹוָד אֱלֹהֶיךָ

5. Then you should call out and say before Hashem your G-d, “An Aramean tried to destroy my forefather, who descended to Egypt and sojourned there, few in number, and there he became a nation – great, strong, and numerous. 6. The Egyptians mistreated and afflicted us, and placed hard work upon us. 7. Then we cried out to Hashem, the G-d of our forefathers, and Hashem heard our voice and saw our affliction, our travail and our oppression. 8. Hashem took us out of Egypt with a strong hand and with an outstretched arm, with great awe, and with signs and wonders. 9. He brought us to this place and He gave us this land, a land flowing with milk and honey. 10. And now, behold! I have brought the first fruit of the ground that You have given me, Hashem!” 

At some point during the reading, the person would take the basket from his shoulder and hold it by the rim. The Cohen would put his hands under the bowl and, with the owner, wave it back and forth, up and down. This was done twice, after which the owner placed the bowl of fruit next to the altar, bowed down, and then left the Holy Temple. 

The fruits that were brought to the Temple as bikurim were a present to the Cohanim who worked there.

After leaving the Temple, the farmer wasn’t yet done. He still needed to stay overnight in Jerusalem. He was not permitted to just go home. He had to soak up a little more of the holiness of Jerusalem before setting out on his return journey. 

Maimonides writes (Laws of Bikurim 3:14):

נמצאת אומר שהבכורים טעונין שבעה דברים: הבאת מקום, וכלי, קריאה, וקרבן, ושיר, ותנופה, ולינה.

To properly fulfill the mitzvah of bikurim there are seven requirements: 1. Bring it to the proper place 2. in a vessel 3. Recite the paragraph 4. Offer an animal sacrifice 5. Sing 6. Wave it 7. Stay overnight in Jerusalem.

Wow! What a big to-do about a few little fruits! This major annual production involves many people in many different roles, all directing their attention to someone carrying a few little bowls of fruit! What could this really be about? 

Upon entering the Land of Israel after 40 years of traveling in the wilderness, life for the Jewish people would undergo a major change from life as they knew it. No longer would they find their daily food right outside their door in the form of mana. No longer would they drink water from the miraculous well that travelled with them. No longer would their clothes grow with them and their shoes not wear out. And no longer would they be protected from the elements by a cover of clouds. Life in Israel meant receiving one’s daily bread through hard work, the conventional methods of planting and harvesting the crop that grew from one’s own planting. 

This presented a problem. In the desert, there was no question as to where their sustenance and life-giving needs came from – directly from Hashem. There was no other option; they saw it clearly every day with their own eyes. But in Israel, they would have to work the land themselves and harvest the crops that they planted. This could lead them to think that they alone were the source of their sustenance and that they no longer needed Hashem. They could forget that the source of their success is still Hashem Who blesses their handiwork allowing it to produce fruit. Hashem is there making it rain, bringing the sunshine, and all the other components seeds need to grow into crops. He also protects the crops from any crop “killers” that could destroy a healthy harvest. 

To counter this problem, the Torah gave us the mitzvah of bikurim. A farmer has a difficult life. He must work very hard to prepare the land for the crop, plant the crop, fertilize it, weed it, water it appropriately, and then wait patiently to see if his hard work will paid off and produced a suitable crop. There are no guaranties. After waiting for a few months, when a fruit finally emerges, the tendency of the farmer would be to cherish that first fruit and eat it at a special time. This is the fruit that signaled that year’s successful crop. But instead, the Torah tells us to save that fruit, bring it to the Holy Temple, and give it as a present to the Cohen. Why would a person do that?

The mitzvah of bikurim comprises 2 of the Torah’s 613 mitzvot (commandments): #91 – מצות הבאת ביכורים  -The Mitzvah to bring the bikurim to the Temple, and #406 – מצות קריאה על הבכורים – The mitzvah to read the paragraph in the Temple upon bringing the bikurim.

