And you shall take from the first of all the fruits of the land that you shall bring forth from the land that Hashem your G-d gave to you. And you shall place it in a basket. And you shall go to the place that Hashem your G-d will choose to associate with His name. (Devarim 26:2)
This pasuk discusses the commandment of Bikurim. This mitzvah requires that the first fruits of each year be brought to the Bait HaMikdash – the Holy Temple. The Bikurim are brought only from the seven special species. These species are wheat, barley, grapes, figs, pomegranates, olives, and dates. These species are identified with the Land of Israel. The Land is considered blessed with these fruits and grains.
The Torah does not explicitly state that Bikurim are only brought from these fruits and grains. This law is derived from the Torah SheBeAl Peh – the Oral Law. Rashi explains that the source for this law is the word “land” used in the expression, “fruits of the land.” Rabbaynu Ovadia Sforno disputes this derivation. He explains that the law is derived from the word “first” in the phrase, “first fruits.” He explains that the term “first” does not indicate that the Bikurim are brought from those fruits first to appear. Instead, the term refers to the significance of the fruits. Bikurim are brought from those species of the first or greatest significance. These are the special fruits and grains with which the Land is blessed – the seven species.
This dispute provides an important insight into the mitzvah of Bikurim. The mitzvah of Bikurim is designed to demonstrate appreciation for the Land of Israel and its abundance. Rashi maintains that the seven species are central to the mitzvah because they are closely associated with the Land. Other fruits grow in the Land of Israel. However, they are not regarded as the species associated with the Land of Israel. In showing gratitude for the Land, it is appropriate to represent the Land through the fruits with which it is most closely associated. These are the fruits of the seven species.
Sforno maintains that the seven species are not chosen because of this association. The offering of Bikurim is an expression of gratitude. The quality of the offering is determined, in part, by the value of the object offered. Sforno maintains that since these are the best fruits that the Land produces, they are most appropriate for the offering.
In short, we are thanking Hashem for the Land. According to Rashi, the seven species are chosen because of their association with the Land. According to Sforno, they are chosen because their eminence makes them the ideal offering.
The Confessional Element of Veydoi Maasrot
And you should say before Hashem your G-d, I have removed the sacred from the house. And also I have given from it to the Leyve and the convert, to the orphan and to the widow, as required by your commandments that you have commanded me. I have not violated your commandments and I have not forgotten. (Devarim 26:13)
At the end of a three-year cycle, a declaration is required regarding the giving of tithes. In this declaration, the person confirms that the annual tithes have been removed from the home and properly distributed. The tithe due to the Leyve has been given to him. The tithe required for the support of the poor has been distributed.
This declaration is referred to as Veydoi Maasrot. This can be translated as “confession over the tithes.” Why is this declaration described as a confession? A confession, in halachah, is made in order to repent from a sin. This person is declaring that the laws have been properly performed!
There are a number of answers offered to this question. Many involve providing an alternative translation for Veydoi Maasrot that does not include the element of confession. Rabbaynu Ovadia Sforno, however, offers a very simple explanation that preserves the straightforward translation.
Originally, the institution of the priesthood was awarded to the firstborn. Every tribe was to be represented in this honored group. At Sinai, the nation sinned through association with the Egel HaZahav – the Golden Calf. The only group that opposed the creation and worship of this idol was the tribe of Leyve. As a result, Hashem removed the priesthood from the nation’s firstborn and awarded it to Shevet Leyve – the tribe of Leyve. This meant that the other tribes would not be represented within the priesthood through their firstborn.
Sforno explains that we are required to acknowledge our involvement in the sin of the Egel. This is done through the tithes. Through these tithes we acknowledge and support the selection of Shevet Leyve for the priesthood. Through this acknowledgement, we demonstrate that we accept our responsibility for the sin of the Egel and its consequences. Veydoi Maasrot is an affirmation of fulfilling our obligations of tithing. Therefore, it does have an element of confession. We are implicitly confessing the sin of the Egel.
The Table as an Altar
And you shall build there an altar to Hashem your G-d. It shall be an altar of stone. Do not lift up any iron to it. (Devarim 27:5)
Moshe tells the nation that after crossing the Jordan they will arrive at Har Eval. The nation is to erect an altar on this mountain. Our pasuk explains that the stones must not be fashioned with metal implements. Instead, whole stones must be used. This law is previously taught in Sefer Shemot. The Torah explains that the altar of the Temple must be constructed of whole stones. They may not be shaped with metal implements. Our pasuk applies this law to the altar constructed on Har Eval.
