Deut. 8:8 describes the Land of Israel as a "land of wheat and barley, of [grape] vines, figs and pomegranates, and land of olives for oil and [date] honey." The offerings of the first fruits (bikkurim) brought to the Temple in Jerusalem on Shavuot were brought only from these seven species, despite the the fact that Israel was blessed with many other choice products. Nogah Hareuveni, founder of Neot Kedumim (The Biblical Landscape Reserve in Israel) helps us understand why.

Chapter 8 of the book of Deuteronomy, in which the seven species are listed, begins: "All the commandments that I give you this day you shall carefully observe, that you may live and multiply, and go in and inherit the land which the Lord swore to give to your fathers...." The text continues with the description of the Promised Land, including the seven species, and ends with the dire warning: "If you forget the Lord your God and follow other gods and serve them and worship them, I solemnly warn you this day that you shall surely perish."[1]

The specific emphasis on these seven species and not on other crops becomes readily understandable because it is woven into the description of the land of Israel — a description that is meant to be the setting for the warning to obey God's commandments. The season between Passover and Shavuot is characterized by multiple changes and climatic contrasts: scorching southern winds bringing extreme dryness and heat, alternating with cold winds from the north and west generating tempestuous storms with thunder, lightning and rain. As it is during this period that the fate of the seven species is determined, it is easy to see how the opposing climatic phenomena could logically have been viewed as battles between various deities; herein lay the very real danger of being lured away "to serve other gods," the multiple gods worshiped by the local Canaanites.

The seven species (including the date as honey) are the outstanding representatives of the special agricultural problems of the land of Israel. The fate of these crops depends on the delicate balance and exact timing of opposing forces of nature during the critical period between Passover and Shavuot. These conditions, totally foreign to the Israelites in Egypt and the Sinai desert, were a basic and familiar element in the daily lives of the Canaanite dwellers in the land of Israel.

Contrasting with the seven species are those choice products which Jacob sent to Egypt. These are crops that, although they represent the bounty of the land of Israel, do not present the worrisome agricultural problems that could "lure away to serve other gods." Despite the severe famine that gripped the land of Israel at the time, Jacob had the various choice products on hand to send to Egypt. Pistachio and almond trees flower early, fruiting before olive and pomegranate trees, grapes or date palms have even blossomed. Balm, gum and laudanum are products of the sap extracted from the bark and leaves of various plants.

All these produce crops even in drought years, since they require relatively small quantities of rain. This is also true of wild flowers from which bees make honey, a product that, even in harshest years, was plentiful in "the land flowing with milk and honey." Many of Israel's flowers blossom in drought years. In fact, numerous flowers appear early and in even greater abundance than normal specifically under drought conditions, in an attempt by nature to ensure the next generations by hastening the flowering and seed-making process.

[grape] vines

This is why the honey of the seven species cannot be bee honey but must be date honey. Nor is it carob honey, because the carob tree blossoms in a different season and in no way reflects the agricultural problems associated with the "luring away to serve other gods." As a matter of fact, the carob is known as the one fruit tree that can survive even after devastation of agricultural land, continuing to give fruit in desolate, abandoned wasteland.

The role of the seven species in the battle for monotheism becomes even more apparent with the revelation that only they could brought as offerings of the first fruits (bikkurim) to the Temple in Jerusalem. The Mishna[2] tells us "One does not bring offerings of the bikkurim (first fruits) except from the seven species." In this way the Mishna elaborates on the Biblical verses, which say: "The first of the bikkurim of your land you shall bring into the house of the Lord your God";[3] and "You shall take some of the first of all the fruit of the earth that you harvest from your land that the Lord your God is giving you...[4]


What is the basis of this tradition that one is to bring the offering of the bikkurim (first fruits) only from the seven species, when the literal meaning of the Bible seems to say quite clearly that the bikkurim can be brought from the first of all the fruit of the earth? It is customarily believed that the word "first" signifies not only the earliest of the season but also the finest quality. Yet the choice products that Jacob sent to Egypt were certainly no less representative of the bounty of the land than the seven species. Why, then, was the bikkurim offering limited to the seven species? The Bible's detailed description of the bikkurim offering ceremony in the Temple suggests an answer:[5]

The portion starting with "A wandering Aramean was my father" and ending with "which You, 0 Lord, have given me" is commonly called (mikra bikkurim ), the "reading for the offering of the first fruits," which was recited by everyone bringing the bikkurim offering to the Temple. This recitation was strictly observed during the bikkurim offering, as can be seen from the following:

"At first, all who knew how to read, read [it], and for those who did not know how to read, the passage was read aloud so that they could recite after the priest. Since some stopped bringing the offerings [because they were ashamed to have their illiteracy openly revealed], it was instituted that the passage would be read aloud by the priest for those who knew how to read as well as for those who did not."[6]


Why this strict observance? Because the mikra bikkurim underscores the dependence of the fruit on its giver. He is the same One — the One who is the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, the One who brought the people to settle in "the land flowing with milk and honey," the same One who controls all the various and seemingly opposing forces of nature that determine the fate of the fruit of the land of Israel, the produce raised there after Israel's transformation from "a land flowing with milk and honey" into a land of agricultural bounty.

