Bikkurim: How the Rabbis Made a Mitzvah for Male Landowners More Inclusive
First Fruits in Deuteronomy: A Mitzvah for Landowners
Deuteronomy introduces the yearly obligations to bring the first fruits after the Israelites enter and inherit the land. The mitzvah is addressed to the landowning class, who have produce to bring:
דברים כו:א וְהָיָה כִּי תָבוֹא אֶל הָאָרֶץ אֲשֶׁר יְ-הוָה אֱלֹהֶיךָ נֹתֵן לְךָ נַחֲלָה וִירִשְׁתָּהּ וְיָשַׁבְתָּ בָּהּ. כו:ב וְלָקַחְתָּ מֵרֵאשִׁית כָּל פְּרִי הָאֲדָמָה אֲשֶׁר תָּבִיא מֵאַרְצְךָ אֲשֶׁר תָּבִיא מֵאַרְצְךָ אֲשֶׁר יְ-הוָה אֱלֹהֶיךָ נֹתֵן לָךְ וְשַׂמְתָּ בַטֶּנֶא ….
Deut. 26:1 And it shall be when you come to the land which the LORD your God is giving you as a heritage, and you have inherited and settled in it, 26:2 you shall take of the premiere of all the fruits of the ground, which you shall bring from the land which the LORD your God is giving you, and you shall put in the basket…
The Israelite farmer takes a basket of his first fruits to a priest and recites a brief statement:
דברים כו:ג …הִגַּדְתִּי הַיּוֹם לַי-הוָה אֱלֹהֶיךָ כִּי בָאתִי אֶל הָאָרֶץ אֲשֶׁר נִשְׁבַּע יְהוָה לַאֲבֹתֵינוּ לָתֶת לָנוּ.
Deut. 26:3 …“I recount today to the LORD your God that I have come to the land which the LORD swore to our fathers to give to us.”
The priest then places the basket by the altar (v. 4), and the farmer continues his declaration by reciting an oral history of Israel—Arami oved avi (“My father was a wandering Aramean”). The recital touches on the period of Egyptian slavery and God’s redemption (vv. 5-8), and it concludes with the settlement and prosperity of Israel in their land (v. 9). The farmer then leaves the basket and bows to the LORD (v. 10).
The passage concludes (emphasis added):
דברים כו:יא וְשָׂמַחְתָּ בְכָל הַטּוֹב אֲשֶׁר נָתַן לְךָיְ-הוָה אֱלֹהֶיךָ וּלְבֵיתֶךָאַתָּה וְהַלֵּוִי וְהַגֵּר אֲשֶׁר בְּקִרְבֶּךָ.
Deut. 26:11 And you shall rejoice in all the good which the LORD your God has given to you and to your house: you and the Levite and the sojourner who is in your midst.
This verse makes clear that the farmer is the “you” of the verse, and he must share his bounty with his household, i.e., his wife, children, and slaves. In addition, he should share his bounty with people who have none, namely the Levites, who own no land, and the sojourner (ger), i.e., non-Israelites living among the Israelites, who also own no land.Deuteronomy takes it as a given that Levites and gerim—not to mention women and slaves—do not bring first fruits.
Bikkurim in Exodus
The command to bring first fruits is also presented in Exodus, once in the Covenant Collection and again, after the sin of the Golden Calf, in what scholars call the “Ritual Decalogue.” It is this verse which gives us the term bikkurim for the mitzvah.
שמות כג:יט/ לד:כו רֵאשִׁית בִּכּוּרֵי אַדְמָתְךָ תָּבִיא בֵּית יְ-הֹוָה אֱלֹהֶיךָ….
Exod. 23:19/ 34:26 You shall bring the premiere of the first fruits of your ground to the house of the LORD your God….
Although it is possible that here, as in Deuteronomy, the text is speaking to landowners, Exodus does not explicitly invoke inheritance, possession, or settlement of the land, nor does it have any verse that indicates that Levites, sojourners, or even women and slaves should be treated differently.
Moreover, Exodus says nothing about the need to make any declaration. These distinctions in presentation were not lost on the Rabbis, who struggled to understand why the Torah included two very different iterations of the same mitzvah.
Dividing the Mitzvah into Two
Although sometimes the Rabbis dealt with redundant laws by reading them as complementary, showing how one fills out the other (some midrashim on these passages do just this, see the appendix), in the case of bikkurim, the dominant approach was to explain the differences in presentation by dividing the mitzvah of bikkurim into two: bringing the fruit (hava’at bikkurim) and reciting the declaration (mikra bikkurim).
