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Parshat Ki Tavo: Mikra Bikkurim

Elul 5783 | August 2023


Action or speech

We tend to differentiate between positive mitzvot that are mainly verbal – such as Birkat HaMazon (Grace After Meals), prayer, and keriyat Shema – and those that are mainly action – like giving tzedaka (charity), building a railing around a roof, or arba’at haminim (taking the four species on Sukkot). A blessing was added before some of these “action” mitzvot, to give thanks we were given the opportunity to perform these mitzvot.[1]

A few mitzvot that relate to civil law have elements of both speech and action. Along with the legal act of removing the shoe for chalitza (that releases a widow from the ties of an impending levirate marriage), the brother-in-law’s household is declared “Beit Chalutz ha’Na’al.” The legal act of kiddushin (marriage) is combined with a statement like “Harei at mekudeshet li…” “You are consecrated to me…”. In these cases there are acts that are necessary elements of the mitzvah, but the statements are also essential parts of the legal process.

Mikra Bikkurim – The Declaration of the First Fruits

The mitzvah of bikkurim (bringing first fruits to the Kohen in the Temple) in our parsha is unique. It is a mitzvah that incorporates action and speech. The first mention of the mitzvah is in Sefer Shemot; we’re commanded to bring the first of the fruits to the House of God.[2] Later in Sefer Devarim we’re commanded to recite Mikra Bikkurim, the Declaration on Bikkurim, when we bring the fruits to the Temple.[3]

There are several other mitzvot that involve bringing our possessions to God or God’s representatives: teruma is given to the Kohen, maaser rishon to the Levite, bekhorei beheima (firstborn of certain animals) are sacrificed or brought to the Kohen. These mitzvot and those like them may involve stating which part of the produce or item has been separated, but the Torah does not command us to recite a specific text along with the action. Yet at a specific point in the middle of the mitzvah act of bringing the first fruits the Torah commands us to recite the specific text of Mikra Bikkurim.

Even though Mikra Bikkurim is recited at the time one brings bikkurim, the mishna states that they are two separate mitzvot; in some cases a person brings bikkurim without reciting Mikra Bikkurim.[4]

There are circumstances when people do not bring bikkurim at all, such as if they grow fruit on land that does not belong to them, or the fruits are not from the seven species (the Torah lists as the fruits of the land of Israel), or if the fruit grew in a place that wasn’t suitable for its type.[5]

There are other times when one brings bikkurim but does not recite Mikra Bikkurim. This happens when parts of the declaration do not apply to the person bringing the bikkurim: “My father was a wandering Aramean (alt. an Aramean tried to destroy my father) and he descended to Egypt and dwelled there, few in number… And the Lord took us out of Egypt with a mighty hand and outstretched arm… and brought us to this place and gave us this land… Now I have brought the first of the fruits of the land You, the Lord, gave me.”

These words tell the story of the Jewish people; God gave the Israelites the land that grew the fruits to fulfill a covenant with our forefathers. The mishna teaches that converts – who can’t state that they have come “to the land that God promised to our fathers,” and women – who do not generally have their own official portions – do not recite the declaration.[6] Similarly, a man who brings bikkurim on another’s behalf doesn’t recite it as he can’t say, “the first fruits of the land You, the Lord, gave me.”[7]

Although not mentioned in Tractate Bikkurim, there is also a situation where we “read but do not bring” – on the seder night. Along with the mitzvot of eating and discussing the Paschal offering, matzah, and maror, to fulfill the mitzvah of telling the story of the exodus we read the verses of Mikra Bikkurim and expound upon them. We begin with “Arami oved avi,” “My father was a wandering Aramean,” and continue until, but not including, the final section from “and He brought us to this place.” This mitzvah focuses on speech, telling, as if we are “reading but not bringing” – reading the text without the act of bringing bikkurim.

Action and speech

Why does the mitzvah of bikkurim specifically have these two aspects, action accompanied by speech?

