Say “Thank You”

And it shall be, when you come into the land which Hashem your G-d gives you as an inheritance, and possess it, and 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 Hashem your G-d gives you. And you shall put it in a basket and go unto the place which Hashem your G-d shall choose to cause His name to dwell there. (Devarim 26:1-2)

1. Bikurim and cooking meat in milk
Parsaht Ki Tavo opens with a discussion of the mitzvah of Bikurim. This mitzvah requires that the first fruits of each year be brought to the Bait HaMikdash – the Holy Temple. The Bikurim are then given to the kohanim – the priests – for their consumption. The mitzvah of Bikurim does not apply to all crops. We are required to give Bikurim only from the seven species that are associated with the Land of Israel. The Land is considered blessed with these fruits and grains. The mitzvah of Bikurim is introduced in Sefer Shemot. The context in which the mitzvah is discussed is notable. In the passages preceding the discussion of Bikurim, the Torah outlines the three Pilgrimage Festivals – Pescah, Shavuot, and Sukkot. This is followed by the mitzvah of Bikurim. However, the very same passage that contains the mitzvah of Bikurim also outlines the prohibition against cooking together meat and milk. This implies a close relationship between Bikurim and the prohibition against cooking meat with milk. What is this connection? A clearer understanding of the mitzvah of Bikurim is helpful in understanding this issue.

And you shall come unto the priest that shall be in those days, and say unto him: I profess this day unto Hashem your G-d, that I have come unto the land which Hashem swore unto our fathers to give us. And the priest shall take the basket out of your hand, and set it down before the altar of Hashem you G-d. And you shall speak and say before Hashem your G-d: A wandering Aramean was my father, and he went down to Egypt, and sojourned there, few in number. And he became there a nation, great, mighty, and populous. (Devarim 26:3-5)

2. The narrative for Bikurim reveals its nature
According to Maimonides, there are two mitzvot regarding the Bikurim. The first is to bring Bikurim to the Bait HaMikdash.[1] The second is Mikre Bikurim.[2] 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.

The narrative of Mikre Bikurim reveals the nature of the mitzvah of Bikurim. The Bikurim are given to the kohanim for their consumption. However, the mitzvah is not merely a tax placed upon the farmers in order to support the kohanim. Bringing and offering Bikurim is an expression of thanksgiving. Through offering the first fruits in the Bait HaMikdash, the farmer acknowledges that the bounty of the harvest is an expression of Hashem’s providence.

And you shall rejoice in all the good which Hashem your G-d has given to you, and to your house, you, and the Levite, and the stranger that is in your midst. (Devarim 26:11)

3. Bikurim and Regalim – a shared theme
Understanding the mitzvah of Bikurim explains the Torah’s association of Bikurim with the Regalim – the Pilgrimage Festivals. This relationship can be understood on two levels. Rashi comments on the above passage that Mikre Bikurim is only recited when the Bikurim are brought during the season of rejoicing. He explains that the season of rejoicing is from Shavuot to Sukkot. After Sukkot the Bikurim may still be brought but Mikre Bikurim is not recited.[3]

Why is the period between Shavuot and Sukkot the season of rejoicing? Shavuot occurs at the opening of the wheat harvest. Sukkot coincides with the close of the harvest season. By Sukkot the harvest has been collected and placed in storage before the beginning of the rainy season. It is in the season between Shavuot and Sukkot that the farmer most rejoices over the bounty of the harvest.

Three times you shall observe a feast unto Me in the year. The feast of unleavened bread you shall keep. Seven days you shall eat unleavened bread, as I commanded you, at the time appointed in the month Aviv – for in it you came out from Egypt. And none shall appear before Me empty; and the feast of harvest, the first-fruits of your labors, which you sowed in the field; and the feast of ingathering, at the end of the year, when you gather in your labors out of the field. Three times in the year all your males shall appear before the L-rd G-D. (Shemot 23:14-17)

4. The Regalim as harvest festivals
The passages above from Sefer Shemot precede the Torah’s commandment to offer Bikurim. These passages describe the three Regalim and the obligation to appear at the Bait HaMikdash during these festivals. In its treatment of Pesach, the Torah does note that the time of its celebration corresponds with the time of the redemption from Egypt. However, Shavuot and Sukkot are not associated, in these passages, with historical events. Instead, both are referred to as harvest festivals. Shavuot is described as the feast of the harvest of the first fruits and Sukkot is described as the festival of the in-gathering of the harvest. Even Pesach is associated with the harvest. It is observed in the month of Aviv. Rashi explains that the term aviv means that the grain is fully developed and approaching the time for harvest. [4]

In summary, although all of the Regalim are associated with important events in the history of Bnai Yisrael, they are also harvest festivals. They are occasions during which we are commanded to give thanks to Hashem for the bounty of the harvest. The association of Bikurim with the Regalim is not only because Mikre Bikurim can only be recited during the season from Shavuot to Sukkot. Bikurim and the Regalim are also associated through their shared objective. The Regalim and Bikurim are vehicles through which we offer thanksgiving to Hashem.