The Holy Temple is the source of all blessing in the world. It is through the Temple that Hashem channels His blessing into the world, much like the umbilical cord channels the oxygen and nutrients to the child in utero. (Today it is our prayers three times a day which substitute for the sacrifices that were brought daily in the Temple.) The Cohanim are Hashem’s loyal servants in His Holy Temple. By bringing his first fruits to the Temple, the farmer expresses his acknowledgement that his crops’ success comes from Hashem. And he has come here, the place where Hashem dwells, so to speak, to express his gratitude and thanks for the blessings that Hashem has bestowed upon him. He is excited to show Hashem that he realizes that He is the source of all his success, not his excellent farming skills. His journey to the Holy Temple with his baskets of fruit serves as a reminder to all who see him that they are also the recipients of Hashem’s great goodness. Even the workers must interrupt their work to acknowledge the person bringing bikurim to Jerusalem because there is a profound message for them here, too: You have a job and work for a living, but never forget that it is Hashem’s goodness that gave you the knowledge and skill that you use to perform your craft. Never forget that it is Hashem Who has given you favor in your boss’s eyes that he hired you in the first place. Never forget that it is Hashem’s blessing that has given your efforts success. There is no more important a message for a Jewish person than this one. 

The second mitzvah–the reading–adds depth and understanding to the acknowledgment of Hashem as his benefactor, and, while holding his basket of first fruit, expresses his gratitude in words. 

5. Then you should call out and say before Hashem your G-d,

I am expressing my thanks to Hashem for His kindness to me. I am not an ingrate.

“An Aramean tried to destroy my forefather.

This is a reference to the story in the Torah when Yaakov and his fledgling family ran away from his father-in-law Lavan who had every intention to kill Yaakov and his entire family. Unbeknownst to Yaakov, Hashem came to Lavan in his dream and warned him not to touch Yaakov or he will suffer the consequences. Lavan changed his tune, and when he caught up with Yaakov did not harm him. Had the Torah not revealed that visit, we would never know that Lavan intended to kill Yaakov and his whole family, and that Hashem saved them from certain death by appearing to Lavan in his dream.  

In the same sense, Hashem is behind the scenes putting all the necessary components for a successful crop in place without anyone seeing it happen. 

This message is true not only of one’s crops, but also of a myriad of other events in one’s life that go swimmingly well or don’t crash. Hashem is working His magic behind the scenes, helping us at every turn, yet we have no obvious clue. 

With the bikurim, the farmer expresses his gratitude to Hashem for all the hidden miracles that He performed for him to bring forth his new crop.

 He (Yaakov) descended to Egypt and sojourned there, 

Not to settle permanently, but only to sojourn there for a limited time. The appropriate place for a Jewish family is in Israel where they can keep the laws of the Torah freely. 

few in number, and there he became a nation – great, strong and numerous. 

Here Hashem saved us from assimilating into the Egyptian nation. 

6. The Egyptians mistreated us and afflicted us, and placed hard work upon us. 7. Then we cried out to Hashem, the G-d of our forefathers, and Hashem heard our voice and saw our affliction, our travail and our oppression. 

Hashem is our savior and Hashem is our benefactor. It is none of our own handiwork that is responsible for our success.  

8. Hashem took us out of Egypt with a strong hand and with an outstretched arm, with great awe, and with signs and with wonders. 

Through the miracles and the 10 plagues that Hashem performed for us in Egypt, we saw Him with our own eyes. We saw His might and His wonder! Through that we also know that even though He is in “stealth mode,” He still controls everything from behind the scenes, and we can easily identify His miraculous handiwork if we wish to. 

9. He brought us to this place and He gave us this land, a land flowing with milk and honey. 

He brought us to the Land of Israel after 40 years of miraculous existence in a hostile wilderness. Manna from heaven, water from a stone, and protection from clouds. What could top that? 

10. And now, behold! I have brought the first fruit of the ground that You have given me O Hashem!” 

I have troubled to bring my most precious first fruit to the Holy Temple to acknowledge Your goodness and to thank you for it. 

As Rosh Hashanah approaches, these two ideas about bikurim, (1) recognizing that all the blessing in our lives is from Hashem and, (2) the need for us to articulate our heartfelt thanks to Him for it, are very relevant. Here we are after a whole year of goodness bestowed upon us by Hashem. Acknowledging Hashem as the source of our blessing and thanking Him for it is, itself, the greatest source of blessing. When Hashem sees that we appreciate what He has done and continues to do for us, and that we connect to Him through it, He wants to give us even more to deepen His relationship with us. The time is ripe for us to look into our lives and ponder deeply all of the great good that Hashem does for us and carefully thank Him for it. In the merit of doing that, may Hashem bless us all with a healthy, happy new year!

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