According to the author of Sefer HaChinuch the speech is essential to internalizing the idea of bikkurim – that everything we have comes from God. According to Rambam, telling the story of all the favors God does for us draws from that blessing onto the rest of our produce; when we give the first of the fruits our gratitude for the little we have already received also serves as a prayer for the future. Similar to the communal Omer offering – the first of the barley crop – and the Two Loaves – from the first of the wheat crop – there’s also a request for the success of the upcoming harvest.[8]

Additionally, by combining the act of bringing the fruit with the speech, the pilgrim is able to show that his gratitude is for more than the fruit, it is for the land that grows the fruit as well. This is also the reason the fruits are brought in their natural form, unprocessed, as this state focuses on the land that God gave us and not on the individual effort involved.[9] We declare that we are grateful for the historical process God designed to give us this land, and we do not take any of it for granted.[10]

At present we are not obligated to bring bikkurim or recite Mikra Bikkurim; the mitzvah is specifically observed in the land of Israel when there is a Beit HaMikdash. Yet our Jewish tradition has found a way to “declare without bringing” (on the seder night), so that in each and every generation we remember the exodus from Egypt. May we speedily merit to recite the full declaration and show our gratitude for the good land God has given the Jewish people.

[1] The Talmud Yerushalmi (Berakhot 7:1) compares birkat hamitzvot (the blessings recited before mitzvot) to birkot haTorah (the blessings recited before reading or learning Torah). Among other sources, the Talmud derives the obligation to recite a blessing from the verse “For he shall bless the sacrifice, and afterward those called will eat.” (Shmuel I 9:13)

[2] Shemot 23:19; 34:26.

[3] Devarim 26:1-11. The mitzvah of Vidui Ma’asrot follows the section of Mikra Bikkurim. Vidui Ma’asrot is related to  the act of giving ma’aser (tithes) but is not done at the same time. Vidui ma’asrot is recited at the end of the ma’aser period as a type of checklist to make sure that all the ma’aser was given on time. Mikra Bikkurim is recruited at the same time.

[4] Mishna Bikkurim Chapter 1. Rambam counts these as two separate mitzvot. Mitzvah 132 is Mikra Bikkurim and 125 is the mitzvah to bring bikkurim. Sefer HaChinukh, based on Rambam’s count of mitzvot but organized by parsha, counts bringing bikkurim in Mitzvah 91 – where he mentions Mikra Bikkurim – and Mikra Bikkurim in Mitzvah 606.

[5] Mishna Bikkurim 1:1-3; Rambam Hilkhot Bikkurim.

[6] Mishna Bikkurim Chapter 1 4-6 and Bartenura’s commentary. According to Rambam a convert recites Mikra Bikkurim because Avraham is considered “Av hamon goyyim” “the father of many nations.” (Rambam Hilkhot Bikkurim 4:2.

[7] Additionally, one does not recite Mikra Bikkurim if other parts of the text do not apply, such as when his fruits were not grown on his land. For example, one brings bikkurim but does not recite the declaration when he’s unsure if the land is his, has sold the land before bringing the designated fruit, or if the misplaced the original fruit designated as bikkurim and replaced it. There’s also some discussion about whether a person who bought land that will return to its original owner at the Jubilee year is considered the land’s owner. See Rambam 4:7 based on Tb Gittin 48b.

[8] Rabbi Akiva also explains the idea that “the world is judged at four points during the year” (also in Mishna Rosh HaShana 1:2) in the Tosefta on Rosh HaShana (1:11),

[9] Sifrei Devarim 297 explicitly states that the fruits must be unprocessed. The mishna in Terumot (11:3) indicates that one may bring wine and olive oil. See Rambam Hilkhot Bikkurim 2:4 and the commentary of Kesef Mishna.

[10] See Rav Elchanan Samet, Iyunim l’Parshat HaShavua, first edition, pg 364-382.

Rabbanit Dr. Adina Sternberg

was in the first cohort of the Matan Kitvuni Fellowship program and her book is in the publication process. She has a B.A. in Bible from Hebrew University and a M.A. and Ph.D. in Talmud from Bar Ilan University. Adina studied in Midreshet Lindenbaum, Migdal Oz, Havruta and the Advanced Talmud Institute in Matan. She currently teaches Bible and Talmud at Matan, and at Efrata and Orot colleges. Adina lives in Adam (Geva Binyamin) with her family.