The declaration in Deuteronomy begins with the above-quoted half verse (v. 3):
דברים כו:ג …הִגַּדְתִּי הַיּוֹם לַי-הוָה אֱלֹהֶיךָ כִּי בָאתִי אֶל הָאָרֶץ אֲשֶׁר נִשְׁבַּע יְ-הוָה לַאֲבֹתֵינוּ לָתֶת לָנוּ.
Deut. 26:3 …“I recount today to the LORD your God that I have come to the land which the LORD swore to our fathers to give to us.”
The Mekhilta de R. Ishmael (on Exod. 23:19, Masekhta de-Kaspa 20) reads this verse as excluding certain categories of people:
אֲשֶׁר נִשְׁבַּע ה’ לַאֲבֹתֵינוּ – להוציא גרים ועבדים.
“Which the LORD swore to our fathers” (Deut. 26:3) – excludes converts and slaves.
לָתֶת לָנוּ – להוציא נשים טומטום ואנדרוגינוס.
“To give to us” (Deut. 26:3) – excludes women, the intersex, and the androgynous.
משמע מוציאן שלא יקראו ומוציאן שלא יביאו, תלמוד לומר ”תָּבִיא.“
The implication is that they are excluded from bringing and excluded from reciting, but the verse says (Exod. 23:19/34:26): “You shall bring” [including all].
The Midrash suggests that whereas the declaration in Deuteronomy uses exclusive language such as “our fathers” and “gave to us,” Exodus, which has no declaration, simply states “you shall bring,” implying that this obligation falls upon everyone. The Mekhilta suggests a solution to this tension:
ומה הפרש בין אלו לאלו, אלו מביאין וקורין ואלו מביאין ואין קורין.
So what is the difference between these and those? These (native-born freemen) bring and recite, while those (non-Israelites and non-males) bring but do not recite.
Thus, in the Mekhilta’s understanding, Exodus commands everyone to bring bikkurim, but Deuteronomy, limits the recitation of mikra bikkurim(the recitation)—but not bikkurim itself—to Israelite-born males.
Rereading the Biblical Exclusion
This distinction between bringing the bikkurim and offering a recitation is not in the text. The Rabbis are thus forced to artificially graft this distinction onto a verse that implicitly assumes that Levites, women, and slaves don’t bring bikkurim at all (Sifrei Devarim, “Ki Tavo” 301):
אתה והלוי והגר אשר בקרבך, מיכן אמרו ישראל ממזרים מתודיםאבל לא גרים ועבדים משוחררים שאין להם חלק בארץ
“You and the Levite and the sojourner who is in your midst” – from here they said that a Jewishmamzer (bastard) recites, but gerim, and freed slaves do not, since they do not have possession of the land.
Why do the rabbis take this approach? In other words, why do they assume that everyone, and not just Israelite males, brings bikkurim? Although they may be partially motivated by the desire to solve a perceived tension between the verses in Deuteronomy and those of Exodus, additional historical/sociological factors may be in play as well.
Biblical society was largely agrarian, in which native Israelites owned farms and grew crops. Levites and non-Israelites did not own farms, and thus would have been largely excluded from the practice of bikkurim for practical reasons. Rabbinic society, however, was heavily mercantile and city-based. The average Jew, including Levites, priests, and even (sometimes) unmarried women (such as widows), may have owned a house, but not a farm.
The shift in meaning of the word ger was also responsible for the rabbinic interpretation of the biblical law. In rabbinic society, gerim (literally “sojourners”) were not “resident aliens” as they were in biblical society (i.e., non-Israelites), but converts to Judaism who lived as regular Jews. Thus, the distinctions taken for granted in Deut. 26 between “landowning Israelite” and “sojourner” or “landless Levite” no longer made sense in rabbinic times.
Moreover, as the Temple had been destroyed and no actual mitzvah of bikkurim was performed, the rabbis did not need to adjust any actual practice or custom. Instead, they were free to re-envision bikkurim in a way that made more sense for their society.
And yet, the solution offered by the Mekhilta de-Rabbi Ishmael does not entirely level the playing field. The group that was once excluded frombikkurim was still excluded from reciting the declaration. But the Midrash in the Mekhilta is not the last word on the subject. As we shall see, certain rabbinic texts all but obliterate any distinction between groups even for mikra bikkurim.