Shulchan Aruch explains when reciting Birkat HaMazon, it is customary to cover the knife used to slice the bread. Bait Yosef mentions a number of reasons for this custom. One is that the table is symbolic of the altar of the Temple. Covering the knife helps establish this symbolic relationship. The stones may not be fashioned with metal implements. Covering the knife recalls this halachah. It creates an analogy between the table and the altar.
The symbolic relationship between the table and the altar is represented in another manner. Bait Yosef explains that salt should be placed on the table before the bread is sliced. He explains that the reason for this custom. All sacrifices are first salted and then placed upon the altar. Bait Yosef explains that the salt on the table creates a further analogy between the table and the altar. Salt is present on both.
The covering of the knife and the salt on the table both draw our attention to the table’s representation of the altar. Why were the Sages determined to create this association?
One of the sacrifices offered in the Bait HaMikdash is the Shelamim. A portion of this sacrifice is given to the kohen. Part is burned on the altar. However, the majority is eaten by the owners. This sacrifice was also offered in the wilderness. In fact, all meat consumed in the wilderness was derived from the Shelamim offering. Rav Moshe Sternbach explains that the Shelamim has a unique function. Eating is a physical need and the expression of a material desire. The Shelamim sacrifice provides the opportunity to introduce a spiritual element into this material activity. In the wilderness, a person was only permitted to satisfy the material desire for meat by engaging in the spiritual process of offering a sacrifice. After entering Israel, meat could be eaten without offering a sacrifice. Nonetheless, the opportunity still existed to offer a Shelamim, and through the offering introduce a spiritual aspect into the meal. This combination of material and spiritual activities helps us maintain a balance between the material and spiritual elements of our personality.
With the destruction of the Temple, we were deprived of the opportunity to offer the Shelamim sacrifice. Yet, we still can introduce into our meals the balance between the material and spiritual elements. How is this done? We make blessings before and after eating, and observe the other guidelines of halachah during the meal.
We can now more fully understand the relationship between the altar and the table. We observe various laws during the meal. For example, the meal is preceded and followed by blessings. These practices provide a spiritual element. Through observing these laws, we transform the table into a version of the altar upon which the Shelamim was offered. The customs of covering the knife and placing salt on the table remind us of the table’s similarity to the altar and the role of halachah in introducing a spiritual element into the material act of eating.
“And now, behold, I have brought the first of the fruit of the ground which you, Hashem, have given to me.” Then, you shall lay it before Hashem, your God, and prostrate yourself before Hashem, your God. (Devarim 26:10)
Many of us are familiar with the folk story of the ignorant shepherd boy that entered the synagogue eager to pray to Hashem, but did not know any of the prayers. The boy wished to reach out to Hashem but lacked the skills and knowledge to pray in the conventional manner. The kind rabbi of the congregation was moved by the earnestness of the young shepherd and advised him that despite his ignorance, he can effectively pray to Hashem. He need merely to recite the alef bet – the Hebrew alphabet. Hashem will form the proper words. In another version of the folk story, the rabbi tells the boy to whistle and Hashem will convert his whistles into beautiful prayers.
I am not sure of the true intent or meaning of this well-known story. However, it is often interpreted to mean that we need not be overly concerned with the details and nuances of the laws regarding tefilah – prayer. Much more important than our concern with this multitude of details, is our sincerity. If we are sincere, our prayers are appropriate. Some even assert that excessive attention to detail – to the extent that this attention distracts us from expressing our feelings – is counter-productive. This focus on the minutia of halachah may even undermine the effectiveness of our prayer and the meaningfulness of the tefilah experience.
Sefer HaChinuch makes an interesting comment on this week’s parasha that should cause us to reconsider this folk story and its popular interpretation. One of the mitzvot discussed in our parasha is the Mikre Bikurim – the recitation accompanying the bringing of the first fruit. In order to discuss the mitzvah of Mikre Bikurim, we must first review the mitzvah of Bikurim – the first fruit. This mitzvah only applies in the Land of Israel. We are required to bring the first fruit – the Bikurim – of each year’s crop to the Bait HaMikdash. The Bikurim are then given to the kohanim for their consumption. The mitzvah of Bikurim does not apply to all crops. We are only required to give Bikurim from the seven species that are associated with the Land of Israel.
