Kng Agrippa and the firstfruits-Samuel Shihor

The following short story for children is based on the ancient Hebrew description of the Shavuot procession during which the firstfruits were brought to Jerusalem (from Mishnah Bikkurim).

The dew glistened on the vine, and Uriel's hand trembled as he prepared to use the pruning knife. Would his bikkurim (firstfruits) be accepted?

Last year, when he was ten, his father had promised that he could join the bikkurim procession when he was one year older. Now the time had come. But Uriel would carry the basket without his father.

His father's vineyard belonged to someone else. Only one vine remained, and it was Uriel's. Uriel knew just what to do. When his father was alive, he had gone with him to the vineyard to choose the ripest clusters. Father would tie them with a string and say, "These will be our bikkurim - our firstfruit offering."

Bringing First Fruits to Jerusalem

Uriel had only twelve bunches on his vine. He tied the finest. "This cluster is to be our bikkurim," he repeated over and over again. Uriel went into the house, and decorated his basket with dates and figs. The willow basket had three compartments. The bikkurim were in the center; on each side was tied a white dove, a gift for the kohanim, the priests.

When all was ready, his neighbor Haggai came to take Uriel along on his donkey. Uriel kissed his mother, and they joined the company of other travelers who were going to Jerusalem.

Uriel's village of Avihiel was a small one, but its bikkurim caravan was beautiful. The ox that led the processions was large and strong, with gilded horns and a crown of olives on his head. Elimeleh, the eldest inhabitant, rode behind the ox. He turned to Haggai, saying, "There is no need to hurry. We will arrive at our post when day is done. In the torchlight our caravan will appear the finest of all."

The "posts" were cities near Jerusalem, where the pilgrims gathered just before Shavuot. At daybreak they proceeded to Jerusalem without confusion or crowding. The post assigned to Uriel's village was the city of Betar.

In the afternoon the caravan reached the Orchard of Pomegranates. The orchard-keeper welcomed the travelers. The pilgrims gratefully fanned out under the trees and quenched their thirst with cooling drinks offered by the owner of the orchard.

After lunch the elders lay down to nap, but the younger people started to dance. Only when the sun had set did the caravan continue on its journey to Betar. The torches were lit, and the procession wound its way through the mountains. The inhabitants of Betar spread out mats for the guests, and again the youths from all the communities that gathered in Betar danced and sang far into the night.

At dawn Uriel was abruptly awakened by a cry: "Children of Israel, pilgrims of the Post of Betar, arise and let us go to Zion!" Rubbing the sleep from their eyes, the pilgrims took their baskets and formed caravans again. At the head of each caravan marched the flute-players, and drummers walked at the sides.

At the gate of Jerusalem, a committee came out to meet them and formed two rows on both sides of the gate. When it was the turn of Uriel's caravan to enter, the citizens of Jerusalem cried out in the ancient way of greeting the pilgrims: "Our brothers from the village of Avihiel, enter the city of Zion in peace!"

In answer, the drums beat and the flutes played, and the procession entered Jerusalem with rhythmical dancing. At the Temple each man lifted his basket and put it on his shoulder, and the chief singer of the village chanted: "Praise God in His Temple..." until they reached the Temple court and they heard the voices of Levites.

Uriel's heart beat faster as he gripped the basket and raised it to his shoulder. They moved into the Temple court in single file. The kohanim were in the aisles, ready to receive the bikkurim. Louder and louder sang the Levite choir, and the sound of musical instruments was heard from the Temple.

A whisper rippled through the crowd. "Here comes Agrippa. Here comes the king!"

Uriel saw the king. Agrippa was dressed in a cloak of dazzling white. His golden crown was on his head, and on his shoulder he bore a bikkurim basket made of beaten gold.

Uriel wondered aloud: "Does the king carry the bikkurim by himself?"

"That's right, my son," whispered Haggai. "Even the king must fulfill the mitzvot, the laws of our Torah."

All at once, a resounding cry burst from the throats of the great assembly of pilgrims. It echoed again and again, drowning the voices of the Levite choir: "Long live Agrippa our king!"

Now it was the turn of Haggai and Uriel to enter the Temple court. The king was still approaching. "Do as I do"! Haggai whispered. With both hands, he lifted the basket from his shoulder and gave it to the priest, saying, "Behold, I have brought the first of the fruit of the land." And as soon as Haggai finished, Uriel started to do the same.

"How old are you, my child?" the priest inquired.
"Eleven," said Uriel.

woodcut of the King and boys

The priest patted Uriel's head and smiled. "You are too young. The Torah does not require you to bring bikkurim. I cannot accept them from you."

Uriel grew very sad. The happy holiday feeling which had filled his heart disappeared. His eyes brimmed with tears.

"Please, dear kohen," he pleaded. "My father died but five months ago. His last words were, ‘Uriel, do not forget to bring bikkurim in from the vineyard.' But things went badly, and my mother was forced to sell the vineyard.

"Then the vineyard is not yours," said the priest. "And bikkurim, you know, must be brought from one's own land."


"But this branch, O kohen, is mine," cried Uriel. "The day we sold the vineyard I uprooted this vine and planted it in our yard. The elders of our town told me that it is my vine, and the firstfruits must be taken from it! I did everything to fulfill my father's last wish, everything, and now you forbid me..."

A choking feeling in his throat stopped the flow of Uriel's words. Big tears splashed on his beautiful cluster of grapes. The pair of doves blinked at him. Everyone turned to look at him. Even the priest brushed away a tear. "Wait, my child," he said. "I will ask the opinion of the older kohanim. This has never happened before."

Then Uriel heard a deep, soft voice at his side. King Agrippa was standing next to him.

"Do not cry, boy. As king of Israel I return to you the vineyard which belonged to your father. From now on it is yours. The man who owns it now will be paid from the king's treasury. Kohen! Accept the child's bikkurim."

Uriel looked up gratefully at King Agrippa. He lifted his basket, gave it to the priest, and turned to bow to the king. Instead, King Agrippa stooped and lifted Uriel into his arms.

"Do now bow before a man of flesh and blood," he said. "Although I am king, remember that you stand in the house of Almighty God, King of kings!"

Uriel buried his head in the folds of the king's robe and wept with happiness.

First fruits

JPS linkFrom The Shavuot Anthology, ed. Philip Goodman (Jewish Publication Society of America, 1974). Reprinted from The New World Over Story Book (Bloch Publishing Co., 1961).

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