FIRST COME, FIRST SERVED
By Gil Marks
The parsha of Ki Tavo contains the final commandments in the Torah, those directly dealing with life in the Land of Israel. It commences with the words "And it shall be when you have come unto the land which the Lord your God gives you for an inheritance, and possess it, and you dwell therein. That you shall take of the first of all the fruit of the ground, which you shall bring in from your land that the Lord your God gives to you; and you shall put it in a basket, and shall go unto the place which the Lord your God shall choose to cause His name to dwell there (Deuteronomy 26:1-2)."
A cursory reading of the text seems to imply that the bikkurim (first fruits) should be brought from all of the various types of fruit. Tradition, however, limits them to the Seven Species listed in Deuteronomy 8:8, "A land of wheat and barley, and vines and figs and pomegranates; a land of olive trees and [date] honey." The Hebrew word rashit ("first") means best as well as earliest and basic, and the Seven Species constitute the best produce of the Promised Land. Additionally, as Rashi noted, "[the text states] 'of the first' but not 'all' the first. It is stated here 'land' and it is stated above (Deuteronomy 8:8) 'a land of wheat and barley,' etc. As above it is of the Seven Species by which the land is praised, so here it refers to the praise of the Land of Israel, that this is through the Seven Species."
Each season, as soon as a farmer noticed any of the Seven Species ripen, he would tie reed strings around them, the choicest only, as a marker, and then announce, "Behold this is a bikkurim." This commandment only applied to a farmer who owned the land; tenants and renters, who nonetheless were responsible for various tithes, could not bring bikkurim. Although there was no set quantity of fruit to fulfill the commandment, the sages suggested that one-sixtieth of the crop was an appropriate amount. (See the third chapter of Mishnah Bikkurim for a description of the elaborate bikkurim ceremony during the Second Temple period, which was performed with much more fanfare than any other offering.) Once a year, the farmer personally brought the bikkurim up to Jerusalem. According to the Mishnah (Bikkurim 1:6 and 10) this offering could be performed anytime between Shavuot, also called Chag ha'Bikkurim ("Festival of the First Fruits"), and the first day of Sukkot, this period of growth and harvest being one of joy. The bikkurim was then presented to the priest "that shall be in those days (Deuteronomy 26:3)," who "shall take the basket out of your hand, and set it down before the altar of the Lord your God (26:4)."
Upon presenting the fruit, each person recited a prescribed liturgical formula, later known as Mikra Bikkurim, declaring gratitude to God, "A wandering (or fugitive) Aramean was my father, and he went down to Egypt and lived there, few in number; and there he became a nation, great, mighty, and numerous. And the Egyptians treated us harshly, and afflicted us, and imposed upon us hard bondage. And we cried unto the Lord, the God of our fathers, and the Lord heard our voice, and saw our affliction, our hardship, and our oppression; and the Lord brought us out of Egypt with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm, with terrifying deeds, with signs, and with wonders. And He has brought us to this place and has given us this land, a land flowing with milk and honey. And now, behold, I bring the first of the fruit of the earth, which You, 0 Lord, have given me." (26:5-10)." The Mikra Bikkurim, which you might recognize as part of the heart of the Passover Hagaddah, emphasizes the connection between food, history, the Land of Israel, the people of Israel, and God. (A combination that Parsha Recipe attempts to portray as well.)
Farming consists of some of the most labor-intensive work known to man, all too often accomplished under adverse conditions. Anyone who has ever spent time on a family farm or a kibbutz, and I have done both, can attest to this. Thus after a hard year of rising very early to deal with the quirks of the elements, animal life, the market, and all of the other potential pitfalls and disasters, a farmer might naturally be tempted to think that it was solely through his efforts that the fields yielded its produce. After all, it is hardly unusual for men to think, "My strength and the power of my hand made me this wealth (Deuteronomy 8:17)."
The bikkurim serve to counteract a person's innate egocentricity, instilling in the presenter the concept that the same One who did all of those monumental feats for our ancestors is ultimately responsible for our success, even in light of all of the physical exertions necessary to coax crops from the earth. The natural human tendency is also to want to savor and hoard this arduously earned produce and keep for oneself the first fruit. The Torah acknowledges this very human sentiment, "Shall be as the first ripe fig before the summer, which when one looks upon it, while it is still in his hand he swallows it (Isaiah 28:4)." The bikkurim, however, must rather be presented to others. As a result of interjecting the divine into the harvest and by underscoring from where ultimately the produce as well as the very land itself derived, bikkurim helps to counteract the basic impulses of egotism and immediate gratification. Indeed, the very structure of the Mikra Bikkurim reflects these notions. The first two sentences contain no mention of God. It was only when the Jewish people "cried unto the Lord" that the tribulations and sufferings ended, the redemption began, and the Jews were given " a land flowing with milk and honey." Once again, it is the land that embodies blessing and strength.
