By Shlomo Riskin
“When you come to the land which the Lord your God gives to you as an inheritance and you inherit it…. You shall take from the first of all the fruits of the earth which you shall bring from your land…. And you shall respond and you shall say before the Lord your God: ‘My father was a wandering Aramean.’” Deuteronomy 26:1–2, 5
The Mishna in Bikkurim magnificently describes the drama of the bringing of these first fruits, the massive march to Jerusalem of farmers from all over Israel with the choicest fruit and grain of their labors in their hands, the decorated marketplaces of our Holy City crowned by the magnificent fruits, and the speech-song of each individual farmer as he stood in front of the Temple altar with the offering he handed to the priest. What an impressive demonstration of fealty to the Master of the Universe, who is hereby recognized as the Provider of all produce and the Sustainer of all sustenance.
But God’s bounty was not the purpose of bringing the first fruits. The clear emphasis here is the arrival of the Israelites to the Land of Israel – after having been enslaved and afflicted by the Egyptians, and after the Almighty heard their prayers and took them from Egypt to Israel with great miracles and wonders. Eating the fruits of our own land emphasizes the evils of slavery when we could not produce our own food and the inalienable rights of Jews (as well as all humans) to freedom and the independence to provide for their own needs.
From this perspective I can understand why the first fruits are only to be brought from the seven species which are unique and bring praise to the Land of Israel (Deut. 8), and why only an individual who owns a portion of the Land of Israel and on whose portion the fruits actually grew is obligated to perform the command of the first fruits (Mishna, Bikkurim 1:1–3). This commandment is all about God’s gift of the land of Israel to the Jews; that is why we find that in the eleven verses of the first fruits speech-song, the noun “land (eretz)” appears no fewer than five times, and the verb “gift (matan)” (by God), no fewer than seven times!
To further cement the inextricable relationship between the first fruits and the Land of Israel, Rabbi Elĥanan Samet (in his masterful biblical commentary) cites a comment by Rabbi Menaĥem Ziemba (Ĥiddushim, siman 50) in the name of the Holy Ari, that the commandment to bring the first fruits is a repair, a tikkun, for the Sin of the Scouts. Perhaps that is why the Mishna links the command of the first fruits specifically to the fig, grape, and pomegranate (“If an individual goes into his field and sees a fig, a grape-cluster and/or a pomegranate which has/have ripened, he must tie them with a cord and state that these are to be first fruits” – Bikkurim 3:1), precisely the three fruits which the scouts took back with them (Num. 13:23).
And the Bible relates to the scouts on their reconnaissance mission with the very same language that God commands the Israelite concerning the first fruits: Moses tells the scouts, “And you shall take from the fruits of the land” (13:20), “We came to the land…and it is even flowing with milk and honey, and this is its fruit” (13:27), and – in remarkably parallel fashion – God commands the Israelites, “And you shall take from the first of all the fruits of the land” (Deut. 26:2), “Because I have come to the land” (26:3), “And He gave to us this land flowing with milk and honey” (26:9). In effect, God is saying that we must bring precisely those first fruits from that very special land which the scouts rejected, or at least lacked the faith to conquer and settle. Fulfilling the command of the first fruits is in effect a gesture of “repentance” for the sin of the scouts. And in similar fashion, all of us privileged to return to Israel after 2000 years of exile are similarly repenting for the sin of the scouts!
Rabbi Shlomo Riskin is chancellor of Ohr Torah Stone and chief rabbi of Efrat, Israel.