Firstfruits: Giving Women a Voice

The bikkurim (firstfruits) open this week’s Torah portion, as landowners are commanded to bring the premiere of their yield to the altar and make a declaration recognizing the long journey from “My father was a wandering Aramean” to the Promised Land (Deuteronomy 26:5-9). In fact, we all expound these verses (at least the first four) at the Passover Seder. (Haggada is the term for both recountings.) But whose mitzva is it? The Midrash (Mekhilta Exodus 23:19) expounds the verses in our passage thusly:

Which the LORD swore to our fathers” excludes gerim and [freed] slaves. “To give to us” excludes women, the intersex and the androgynous. The implication is that they are excluded from bringing and excluded from reading, but the verse says “You shall bring” [including all]. So what is the difference between these and those? These [native-born freemen] bring and read, while those bring but do not read.

Everyone who has produce, the Mekhilta makes clear, fulfills the mitzva of bringing bikkurim; the limitation to the traditional landowning class (freeborn male Israelites) only applies to the declaration.

However, over the course of the generations, the mitzva evolves. Consider the priests and Levites, who do not receive territory, but only cities scattered throughout the land. Nevertheless, in the Tosefta (Bikkurim 1:4), Rabbi Jose says that although his colleague would exclude members of the thirteenth tribe, he includes priests, Levites and Israelites equally in this mitzva.

Gerim — sojourners in Scripture, converts in rabbinic literature — also overcome their exclusion, as the Jerusalem Talmud (Bikkurim 1:4) explains:

It has been taught in the name of Rabbi Judah: “The convert himself may bring and read. What is the reason? ‘You shall be the father of a multitude of nations (Genesis 17:4)’ — in the past you were the father of Aramea, but now, henceforth, you are the father of all nations.”

But what about women? Their exclusion from landownership, after all, has a famous caveat, as stated in Num. 27: daughters inherit when they have no brothers. This would seem to indicate that they are included in the command “To these you shall apportion the land” (Nahmanides ibid. 26:46 says this explicitly), and such an heiress could certainly say: “The LORD swore to our fathers to give to us.”

Indeed, when one sage in the Jerusalem Talmud (ibid.) questions how a person whose father is not biologically Jewish makes the bikkurim declaration, “Does he not mean Abraham, Isaac and Jacob [when saying “The Lord swore to our fathers”]? Were Abraham, Isaac and Jacob their fathers? The Holy One, blessed be He, swore only to males!” the laconic response is “Perhaps to females.”

The clearest indication is the teaching of the Talmud (Gittin 47b): “‘And to your house’ — this teaches us that a man brings the firstfruits of his wife and recites.” 14th-century French Talmudist Rabbenu Crescas explains:

This case is different, as it says “And to your house.” This is no mere allusion, but a biblical decree. Even though the husband possesses no land of his own, his wife is like his body.

Five centuries later, Tiferet Yaakov sharpens the point:

By Torah law, the husband has no right to the fruits [of the land she brings into the marriage], but it is solely a biblical decree: a woman does not recite, and an agent does not recite, but a husband bringing his wife’s first fruits may bring and recite, as he could have a portion in the land and may bring and recite on his wife’s behalf with the status of an agent, because his wife is like his body, and it is as if she were reciting. On the contrary, in his view the language is quite precise: “This teaches us that a man brings the firstfruits of his wife.”

Facing a culture unused to a woman’s voice in public, the rabbis deputize her husband to be her mouthpiece–an elegant solution, despite the hermeneutical gymnastics it requires.

This is just one example of the true breadth of expounding and expanding the Torah: a millennia-long journey to widen the circle and hear the voices of all segments of society.

For more sources, see my parallel article at TheTorah.com, Between Bringing and Reciting: How the Rabbis Made Bikkurim More Inclusive.

About the Author
Yoseif Bloch is a rabbi who has taught at Yeshivat HaKotel, Yeshivat Har Etzion and Yeshivat Shvilei Hatorah and served as a congregational rabbi in Canada. He currently works as an editor, translator and publisher. As a blogger and podcaster, he is known as Rabbi Joe in Jerusalem.
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