Before the Mikra Bikkurim, the farmer makes another statement, "I profess this day unto the Lord your God, that I have come to the land which the Lord swore unto our fathers to give us (Deuteronomy 26:3)." No matter how many generations of living in the Promised Land, the person offering the bikkurim stated that "I have come to the land." The use of I, the nominative singular pronoun, demonstrates identification with the entire Jewish people, but also similar to the Passover Hagaddah, each and every individual views it as if God personally brought him into the Promised Land. Thus bikkurim serve as a symbol that the land and the produce are directly given by God. This explains why only a landowner can bring bikkurim, unlike the other various biblically mandated offerings. For the farmer is not thanking God so much for the fruit but rather for his land. Hence the unique fanfare and joy that accompanied the giving of the bikkurim.
But why may bikkurim only be given from the Seven Species? There were most assuredly other prominent agricultural products in ancient Israel, including carob, apples, and, etrog (citron), to name a few. There were the zimrath haaretz ("choice fruits of the land") that Jacob sent to Pharaoh (Genesis 43:11)." The Seven Species are quite different from Jacob's "choice" items, the latter consisting of produce that continued to grow even during the severe famine of the time. On the contrary, the Seven Species are the most problematic of the major crops to grow in the Land of Israel, requiring much water and care. Thus the Seven Species underscore the differences between life in Egypt and the subsequent 40 years of wandering in the wilderness and that of the Land of Israel. Egypt is reliant on the continuing flow of the Nile River. In the wilderness, the people were fed by the manna. The produce and sustenance of the Promised Land, however, is contingent on the autumn and winter rains. The Seven Species, like the Jewish People, are completely dependent upon Divine Providence.
In actuality, the parsha of Ki Tavoh is a continuation and augmentation of the section of the Seven Species (Deuteronomy 8:1-20), which commenced with "All the commandments that I command 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 (Deuteronomy 8:1)." After describing the merits of the Promised Land including the Seven Species with which it is blessed (Deuteronomy 8:8) and the need to recite blessings on food, "And you shall eat and be satisfied, and bless the Lord your God for the good land which He has given you (Deuteronomy 8:10)," the text concluded with a warning: "And it shall be if you forget the Lord your God, and follow other gods and serve them and worship them, I forewarn you this day that you shall surely perish (Deuteronomy 8:19)." If the Jews follow God's commandments, admittedly a labor-intensive process, the result will be sweet. The institution of the bikkurim was structured to help the Jews stay on the straight and narrow. Disregard the laws, however, and the people get stung, figuratively speaking. Thus the blessings and curses that constitute the end of Ki Tavoh.
In hindsight, we know how the story ultimately played out. After the destruction of the Temple, bikkurim could no longer be brought and, understandably, lost its import on our lives. The Seven Species, however, resurface on other occasions, most notably Tu b'Shevat and Rosh Hashanah.
Here are a few traditional salads making use of the bikkurim fruits.
(6 to 8 servings)
1. Pour the boiling water over the bulgur and let stand until tender and the water is absorbed (20 to 40 minutes depending on the age and type of bulgur). Drain any excess water and fluff with a fork.
Add the parsley, mint, scallions, fruit, and nuts.
Mix the lemon juice, oil, salt, pepper, and cinnamon.
Drizzle over the salad and toss to coat. Cover and refrigerate for several hours to let the flavors
meld. Serve cold or at room
6 to 8 servings
Combine the dates, apples, oranges, figs, and bananas. Pour the orange juice over top and toss to coat. Cover and chill for at least 2 hours. Shortly before serving, sprinkle with the almonds.
(6 to 8 servings)
8 medium navel or temple oranges, peeled and segmented
1½ cups chopped pitted dates
½ cup coarsely chopped toasted almonds
Chill the oranges for at least 1
hour. Add the dates. Combine all the dressing ingredients, pour over the oranges,
and toss to coat. Let stand for
about 10 minutes. Divide the
oranges between serving plates or arrange in overlapping sections on a
serving platter. Sprinkle with
6 to 8 servings
Spinach salads, both raw and cooked, have long been popular in the Mediterranean and Near East. It is served on Rosh Hashanah, especially when combined with other symbolic foods such as pomegranates.
Combine the lemon juice, scallions, cumin, salt, and pepper. In a slow, steady stream, whisk in the oil. Combine the spinach, nuts, and pomegranate seeds. Drizzle with the dressing and toss to coat. If desired, garnish with the egg slices.
Gil Marks is the author of the James Beard Award finalist The World of Jewish Cooking, The World of Jewish Entertaining, and the recently released The World of Jewish Desserts. If you have a special request for a future recipe, forward them to firstname.lastname@example.org