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