When the farmer brings the fruits, he is required to fulfill the mitzvah of Mikre Bikurim. He recites a specific portion of the Torah that is included in this week’s parasha. In this recitation, he describes the tribulations experienced by our forefather Yaakov. He recounts his descent to Egypt. He describes the suffering and persecution our ancestors experienced in Egypt. Then, he briefly recounts our redemption by Hashem from bondage. He acknowledges that Hashem has given us the Land of Israel and that the produce that he is presenting is the product of that Land. In short, the farmer describes the fruit he is presenting as a manifestation of Hashem’s redemption of Bnai Yisrael and an expression of His providential relationship with the Jewish people.
One of the interesting laws concerning Mikre Bikurim is that not every farmer who presents Bikurim is required or qualified to recite Mikre Bikurim. For example, Mikre Bikurim is only performed by males. Why is the mitzvah limited to males? This limitation is based upon the above passage. The farmer states that the Bikurim are the product of the land that Hashem has given to me – to the farmer. The Torah provides instructions for the distribution of the Land of Israel among its inhabitants. When the Land of Israel was captured, it was divided among the male members of the nation. In subsequent generations, the Land was subdivided among the male descendants of these original land-holders. Land may be sold and purchased among these owners, or even to others who are not among these owners. However, with each Jubilee year – Yovel, the Land is redistributed to the male descendants of the original land-holders. In short, only the male descendants of the original land-holders can attain a permanent ownership right that is transmitted to their heirs.
How does this law regarding ownership impact the mitzvah of Mikre Bikurim? The passage above is taken from the text recited by the farmer. The farmer refers to the fruit as the product of the Land that Hashem has “given to me”. This statement assumes that the farmer is a person qualified to receive the Land in a permanent manner. As explained above, only the male descendents of the original land-holders can attain permanent possession.
Sefer HaChinuch makes an interesting comment regarding this law. He explains that this law provides evidence of the importance of the manner and precision with which we formulate our prayers. How is this law indicative of the importance of precision in our prayers?
As we have explained, only males may recite Mikre Bikurim. This law is derived from the above passage. But let us more carefully consider how this law is derived from this passage. Many laws are derived from allusions and hints provided by the text of the Chumash. A nuance in the manner in which the Torah expresses itself – the choice of wording, a seemingly superfluous phrase, word, or even letter – can be the source of a law. A superficial consideration of the derivation of the limitation of Mikre Bikurim to males would indicate that this law is derived from such a nuance in our passage.
However, Sefer HaChinuch apparently maintains that the law is not derived from a nuance or superfluity in the passage. Instead, Mikre Bikurim can only be recited by a male, because the content of the recitation must be accurate. The person reciting Mikre Bikurim refers to the fruit as the product of the Land given to him by Hashem. If he is not a male, the statement is not true and accurate.
We can now understand Sefer HaChinuch’s comment. Mikre Bikurim – and all prayers – must be accurate and precise. In the case of Mikre Bikurim, this requirement can only be realized when the recitation is given by a farmer who is male. Sefer HaChinuch admonishes us to require of ourselves the same precision in every prayer we recite. We must choose our text carefully and read or recite it precisely. Without this precision, a fundamental element of prayer is sacrificed.
What is this fundamental element that is only achieved through precision? In order to appreciate Sefer HaChinuch’s response, another law regarding Mikre bikurim must be considered.
And you shall call out and say before Hahsem, your God: An Aramean [sought to] destroy my forefather, and he went down to Egypt and sojourned there with a small number of people, and there, he became a great, mighty, and numerous nation. (Devarim 26:5)
One of the requirements of Mikre Bikurim is that the passages must be recited in the Bait HaMikdash. This requirement is derived from the above passage. The pasuk tells us that the passages must be recited before Hashem. Our Sages interpret this phrase to require that the recitation of the passages take place in the Bait HaMikdash.
Minchat Chinuch notes that this interpretation of the phrase “before Hashem” does not seem completely reasonable. The Torah requires that we give a number of tithes from our crops. These tithes are not identical from year to year. However, they do have a fixed three-year cycle. At the end of each three-year cycle, one is required to declare that the tithes have been given properly. The Torah tells us that this declaration must be made “before Hashem.” Indeed, it is preferable to make the declaration in the Bait HaMikdash. However, if one did not make the declaration in the Bait HaMikdash, it is nonetheless valid.