The choicest first-fruits of your land you shall bring into the house of Hashem your G-d. You shall not cook a kid in its mother’s milk. (Shemot 23:19)

5. The prohibition against cooking meat in milk
The above passage follows the discussion of the Regalim and presents the commandment of Bikurim. The second half of the passage prohibits cooking a kid in its mother’s milk. The Oral Tradition explains that this is a general prohibition against cooking meat in milk. The placement of this prohibition in the same passage that presents the mitzvah of Bikurim requires explanation. The commentators suggest a few alternative explanations. However, one of the most interesting is provided by Rabbaynu Ovadia Sforno. Sforno suggests that, in a restricted sense, the passage is to be understood literally. It refers to cooking specifically a kid in its mother’s milk. He explains that in antiquity this was a ritual among the pagans. They believed that through cooking a kid in the milk of its mother, they would secure the benevolence of the spirits and secure a bountiful harvest.[5] From Sforno’s perspective, the Torah does prohibit cooking any meat in milk. However the prohibition is aimed at discouraging a specific heathen practice – cooking a kid in its mother’s milk.

According to Sforno, the message of the passage is that an abundant harvest is not secured through engaging in these primitive rituals. It is secured through the celebration of the Regalim and through offering Bikurim. These activities are means through which we offer thanksgiving to Hashem. Through offering thanksgiving and acknowledging that our prosperity is a blessing bestowed by Hashem, we aspire to secure His continued blessings. [6]

6. To acknowledge Hashem we must learn to acknowledge one another
The fundamental message of the Regalim, Bikurim and Mikre Bikurim is that we can only expect to secure Hashem’s blessings through realizing that our prosperity and happiness are a result of His blessings. How do we maintain this awareness of Hashem’s role in our lives? How can we train or condition ourselves to be more cognizant of His blessings?

Rabbaynu Bachya ibn Paquda identifies three obstacles that one must overcome in order to feel a sense of appreciation for Hashem’s blessings. First, the person must not disregard the blessings in one’s life because of the needs or aspirations that have not been met. We commonly fail to appreciate our blessings because we are focused on the elements that we feel are lacking in our lives. Second, we tend to take our blessings for granted. We become accustomed to the comfort of our homes, the abundance of food on our tables, our safety and security. We take all of these wonderful blessings for granted – or worse – feel entitled to them. Third, we cannot appreciate our blessings because they are mixed with elements of sorrow and tragedy. No one lives a completely blessed life. We all are confronted with challenges and even tragedy. Sometimes, the negative elements of our lives become the focus of our attention and we have no effective cognizance of the blessings in our lives.[7]

Bachya discusses extensively the means by which we can overcome these obstacles. However, there is one simple, powerful step that we must take that will cultivate in us a greater appreciation of Hashem’s blessings. We must be more mindful of the kindnesses done to us by other human beings and express gratitude to those who benefit us. Bachya treats the obligation to acknowledge Hashem’s kindness as a self-evident ethical imperative.[8] If this is true, then it also extends to acknowledging kindnesses performed by human beings from which we benefit. Furthermore, if we are not able to acknowledge the concrete and perceivable benefits that are bestowed upon us through the efforts of others, then what chance do we have of appreciating Hashem? He is invisible to our senses. Awareness of His presence in our lives is not as easily cultivated and nurtured.

Specific commandments of the Torah express this message. The Torah directs us to honor our parents, and our teachers. The message in these commandments is not just that these individuals should be acknowledged for the lives that they have given to us. Rather, we must understand that these commandments are intimately linked to achieving an appreciation of Hashem, whose benevolence may not be as evident to us. We learn to be more appreciative of the blessings bestowed by Hashem, through acknowledging the benefits we receive from our fellow human beings.

1. Rabbaynu Moshe ben Maimon (Rambam / Maimonides) Sefer HaMitzvot, Mitzvat Aseh 125.
2. Rabbaynu Moshe ben Maimon (Rambam / Maimonides) Sefer HaMitzvot, Mitzvat Aseh 132.
3. Rabbaynu Shlomo ben Yitzchak (Rashi), Commentary on Sefer Devarim 26:11.
4. Rabbaynu Shlomo ben Yitzchak (Rashi), Commentary on Sefer Shemot 23:15.
5. Rabbaynu Ovadia Sforno, Commentary on Sefer Shemot, 23:19.
6. Rabbaynu Ovadia Sforno, Commentary on Sefer Shemot, 23:19.
7. Rabbaynu Bachya ibn Paquda, Chovot HaLevavot (Feldheim, 1970), pp 125-128.
8. Rabbaynu Bachya ibn Paquda, Chovot HaLevavot (Feldheim, 1970), pp 125-131.