Furthermore, the arduous physical labor involved in clearing the forest land ("the land flowing with milk and honey"), in building terraces on the mountain slopes, in clearing, plowing and planting the terraced land — all these could lead the Israelite farmer to say in his heart, "my power and the might of my hand have made me successful."[7]

(seora) barley

But the mikra bikkurim forces the Israelite to say, "And behold, now I bring the first of the fruit of the earth, which You, 0 Lord, have given me." You and not "my power and the might of my hand," You and not other gods.

Yet another point must be considered. Had it been permissible to bring the bikkurim offerings from produce other than the seven species, a breach would have opened allowing for the institutionalization of "serving two altars" — worshiping both the God of Israel and local deities — a practice to which many Israelites succumbed.[8] For example, the Israelite farmer could bring almond or pistachio offerings (which do not depend on the delicate balance between the contradictory forces of nature), recite the mikra bikkurim, and believe wholeheartedly that these almonds or these pistachios are "the fruit which You, 0 Lord, have given me." By bringing any fruit other than the seven species for the offering of the bikkurim, he could have remained honest with himself yet believe that these seven species — the most important and problematic crops — had been given by other gods, who presided over the opposing forces of nature that determined the success or failure of these seven species.

(te'enah) fig

The injunction to bring the offering of the bikkurim only from the seven species should be viewed as part of the constant battle against the ever- threatening "two altars." One has to offer thanks for the fruit "which You, 0 Lord, have given me" specifically by bringing those very species of fruit whose cultivation can "lure away to serve other gods."

Of the seven species, four have the greatest importance in the land of Israel: wheat, barley, grapes and olives. These four are mentioned throughout the Bible by the names grain (wheat and barley), wine (from grapes), and oil (from olives).

(zeit shemen u'dvash)
olive oil and [date] honey

Because these are the main representatives of the seven species, in whose successful growth lay those pitfalls that could lure the Israelites to worship other gods, grain, wine and oil were included in the passage in Deuteronomy 11: "If you pay heed to the commandments that I give you this day... I will give the rain...that you may gather in your grain, your wine and your oil," words the Israelites were commanded to recite morning and evening and to write upon the doorposts of their houses and upon the gates of their cities.[9]

[1] Deut. 8:19 [Back]
[2] Bikkurim 1:3. Mishna = codification of the Oral Law, compiled between 20 and 200 CE, the approximate date of the final redaction of the Mishna by Rabbi Judah ha-Nasi. The Mishna comprises six orders, further divided into 63 tractates.[Back]
[3] Exodus 23:19 and 34:26 [Back]
[4] Deuteronomy 26:2 [Back]
[5] Deuteronomy 26:1-11. These same verses are read in the Passover seder haggadah, whose development is based on the Biblical commandment in Exodus 13:8 that enjoins the Jew to tell the story of the Exodus to his children. [Back]
[6] Bikkurim 3:7. This passage clearly implies widespread literacy among the Israelites. No shame would have been involved in the inability to read mikra bikkurim unless the vast majority of farmers bringing the bikkurim offerings did, in fact, know how to read. The illiterate farmer was the "shamefaced" exception. Even more astounding is the literacy rate implied in the injunction to be followed in every home to "write them [these words of Mine] upon the doorposts of your house and upon your gates" (Deut. 11:20). Clearly, from the very early period of Israelite settlement in the Promised Land, the common people knew how to read and write else it would have been sufficient to "teach them to your children, reciting them when you stay at home.. .and when you lie down, and when you rise up." (Deuteronomy 6:7) [Back]
[7] Deuteronomy 8:17. [Back]
[8] See, for example. I Kings 18:21.[Back]
[9] Deut. 11:13-17. [Back]
From Desert and Shepherd in our Biblical Heritage, by Nogah Hareuveni. Translated from the Hebrew and adapted by Helen Frenkley (a publication of Neot Kedumim, the Biblical Landscape Reserve in Israel).

SEVEN Table of Contents



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