Priests and Levites
Both priests and Levites appear in the passage of bikkurim in Deuteronomy, but neither offers bikkurim. The priests are those who take the bikkurim from the farmer and place it before the altar, and the Levites are landless people with whom the farmer shares his bounty. Indeed, Deuteronomy emphasizes their exclusion from inheritance of the land (e.g. 10:8-9, 12:12, 14:27-29, 18:1-2).
Thus Deuteronomy is internally consistent. However, Numbers 35:1-8 awards 48 cities and their adjoining pasturelands to the Levites, and Joshua 21 enumerates them, divided among the Aaronic priests and each of the three Levite clans.
This leads to a dispute in the Tosefta among Tanna’im regarding the mikra bikkurim (t. Bikkurim 1:4):
ר’ יוסי אומר היה ר”מ אומר כהנים מביאין ולא קורין מפני שלא נטלו חלק בארץ ואני אומר כשם שנטלו לוים כך נטלו כהנים בין מדבר מרובה בין מדבר מועט.
Rabbi Yossi says: “Rabbi Meir would say that priests bring but do not recite, since they took no portion in the land, but I say that just as the Levites took a portion in the land, so did the priests take, whether from a greater thing or a lesser thing.”
The view of Rabbi Yossi is the accepted ruling, so that priests, Levites, and Israelites are equal for purposes of mikra bikkurim.
The Voice of the Convert
As noted above, the rabbis use the term gerim differently than the Bible does— gerim are “converts” as opposed to “resident aliens.” Thus, distinguishing between gerim and Israelites in this case would perpetuate a lineage-based distinction among Jews. The Mishnah (Bikkurim 1:4) does not solve the problem, but ameliorates it slightly with a new criterion to distinguish between different types of gerim:
אלו מביאין ולא קורין: הגר מביא ואינו קורא, שאינו יכול לומר: “אשר נשבע ה’ לאבותינו לתת לנו.” ואם היתה אמו מישראל, מביא וקורא.
These bring but do not recite: the convert brings but does not recite, as he cannot say: “which the LORD swore to our fathers to give to us;” but if his mother is of Israel, he brings and recites.
According to the Mishnah, even if someone’s father is a convert, as long as their mother is Jewish, they may recite mikra bikkurim, since they may legitimately call God “the God of our fathers.”
The issue of whether a convert may call Israel’s God “God of our fathers” is not only relevant to bikkurim but to many rabbinic prayers, such as the Amidah, which is recited out loud by the leader of the prayer service in the synagogue. This makes the question practical for the rabbis and not just theoretical (as a purely bikkurim-related question would be). The above-quoted Mishnah continues by making this point explicitly.
וכשהוא מתפלל בינו לבין עצמו, אומר, “אלהי אבות ישראל”. וכשהוא בבית הכנסת, אומר “אלהי אבותיכם”. ואם היתה אמו מישראל, אומר “אלהי אבותינו”.
Similarly, when he prays alone, he says: “God of the fathers of Israel;” when he is in the synagogue, he says: “God of your fathers;” but if his mother is of Israel, he says “God of our fathers.”
All Converts Recite: Abraham Is Everyone’s Father
The Mishnah’s move is only half way however. Actual converts (as opposed to born Jews whose fathers were converts) would still be unable to recite mikra bikkurim or the Amidah, at least not with the same phrasing as native-born Jews. Nevertheless, already in Midrash Tannaim to Deuteronomy 26:3 and 26:11, an alternative midrash existed which specifically included converts in the declaration:
כי באתי אל הארץ אשר נשבע ה’ לאב’ להביא את הגרים שמביאין וקוראין לפי שנ’ לאברהם (ברא’ יז ה) כי אב המון גוים נתתיך הרי הוא אב לכל העולם כולו שנכנסו תחת כנפי השכינה ולאברהם היתה השבועה תחלה שיירשו בניו את הארץ:
“That I have come to the land which the LORD swore to our fathers” (Deut. 26:3) – This includes converts in bringing and reciting, for it says with regard to Abraham (Gen 17:5): ‘You shall be the father of a multitude of nations.” Thus, he is the father of the entire world, who entered under the wings of the Divine Presence, and an oath was sworn to Abraham that his descendants will inherit the land.
אתה והל[וי] והגר אש[ר] בקר[בך] – להביא גרים שיהו מתודין:
“You and the Levite and the sojourner in your midst” (Deut. 26:11) – this includes converts among those who should make the declaration.
