Hannah Pollak

Missing the point of Bikkurim

Children Participating in a Play at a Shavuot Celebration, Tel Aviv, 1970
Children Participating in a Play at a Shavuot Celebration, Tel Aviv, 1970, NLI 

I think that learning about how non-Orthodox Jewish movements observe the Jewish holidays – societally, ideologically and practically, is quite interesting and enlightening. Learning about what others do and think is instructive in terms of my self-definition and my affiliation with Torah-based Judaism. 

Before saying anything, I should note that my intention is not to disqualify individuals or to question their motives and practices. We assume that we are all sincerely looking for truth and to preserve our Jewish identity. Instead, from a theoretical standpoint, I would like to relate to ideas, not to those who follow them. 

Without getting into all the technicalities of the (ever-evolving) belief system of the Conservative movement, I remember being a bit confused last year when seeing a “shana tova” poster from a Conservative institution. On the one hand, this poster was assuming that Rosh Hashana corresponds to the New Year, something we only know because of the Oral Torah (Rosh Hashana 8a). Moreover, this poster was implying that Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur are days of judgment, another thing that is not spelled out in the Written Torah, but only transmitted orally (Mishnah Rosh Hashana 1:2). Lastly, and perhaps the “cherry on top,” was the shofar being featured. While indeed the Biblical text does say that Rosh Hashana is a “Day of Teruah” (Bamidbar 29:1), without an Oral Tradition we would never ever know that this means blowing a ram’s horn (Rosh Hashana 33b). Without an Oral Tradition, there would be infinite ways to speculate what “Teruah” means. (All of this goes without saying that the mere fact that non-Orthodox movements celebrate the chagim on the dates Orthodox Jews celebrate them, reflects an implicit belief in the Oral Torah and the Chazal as well. It is well-known that the establishment of the calendar and the yamim tovim stems from the authority G-d gave to human beings, to the Chachmei HaMesorah.) 

In any case, we will notice the opposite phenomenon when we consider how non-Orthodox movements have defined the celebration of Shavuos. If the themes and motives of the High Holidays are highly reliant on the Oral Torah, when it comes to the chag we celebrate on the sixth day of Sivan, Shavuos, non-Orthodox movements seem to only pay attention to what’s explicit Written Torah.  The Written Torah calls the day “Yom HaBikkurim,” the day when the new fruit was brought to the Temple (Bamidbar 28:26). The chag is also referred to as the “Chag HaKatzir” – within the agricultural cycle, Shavuos falls in the time of the harvest of the wheat and the fruit (Shemos 23:16, 34:22). 

The agricultural theme of Shavuos highlighted in the Torah Sheviksav fits well with the overall agenda and values of Modern Zionism and other non-Orthodox forms of Judaism. On the one hand, the mitzvah of Bikkurim highlights the beauty of the Land of Israel, since the Bikkurim were brought from the special seven species of the Land. Moreover, the value of making Israel an agricultural state was one of the aspirations of the early chalutzim. More generally, the notion of celebrating the harvest comes to highlight the value of human endeavor. While the Torah values and celebrates human input, it never divorces it from Divine assistance. More progressive forms of Judaism seem to put a much higher emphasis and significance on mere human protagonism, ignoring the G-d bestowing the blessing and life force in that effort. 

In any case, Jews who adhere to the Oral Mesorah have a more expansive concept of this day. For us, Shavuos is not only a day within the agricultural cycle when the fruits of the Land are enjoyed. According to the Oral Torah, Shavuos commemorates the day that changed World History forever, the day when the purpose of creation was fulfilled (see Rashi on Bereshis 1:31). We would say that the Text does say that Shavuos is the fiftieth day of the Omer counting, and thus it becomes obvious that the Shavuos overlap and the Matan Torah overlap (Devarim 16:10,11). Whether we say that the Torah was given on the sixth or seventh of the Third Month (Sivan), Shavuot and Kabbalas HaTorah coexist. And yet, in any case, if not for the Oral Tradition, this date proximity would seem to be coincidental. It “happens to be” the day the Torah was given was the same day as the Festival of the Harvest and the New Fruit.  

In any case, while we believe that Shavuos celebrates and makes us re-experience Kabbalas HaTorah, as we refer to the day as Zman Matan Toraseinu, I was thinking that it cannot be random this day inaugurates the mitzvah of Bikkurim. Furthermore, we know that if Hashem decided to write in the Torah that Shavuos is “Yom HaBikkurim,” there must be a deep insight into the essence of the day found in the mitzvah of Bikkurim. When thinking about this, a very simple, basic and intuitive idea that I have learned from different mentors came to mind. 

