Parshat Ki Tavo: The Ignorant Shepherd Boy

“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 he does not know any of the prayers. The boy wishes to reach out to Hashem but he lacks the skills and knowledge to pray in the conventional manner. The kind rabbi is moved by the earnestness of the young shepherd and advises him that despite his ignorance, he can effectively pray to Hashem. He need merely 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 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 teffilah – prayer. Much more important than our concern with the multitude of details, is our sincerity. If we are sincere, our prayers are appropriate. Excessive attention to detail – to the extent that this attention distracts us from expressing our feelings – is counter-productive. Focus on the minutia of halacha may even undermine the effectiveness of our prayer and the meaningfulness of the teffilah experience.

Sefer HaChinuch makes an interesting comment on this week’s parasha that should cause us to reconsider this popular folk story. At least his comment should give us pause and reason to reassess the popular interpretation of this tale.

One of the mitzvot discussed in our parasha is the mikre bikkurim – the recitation accompanying the bringing of the first fruit. In order to discuss the mitzvah of mikre bekkurim, we must first review the mitzvah of bikkurim – the first fruit. This mitzvah only applies in the Land of Israel. We are required to bring the first fruit of each year’s crop – the bikkurim – to the Bait HaMikdash. The bikkurim are then given to the kohanim. The mitzvah of bikkurim does not apply to all crops. We are only required to give bikkurim from the seven species that are associated with fertility — the Land of Israel.

When the farmer brings the fruits, he is required to fulfill the mitzvah of mikre bikkurim. 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 this produce 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 bikkurim is that not every farmer who presents bikkurim is required or qualified to recite mikre bikkurim. For example, mikre bikkurim is only performed by males. [1] Why is the mitzvah limited to males? This limitation is based upon the above passage. The farmer states that the bikkurim 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 heirs 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 heirs 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 bikkurim? 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.[2]

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.[3] How is this law indicative of the importance of precision in our prayers?

As we have explained, only males may recite mikre bikkurim. 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 bikkurim 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 bikkurim can only be recited by a male, because the content of the recitation must be accurate. The person reciting mikre bikkurim 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 bikkurim – and all prayers – must be accurate and precise. In the case of mikre bikkurim, 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 bikkurim 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 bikkurim 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.[4]

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.[5]

Minchat Chinuch argues that it would seem reasonable that the phrase “before Hashem” used in reference to mikre bikkurim 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.

Let us consider this question more carefully. 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 bikkurim 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 bikkurim, the recitation must accompany the offering of the bikkurim. The bikkurim 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 not 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 preferable for it to be recited at this location?

Apparently, the phrase “before Hashem” sometimes implies an absolute positional element – as in the instance of mikre bikkurim. 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 admonished to reinforce the state of mind through a positional expression. The Torah provides a minimum requirement and a preferred expression. At a minimum we must place ourselves in the mental state of standing before Hashem. However, we are instructed that the preferred means of fulfilling the requirement is to reinforce this mental state through 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 Moshe ben Maimon (Rambam / Maimonides) Mishne Torah, Hilchot Bikkurim 4:2.

[2] Rabbaynu Moshe ben Maimon (Rambam / Maimonides) Mishne Torah, Hilchot Bikkurim 4:2.

[3] Rav Aharon HaLeyve, Sefer HaChinuch, Mitzvah 606.

[4] Rav Yosef Babad, Minchat Chinuch, Mitzvah 606, note 1.

[5] Rabbaynu Moshe ben Maimon (Rambam / Maimonides) Mishne Torah, Hilchot Ma’aser Sheyne 11:6.