First Fruits

The Hebrew term bikkurim derives from the same root as bekhor — firstborn (bikkurim are also referred to in certain instances as reshit — the first.) According to the same general principle that the firstborn of man and beast belonged to the God of Israel and were to be devoted to him, the first fruits to ripen each season were to be brought as an offering to God (see Lowin's article on the Hebrew root-word b-kh-r)[*]. According to rabbinic interpretation, the duty of bringing first fruits was confined to the seven species growing in Erez Yisrael: wheat, barley, grapes, figs, pomegranates, olive oil and dates (the latter referred to as dvash — honey). Every Israelite who possessed the means of agricultural productivity was under this obligation.

Deuteronomy contains detailed procedures for the offering of the first fruits, including a liturgical recitation incumbent upon any who offered their first fruits in the sanctuary. In Deuteronomy and Numbers, the descriptions of the procedures for the offering require that the first fruits be displayed, and later given to the priests as part of their cultic "salary." Leviticus, on the other hand, speaks of a minhah-bikkurim, an offering from the first-ripe grains which is to be burnt on the altar. These and other differences between the different books of the Torah leave certain gaps in our understanding of how exactly the rites connected with the first fruits were carried out.

The offerings of first fruit were both an individual obligation and part of a public festival celebration. A sheaf of the new barley harvest (omer) was offered on the second day of the Passover festival. Particularly associated with the bringing of first fruits was the celebration of Shavuot, also called Hag ha-Bikkurim — "the first fruits festival." According to the Mishnah (Bikkurim 1, 6, 9), in Second Temple times the pilgrimage to the Temple for the purpose of offering the first fruits could be undertaken anytime between Shavuot in the late spring, and Sukkot in the fall; the festival of Shavuot, however, was the first date of this offering.

The Mishnah (Bikkurim 3:2-9) vividly describes the first fruit offering ceremony in the period of the Second Temple. The people walked in procession headed by an ox whose horns were adorned with gold and silver wreaths and with olive branches. The pilgrims were accompanied by musicians playing the flute. Rich people took the first fruits in baskets of silver and gold, while the poor carried their fruit offerings in wicker baskets made of peeled willow branches (which they gave to the priests together with the fruits). The baskets contained the choicest fruits and the pigeons, perched on top, were later sacrificed at the Temple. Those who lived close to Jerusalem brought fresh fruit and those who lived far, dried fruit.

[*] Deut. 26:1-11 (back)



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