We will start with an idea in the Rambam. According to the Rambam, remembering the Exodus from Egypt every day is not one of the 613 mitzvos. This is somewhat perplexing because the obligation to remember Yetzias Mitzrayim every day is undisputed (Mishnah Berachos 1:5). In any case, at the same time, the Rambam paskens, unlike many other Rishonim, that on a Torah level, Kriyas Shema is fulfilled by reading all the three paragraphs: “Shema”, “V’haya im shamo’a” and “Vayomer” (Hilchos Kriyas Shema 1:2). This is surprising because the third paragraph is associated with the remembrance of the Exodus, while the mitzvah of reciting Shema is about accepting upon ourselves the yoke of Heaven. Rav Schachter explains the Rambam by saying that Yetzias Mitzrayim is what bounds us to accept and keep the Torah. The fact that our forefathers witnessed the Exodus and some weeks later the Divine revelation at Sinai, obligated them to accept the Torah. By extension, all their descendants, who heard the story generation after generation uninterruptedly, would also be obligated to keep Torah and mitzvos. We would say that remembering Yetzias Mitzrayim is a daily obligation according to the Rambam, even though he will not count it as one of the 613, since it is subsumed by the obligation of Kriyas Shema/accepting upon oneself the yoke of Heaven. 

From this idea in the Rambam, we learn that remembering when Hashem took us out of Egypt naturally leads to commitment to Hashem and His Torah. This is not a chiddush of the Rambam at all. This third paragraph itself ends with the words, “I am Hashem your G-d, who took you out of Egypt to be for you a G-d” (Bamidbar 15:41). In the beracha that follows Kriyas Shema at night, this same thesis is stated. We mention that Hashem gave the nation freedom and destroyed their oppressors and therefore, “His sovereignty they willingly accepted.” Even when the Hebrews were enslaved in Egypt, their eventual liberation was contingent upon submission to G-d at Har Sinai (see Shemos 3:12). 

With this in mind, we can come back to the mitzvah of Bikkurim. The mitzvah of Bikkurim was not simply bringing the new fruit and giving it to the kohen. The Torah dictates that a paragraph (called “Mikrah Bikkurim,” the same section Chazal said we should read as the Haggada) has to be recited when one brings these fruits. What is this paragraph? This paragraph is a crash course in Jewish history and the religious implications it entails (Devarim 26:1-11, translation from the Koren Jerusalem Bible): 

And it shall be, when thou art come in to the land which the Lord thy God gives thee for an inheritance, and dost possess it and dost dwelt therein: that thou shalt take of the first of all the fruit of the earth, which thou shalt bring of thy land that the Lord thy God gives thee, and shalt put it in a basket, and shalt go to the place which the Lord thy God shall choose to place his name there … And thou shalt speak and say before the Lord thy God, An Arammian nomad was my father, and he went down to Miżrayim, and sojourned there with a few, and became there a nation, great, mighty, and populous: and the Miżrim dealt ill with us, and afflicted us, and laid upon us hard bondage: and when we cried to the Lord God of our fathers, the Lord heard our voice, and looked on our affliction, and our labour, and our oppression: and the Lord brought us out of Miżrayim with a mighty hand, and with an outstretched arm, and with great terribleness, and with signs, and with wonders: and he brought us to this place, and gave us this land, a land flowing with milk and honey. And now, behold, I have brought the firstfruits of the land, which thou, O Lord, hast given me. And thou shalt set it before the Lord thy God, and worship before the Lord thy God: and thou shalt rejoice in every good thing which the Lord thy God has given thee, and thy house, thou, and the Levite, and the stranger that is among you.

The connection between Shavuos as Zman Matan Toraseinu and Yom HaBikkurim is obvious. The essence of Bikkurim is to remind a person of all the loving-kindness Hashem has done for him or her, both as part of the chosen nation and as an individual farmer; both in the past and in the present. Bikkurim comes to remind the person of the relationship that started with Yetzias Mitzrayim, but only got deeper and deeper as life progressed. This memory is not simply anecdotal. This memory, ought to translate into genuine gratitude. This gratitude ought to translate into a sense of indebtedness and genuine commitment. And thus, isn’t just obvious that the day we received the Torah is the day we thank G-d for redeeming our forefathers from the hell of Egypt, for bringing us to the Land of Israel, for the agricultural success, etc.? The mitzvah and the message of Bikkurim are a way to strengthen our commitment to Hashem and His Torah. 

Celebrating Shavuos as a purely agricultural chag is the highest form of perikas ol, freeing oneself from the Divine will. Some thought that they could get rid of the religious nature of Shavuos by only focusing on what the Written Torah has to say. But even so, the Torah screams and yells kabbalas ol, acceptance of the Divine will. Yom HaBikkurim is the Zman of Matan Torah; there is no other way. 

About the Author
Hannah Pollak is a college student pursuing a career in Jewish education. She was born and raised in Chile, South America. Today, she lives in New York, where she is learning Torah and getting a degree at Stern College for Women.
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