The Jerusalem Talmud first explores the idea of connecting the ger to the Patriarchs through his mother,
רבי זריקן אמר רבי זעירא בעי: כלום הוא מתכווין לא לאברהם יצחק ויעקב? וכי אברהם יצחק ויעקב אבותיהם היו? כלום נשבע הקב”ה אלא לזכרים! שמא לנקיבות.
Rabbi Zerikan said: “Rabbi Zeira asked, ‘Does he not mean Abraham, Isaac and Jacob? Were Abraham, Isaac and Jacob their fathers? The Holy One, blessed be He, swore only to males!’” Perhaps to females.
Ultimately, the Jerusalem Talmud cancels the distinction between ger and native-born Jew, based on the same midrash as in Midrash Tannaim.
תני בשם רבי יהודה: גר עצמו מביא וקורא מה טעם (ברא’ יז) “כִּי אַב-הֲמוֹן גּוֹיִם נְתַתִּיךָ” לשעבר היית אב לארם, ועכשיו מכאן ואילך אתה אב לכל הגוים.
It has been taught in the name of Rabbi Judah: “The convert himself may bring and recite. What is the reason? ‘You shall be the father of a multitude of nations (Gen. 17:5)’ — in the past you were the father of Aram, but now, henceforth, you are the father of all nations.”
רבי יהושע בן לוי אמר הלכה כרבי יהודה. אתא עובדא קומי דרבי אבהו והורי כרבי יהודה.
Rabbi Joshua b. Levi says the law is in accordance with Rabbi Judah. Indeed, Rabbi Abbahu was presented with such a case and ruled in accordance with Rabbi Judah.
R. Abbahu makes a practical ruling, allowing any convert to recite “God of our fathers” during prayer, leaving no distinction between the prayer of converts and that of native-born Jews. This decision was adopted by Maimonides in his letter to Ovadiah the convert (Twersky trans.):
You ask me if you, too, are allowed to say in the blessings and prayers you offer alone or in the congregation: “Our God” and “God of our fathers,” “You who have sanctified us through Your commandments,” “You who have separated us,” “You who have chosen us,” “You who have inherited us,” “You who have brought us out of the land of Egypt,” “You who have worked miracles to our fathers,” and more of this kind.
Yes, you may say all this in the prescribed order and not change it in the least. In the same way as every Jew by birth says his blessing and prayer, you, too, shall bless and pray alike, whether you are alone or pray in the congregation. The reason for this is, that Abraham our Father taught the people, opened their minds, and revealed to them the true faith and the unity of God… Therefore you shall pray, “Our God” and “God of our fathers,” because Abraham, peace be with him, is your father.
One group that does not get full inclusion in mikra bikkurim, in contrast to Levites, priests, and converts, is women. But one text, a baraita cited in b. Gittin 47b, does bring them a step closer. The text expounds the last verse of the bikkurim passage:
ולביתך – מלמד שאדם מביא ביכורי אשתו וקורא!
“‘And to your house’ — this teaches us that a man may bring the first fruits of his wife and recite.”
The Talmud discusses a case in which the woman—and not her husband—is the owner of a field. In theory, she should bring the bikkurim but not recite the declaration. Instead, the Talmud suggests that her husband can recite the declaration for her. Now, if a woman cannot recite upon her own bikkurim, how can her husband do so? The 14th century French Talmudist, R. Crescas Vidal, addresses this in his Novellae on Gittin (misattributed to Ritva):
דשאני התם דכתיב ולביתך לומר דקרא אינו אסמכתא אלא גזירת הכתוב הוא ואף על גב דלית ליה קרקע מידי, משום דאשתו כגופו.
This case is different, as it says “And to your house.” This is no mere allusion, but a biblical decree. Even though the husband possesses no land of his own, his wife is like his body.
A later Talmudist, Jacob b. Isaac Gesundheit, Chief Rabbi of Warsaw in the 1870s, struggles to express the paradoxical nature of this law in his Tiferet Ya’akov on Gittin (emphasis mine):
דמדאורייתא אין לבעל פירות כלל רק גזה”כ אף דאשה אינה קוראת וכן שליח אינו קורא, אבל בעל בביכורי אשתו יכול להביא ולקרות, דהוא יש לו חלק בארץ ויכול להביא ולקרות עבור אשתו בתורת שליח דאשתו כגופו והוי כאלו היא קוראת, ואדרבא לדידיה אתי שפיר לישנא “מלמד שאדם מביאביכורי אשתו.”
