‘Bikkurim’ is a symbol of our owed gratitude

Maharat Rori Picker Neiss serves Bais Abraham Congregation.

By Maharat Rori Picker Neiss

As the Israelites prepare to enter the Land of Israel in this week*s parsha, Parshat Ki Tavo, Moses continues his directive to them of all the mitzvot that will be incumbent upon them in the land. 

The parsha opens: 

When you enter the land that the Lord your God is giving you as a heritage, and you possess it and settle in it, you shall take some of every first fruit of the soil, which you harvest from the land that the Lord your God is giving you, put it in a basket and go to the place where the Lord your God will choose to establish Gods name. You shall go to the priest in charge at that time and say to him, I acknowledge this day before the Lord your God that I have entered the land that the Lord swore to our fathers to assign us.§ (Deuteronomy 26:1-3)

In this way we are introduced to the commandment of bikkurim, of bringing the first fruits to the Temple. 

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As the parsha continues, we learn that after giving the basket of fruits to the priest, the Jewish farmer recites a passage, now made famous in the Passover seder, that begins, My father was a wandering Aramean§ (Deuteronomy 26:5) and relates the narrative of the peoples journey to and from Egypt, culminating with the entry into the Land of Israel and, ultimately, the bringing of the first fruits grown in the land. 

The Mishnah, the first major written redaction of the Jewish oral traditions, adds an interesting modification. In Tractate Bikkurim, the rabbis teach that there are some who bring the first fruits but do not recite the prescribed words, such as the convert, who is unable to say that the Lord swore to our fathers to assign us.§ The rabbis continue on to say that when praying the Amidah, the central prayer of any service, a convert does not say, God of our fathers,§ but rather, when praying alone he says,  God of the fathers of Israel§ and when praying in a congregation he says, God of their fathers.§ 

This is astounding. Firstly, because we do not make converts pray differently than those in the rest of the congregations. But most of all because we do not treat converts differently than others overall. In fact, we are prohibited from doing so!

The Talmud Yerushalmi, a rabbinic commentary on the Mishnah collected in the Land of Israel during the 4th-5th centuries, offers us a solution. In a rarity, the Talmud actually reverses a ruling of the Mishnah. Quoting Rabbi Yehuda, the Talmud states that a convert can bring the first fruits on his own and recite the prescribed words of the Torah. 

What is the reasoning, the Talmud asks? Because God promised Abraham that God would make you the father of a multitude of nations§ (Genesis 17:5). Indeed, God made the promise to all of us, because God made the promise to the father of us all. 

Although the commandment to bring bikkurim only applies in the Land of Israel, it serves as a powerful reminder of the gratitude that we owe to God for the food that we eat and the land that gives us the food. More than that, though, this body of laws, and the detailed, intricate process that it entails, affirms the deep and resonating relationship between God, the people of Israel, the Land of Israel and the collective history of the Jewish nation. It is a bond that exists for all Jews and between all Jews regardless of culture, language or ancestry. 

Maharat Rori Picker Neiss is director of programming, education and community engagement at Bais Abraham Congregation.