Parshat Ki Tavo: First Fruits

“And it will be, when you come into the land which Hashem your G-d gives you for an inheritance, and possess it, and dwell therein. And you shall take of the first of all the fruit of the ground, which you will bring in from your land that Hashem your G-d gives you. And you shall put it in a basket and go to the place which Hashem your G-d will choose to cause His name to dwell there. And you shall come to the kohen that will be in those days, and say to him: I profess this day to Hashem your G-d, that I have come to the land which Hashem swore unto our fathers to give us. And the kohen shall take the basket out of your hand, and set it down before the altar of Hashem your G-d. And you shall speak and say before Hashem your G-d: A wandering Aramean was my father, and he went down into Egypt, and sojourned there, few in number; and he became there a nation, great, mighty, and populous. And the Egyptians dealt ill with us, and afflicted us, and laid upon us hard bondage. And we cried to Hashem, the G-d of our fathers, and Hashem heard our voice, and saw our affliction, and our toil, and our oppression. And Hashem brought us forth out of Egypt with a mighty hand, and with an outstretched arm, and with great terribleness, and with signs, and with wonders. And He brought us into this place, and has given us this land, a land flowing with milk and honey.” (Devarim 26:1-8)

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 bikkurim, 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.

Why is this recitation required? Sefer HaChinuch responds that mitzvah is based upon an important principle that underlies many mitzvot in the Torah. The Torah requires that we accept specific truths. For example, we must recognize that Hashem is the creator. We must recognize that He exercises providence over Bnai Yisrael. However, it is not sufficient that we merely accept that these ideas are true. We must incorporate these ideas into our actual world-view and everyday thinking. We must live by these ideas.

In order to understand the significance of this principle, it is important to recognize that we do not always live by the ideas that we know to be true. A smoker knows that his habit endangers his health and wellbeing. He does not deny that this is true. However, his challenge is translating this knowledge into action. His trial is to live by his knowledge. This may seem like an extreme example. But we can all identify areas in our lives in which we experience this dichotomy between our knowledge and our actions. Life would be much easier if we could easily do all of the things we know are correct and reasonable. In our own individual ways, we all struggle with this challenge. According to Sefer HaChinuch, the Torah is not only interested in teaching us the truth. It is also concerned with assisting us in meeting the challenge of living by these truths.

This principle provides a solution to a well-known discrepancy in the writings of Maimonides. The first mitzvah of the Decalogue is conviction in the existence of Hashem. In his Mishne Torah, Maimonides defines the commandment as an obligation to know that there is a G-d who is the cause of all that exists.

Maimonides also discusses this commandment in his Sefer HaMitzvot. Maimonides wrote this work in Arabic. The standard translation of the Sefer HaMitzvot was composed by Moshe ibn Tibon. The first mitzvah in Sefer HaMitzvot is affirmation of Hashem. In Ibn Tibon’s translation, the mitzvah obligates us to believe in the existence of a G-d that is the cause of all that exists. Why does Maimonides here describe the mitzvah as a requirement to believe in Hashem but in is Mishne Torah he tells us we are commanded to know He exists?

There are numerous approaches to understanding Maimonides’ differing formulations of this mitzvah. However, one simple explanation is that the two formulations are simply dealing with different issues. In his Mishne Torah, Maimonides is explaining the substance of the required conviction. His objective is to precisely outline the truth that we are required to accept. In his Sefer HaMitzvot, Maimonides is describing the relationship we must have with this idea. It is not adequate to know that Hashem exists. We must achieve a stronger relationship with this truth. We must believe in this truth. Believing a truth is to wholly and unequivocally accept it. In other words, we do not fulfill this mitzvah by merely accepting Hashem’s existence as an abstract truth. This truth must be the fundamental to our world-view. We fulfill the mitzvah through achieving complete conviction.[1]

Sefer HaChinuch explains that the mitzvah of mikre bikkurim is an example of one of the many mitzvot designed to translate ideas into meaningful convictions. How does the Torah assist us is meeting this challenge? Sefer HaChinuch explains that there is a reciprocal relationship between our thoughts and our actions. We all recognize that our thoughts and convictions influence our actions. Sefer HaChinuch points out that our actions influence our thoughts and convictions. If we wish to transform and idea into a meaningful and moving conviction, we must express the idea through actions. By acting on an idea we know to be a truth, we strengthen our conviction in this truth.

Sefer HaChinuch applies this principle to mikre bikkurim. Through the process of bringing the first fruit to Yerushalayim and reciting mikre bikkurim, we strengthen our conviction in Hashem’s providence and benevolence. Through expressing these ideas in words and actions, we reinforce our conviction in the truth of these ideas.[2]

Don Yitzchak Abravanel offers a slightly different explanation of the mitzvah of mikre bikkurim. He suggests that mikre bikkurim is designed to address a basic human fault. When we are confronted with troubles, experience suffering, or pain, we recognize our inadequacies and frailty. In such situations we feel compelled to turn to a more powerful being for assistance. We call out to Hashem and beg for His deliverance. But when we are successful and we achieve wealth and comfort, we easily forget Hashem and attribute our successes to our own wisdom, ability and efforts. It is especially at such times that we must remind ourselves that all of our bounty is ultimately derived from Hashem’s benevolence and that our efforts cannot succeed without His support.

Abravanel explains that the harvest time presents a challenge. As we gather our crops and admire the bounty that our efforts have produced, we may forget that this bounty is a result of the blessings that Hashem bestows upon the Land of Israel. The mitzvah of mikre bikkurim is designed to remind us of the true source of our success. We are required to acknowledge Hashem’s role – His providence and benevolence.[3]

It is notable that Sefer HaChinuch and Abravanel agree that this mitzvah is designed to foster within us a proper and realistic attitude. Sefer HaChinuch suggests that many truths must be reinforced in order to become strong convictions. Mikre bikkurim is designed to provide such reinforcement. Abravanel agrees that the mitzvah is designed to strengthen our convictions, but he explains that the mitzvah addresses a basic human failing. We tend to take too much credit for our successes and to forget the role of Hashem.

Maimonides accepts this interpretation. However, he adds a subtle point. He explains that the mitzvah is also designed to foster proper character development. Personal humility is an important character trait. It is fundamental to human perfection. Our success can impair our sense of humility. Mikre bikkurim reminds us that our successful harvest is an expression of Hashem’s blessings and benevolence. This helps us retain our sense of humility.[4]

[1] A similar interpretation is developed by Rav Yosef Dov Soloveitchik Zt”l (Al HaTeshuvah pp. 195-198). However, Rav Soloveitchik argues that Maimonides’ formulation is his Mishne Torah reflects the requirement to achieve constant and uncompromised conviction whereas his formulation in his Sefer HaMitzvot is less rigorous.

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

[3] Don Yitzchak Abravanel, Commentary on Sefer Devarim 26.

[4] Rabbaynu Moshe ben Maimon (Rambam / Maimonides) Moreh Nevuchim, volume 3, chapter 39.

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