Minchat Chinuch argues that it would seem reasonable that the phrase “before Hashem” used in reference to Mikre Bikurim should be interpreted in the same manner. It should indicate the preference for performance of the mitzvah in the Bait HaMikdash. But it should not suggest that recitation in the Bait HaMikdash is an absolute requirement.
Minchat Chinuch’s question can be extended. The term “before Hashem” is used with some frequency by the Torah and our Sages. For example, when we recite the Amidah prayer, we are required to regard ourselves as standing before Hashem. When we confess our sins, we are required to regard ourselves as standing “before Hashem.” In neither of these instances are we required to make a pilgrimage to the Bait HaMikdash. Clearly, in these instances the phrase “before Hashem” represents a state of mind. Why in the instance of Mikre Bikurim is the phrase interpreted more literally?
It seems that the term “before Hashem” can have two meanings. It can refer to a mental state – the person regards himself as standing before Hashem. The phrase can also represent a geographical or positional requirement – presence in the Bait HaMikdash. The Bait HaMikdash is a location in which Hashem’s influence is uniquely represented and expressed. In instances in which the requirement is positional, it is fulfilled through standing in the Bait HaMikdash.
The proper interpretation of the phrase “before Hashem” is determined by the context. In the case of Mikre Bikurim, the recitation must accompany the offering of the Bikurim. The Bikurim must be presented in the Bait HaMikdash. Therefore, the phrase “before Hashem” is to be understood to include an absolute positional element. The recitation must take place in the Bait HaMikdash. In contrast, there is no particular relationship between the declaration regarding the tithes and the Bait HaMikdash. Therefore, the phrase is not interpreted to imply an absolute positional requirement. However, this answer suggests a new question. If the declaration concerning the tithes is unrelated to the Bait HaMikdash, why is it preferable for it to be recited at this location?
As explained, the phrase “before Hashem” sometimes implies an absolute positional element – as in the instance of Mikre Bikurim. In other instances, the phrase refers to a state of mind. In the instance of the declaration regarding the tithes, the requirement can be fulfilled anywhere. This indicates that “before Hashem” is essentially a mental state. However, the unique element of this declaration is that we are encouraged to reinforce the state of mind through a positional expression – through actually standing in the Bait HaMikdash. In other words, in making the declaration regarding the tithes, we are admonished to reinforce our state of mind through action – standing in the Bait HaMikdash.
Let us now return to our original question: Why is precision an essential element of prayer? Sefer HaChinuch explains that when we pray, we stand before Hashem. We address our thoughts and words to Him. We are expected to reinforce our sense of standing before Hashem through action. If we are to fully appreciate and recognize the significance of addressing Hashem, we must choose our words with extreme care and attention. This precision and attention to detail reflects and expresses an experience of awe. It communicates a cognizance of the significance – the gravity – of the experience. Through stating our prayers with precision and care, we reinforce the sense of standing before Hashem.
1 Rabbaynu Shlomo ben Yitzchak (Rashi), Commentary on Sefer Devarim 26:2.
2 Rabbaynu Ovadia Sforno, Commentary on Sefer Devarim 26:2.
3 Rabbaynu Ovadia Sforno, Commentary on Sefer Devarim 26:13.
4 Rabbaynu Moshe ben Maimon (Rambam/Maimonides) Mishne Torah, Hilchot Bait HaBechirah 1:14-15.
5 Sefer Shemot 20:22.
6 Rav Yosef Karo, Shulchan Aruch, Orech Chayim 180:5.
7 RavYosef Karo, Bait Yosef Commentary on Tur, Orach Chayim 180.
8 Maimonides, Mishne Torah, Esurai Mizbeyach 5:11.
9 Rav Yosef Karo, Orech Chayim 167:5.
10 Rav Moshe Sternbach, Ta’am VeDa’at Al HaTorah, Sefer VaYikra 3:6.
11 Rabbaynu Moshe ben Maimon (Rambam/Maimonides) Mishne Torah, Hilchot Bikkurim 4:2.
12 Rabbaynu Moshe ben Maimon (Rambam/Maimonides) Mishne Torah, Hilchot Bikkurim 4:2.
13 Rav Aharon HaLeyve, Sefer HaChinuch, Mitzvah 606.
14 Rav Yosef Babad, Minchat Chinuch, Mitzvah 606, note 1.
15 Rabbaynu Moshe ben Maimon (Rambam/Maimonides) Mishne Torah, Hilchot Ma’aser Sheyne 11:6.