By Torah law, the husband has no right to the fruits [of the land she brings into the marriage], but it is solely a biblical decree: a woman does not recite, and an agent does not recite, but a husband bringing his wife’s first fruits may bring and recite, as he has a portion in the land and may bring and recite on his wife’s behalf with the status of an agent, because his wife is like his body, and it is as if she were reciting. On the contrary, in his view the language is quite precise: “this teaches us that a man may bring the first fruits of his wife.”
Unlike with the convert, the above halakha does not really create parity between women and men with the declaration. It figures out a way to give her the mitzvah, but without giving her a “voice” (literally). To quote Dalia Marx, “A Torah-Prescribed Liturgy: The Declaration of the First Fruits”(TheTorah.com, 2016):
With regard to the exclusion of women from religious practice… our forefathers (!) left frontiers yet to be explored and much work still to be done.
Including All in the Declaration
The biblical text addresses only the landowning class of Israelite males from. The rabbis included everyone in the mitzvah of bringing first fruits, but excluded everyone but male landowners from mikra bikkurim “the ritual of reading.” Over time, even this restriction falls away. This trend towards inclusivity develops after the destruction of the Temple, however, when ostensibly it shouldn’t matter who is included.
It would seem that the rabbis’ concern was not really about the declaration but about avoiding distinctions among Jews. This is most clear in the case of converts, who gradually become viewed as full heirs of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. Even women slowly gain acceptance, although the reluctance to hear a non-male voice seems to be an all-but-insurmountable goal. In modern times, this too has finally begun to change.
Reading the Bikkurim Laws as Complementary
As they did with many other duplicated laws, the Rabbis endeavored to read the texts together as complementary—but not redundant or contradictory—treatments, by finding new laws that may be learned from each text. Although, as noted above, this was not the dominant approach for bikkurim, some midrashim do take this approach.
Bikkurim Drinks: Exodus – Mekhilta de-Rabbi Ishmael (on Exod. 23:19, Masekhta de-Kaspa 20) asks what we learn from Exodus that we don’t already know from Deuteronomy:
ראשית בכורי אדמתך. למה נאמרה פרשה זו, לפי שנ’ ולקחת מראשית כל פרי האדמה, אין לי אלא פירות דרך ביכורים, משקין מנין, ת”ל תביא בית יי אלהיך, מכל מקום.
“The premiere of the first fruits of your ground” – why was this passage stated? Because it says (Deut. 26:2): “You shall take of the premiere of all the fruits of the ground.” From this verse I only know about fruit being brought as bikkurim, what about liquids? [Exodus] teaches, “bring to the house of the LORD your God” – whatever.
Exodus doesn’t use the term fruit, thus the rabbis derive that bikkurim can even be brought as a drink.
The Measure of Bikkurim: Deuteronomy – Midrash Tanna’im flips the question and asks what we learn from Deuteronomy (26:1).
והיה כי תבא אל הא[רץ]… ולק[חת] מראשית כל פרי האדמה – למה נאמר? לפי שהוא אומר, ראשית בכורי אדמתך תביא בית ה’ אלהיך אבל לא שמענו לא שיעור לבכורים ולא זמן להבאה ת”ל והיה כי תבא ולקחת מראשית. בא הכת’ ליתן שיעור לבכורים וזמן להבאה לכך נאמ’ הפרשה:
“And it shall be when you come to the land… you shall take of the premiere of all the fruits of the ground” – why was this [passage] stated? Because it says: “You shall bring the premiere of the first fruits of your ground to the house of the LORD your God,” but we did not hear the amount of bikkurim nor when it should be brought. [Deuteronomy] teaches: “And it shall be when you come… you shall take of the premiere.” The verse is coming to give us an amount of bikkurim and when it should be brought. That is why the passage was stated.
According to Midrash Tanna’im, the law is repeated in Deuteronomy to add the details that the amount of bikkurim required is a basketful and that the mitzvah is to take place only after the conquest and settlement.
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Rabbi Yoseif Bloch is an Orthodox rabbi who has taught at Yeshivat HaKotel, Yeshivat Har Etzion and Yeshivat Shvilei Hatorah and served as a congregational rabbi in Canada. He currently works as an editor, translator and publisher. As a blogger and podcaster, he is known as Rabbi Joe in Jerusalem.
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