In the previous letter, I cited the teaching of the Chofetz Chaim on how the Torah is the “soul” of the Land of Zion. The Chofetz Chaim also mentioned that the Land of Zion serves as the “body” for this soul – allowing the soul to be expressed within this physical world. As the Chofetz Chaim pointed out, there are many mitzvos – Divine mandates – within the Torah which are contingent upon our living in the Land of Zion. My study of these particular mitzvos helped to give me a deeper understanding of how our life in the Land enables us to develop a model society through following the Torah’s practical path. I will therefore discuss with you some of these mitzvos, and I will begin with the mitzvah to bring the first fruits of the harvest to the Sanctuary:
One can imagine the pride that the farmers feel when – after all their hard work – the first fruits of the harvest appear. This pride can lead farmers to feel that they are the true owners of the land, as well as the source of its blessings; thus, they can forget that human beings are only the custodians of the earth with the responsibility to “serve and protect it” (Genesis 2:15). This is why the Torah has a variety of mitzvos which remind us that Hashem, the Compassionate and Life-Giving One, is the true Owner of the earth and the Source of its blessings. One of these mitzvos is the bringing of the first fruits of the harvest to the Sanctuary, and the first source for this mitzvah is found in the following quote:
“The earliest of the first fruits of your land you shall bring to the House of Hashem, your God” (Exodus 23:19).
The classical commentator, Rashi, cites the tradition that the fruits are to be brought from the seven species for which the Land of Israel is praised, as it is written: “A land of wheat, barley, grapes, figs, and pomegranates; a land of oil-producing olives and date honey” (Deuteronomy 8:8).
In the following passage, Moses taught us that the farmer bringing the first fruits is required to recite a declaration of gratitude upon arriving at the Sanctuary:
“The Kohen (Priest) shall take the basket from your hand and lay it before the altar of Hashem, your God. Then you shall call out and say before Hashem, your God:
‘An Aramean would have destroyed my father, and he descended to Egypt and sojourned there, few in number, and there he became a nation – great, strong, and numerous. The Egyptians mistreated us and afflicted us and placed hard work upon us. Then we cried out to Hashem, God of our ancestors, and Hashem heard our voice and saw our travail, and our oppression. Hashem took us out of Egypt with a strong hand and with an outstretched arm, with great awesomeness, and with signs and with wonders. He brought us to this place, and He gave us this land, a land flowing with milk and honey. And now, behold! I have brought the first fruit of the ground that You have given me, O Hashem!’ ” (Deuteronomy 26: 4-10)
The season for the bringing of the first fruits and the chanting of the declaration of thanksgiving begins on the Festival of Shavuos and continues throughout the summer until the Festival of Succos. This tradition is cited by Rabbi Yehudah in the Mishnah, Tractate Bikurim 1:6. Rabbi Yehudah adds that the first fruits could even be brought from Succos until Chanukah; however, if they are brought during this period, which is after the joyous harvest season, the declaration of thanksgiving is not recited.
The Festival of Shavuos also has other names, including, “The Festival of the Harvest of the First Fruits” (Exodus 23:16). Another version of this name is, “The Day of the First Fruits” (Numbers 28:26). In his commentary on Exodus 23:16, Rashi explains that there are two reasons why Shavuos is, “The Festival of the Harvest of the First Fruits”:
1. On Shavuos, two loaves of bread made from the new crop of wheat are brought as offerings.
2. The season for the bringing of the first fruits to the Sanctuary begins on Shavuos.
When the Temple was built in Jerusalem, the first fruits were brought to the Temple. The following is a summary of the various stages of the joyous journey with the first fruits which took place during the Second Temple period:
The people of each regional district would spend the night in the public square of the town, and early in the morning, the leader would proclaim:
“Arise, let us ascend to Zion, to Hashem, our God” (Jeremiah 31:5).
Those who came from
areas near to
bring fresh fruits;
those who came from
areas far from
bring dried fruits.
An ox went before them with its horns overlaid with gold, and a crown of olive leaves was upon its head. The flute was played before them until they approached Jerusalem. On the journey, they would chant:
“I rejoiced when
they said to me,
‘Let us go to the
House of Hashem’ ”
When they came close to Jerusalem, they sent messengers before them, and they would decorate their first-fruits. The officials of the Temple then went forth to greet them; moreover, all the artisans of Jerusalem would stand before them and inquire concerning their welfare. The artisans would say to the pilgrims, “Our brethren, from such-and-such a place, you have come to shalom!”
Within Jerusalem, the pilgrims would chant:
“Our feet stood firm within your gates, O Jerusalem!” (Psalm 122:2).
The flute was played before them until they reached the Temple Mount, and there they would sing Psalm 150. This psalm describes how we praise God “with the blast of the shofar, with lyre and harp, with drum and dance, with organ and flute.” And it concludes with the following universal proclamation:
“Let all souls praise God, Hallelu-yah!”
Members of the Tribe of Levi served as members of the Temple choir. When the pilgrims reached the Temple Courtyard, the Levites would sing:
“I will praise You, Hashem, for You have raised me up, and You have not allowed my enemies to rejoice over me!” (Psalm 30:2)
I would like to suggest that this song of the Levites is expressing thanksgiving for the following blessing: The people were able to leave their rural villages and make the pilgrimage to Jerusalem without Israel’s enemies attacking and pillaging the villages in the interim.
The above description is based on the following sources:
1. Mishnah Bikurim, Chapter 3, with the commentary of Maimonides
2. The Jerusalem Talmud, Bikurim 3:2
May we once again experience the joy and the unity of this special pilgrimage to the Holy Temple in Jerusalem.
Yosef Ben Shlomo Hakohen (See below)
1. Rabbi Yitzchak Arama, a noted biblical commentator of the 15th century, explains that the mitzvah to bring the first fruits reminds our people that Hashem is the Source of all blessing; moreover, it also reminds us of the following truth: To Hashem belongs the earth and its fullness (Psalm 24:1). His comments are found in his commentary, Akedat Yitzchak, on Deuteronomy 26: 1-3.
2. As we discussed in the previous letter, within the Temple was the Ark of the Covenant with the Tablets of the Covenant; moreover, the Temple also had a chamber for the Sanhedrin – the Supreme Court of Torah Sages. In this spirit, Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch reminds us that the Temple is the “House of the Torah”; thus, the bringing of the first fruits to the House of the Torah inspires us to dedicate the produce of our Land to the fulfillment of the Torah (commentary to Exodus 23:19). This would include a renewed dedication to the various mitzvos of the Torah which require that we share the produce of the land with those in need. We shall discuss some of these mitzvos in a future letter.