One can imagine the pride that the farmer feels when - after all his hard work - the first fruits of the harvest appear. This pride can lead the farmer to feel that he is the master and owner of the land, as well as the source of its blessings. The Torah, however, has many mitzvos which remind the human being that "the earth and its fullness, the inhabited land and those who dwell in it belong to the Compassionate One" (Psalm 24:1). One of these mitzvos is the following Divine mandate which is addressed to the farmer:
"The choicest of the first fruits of your land you shall bring to the House of the Compassionate One, your God" (Exodus 23:19 - Translation of the Sforno).
The classical commentator, Rashi, cites the tradition that the fruits are to be brought from the seven vegetarian species for which the Land of Israel is praised, as it is written: "A Land of wheat, barley, grapes, figs, and pomegranates; a land of oil-producing olives and date honey" (Deuteronomy 8:8). In addition to bringing these first fruits, the farmer is required to recite a declaration of gratitude to the Compassionate One for this blessing. This declaration appears in the following Torah portion that we read this Shabbos:
"It will be when you enter the Land that the Compassionate One, your God gives you as an inheritance, and you possess it, and dwell in it, then you shall take of the choicest of every (first) fruit of the ground that you bring in from your Land that the Compassionate One, your God, gives you. And you shall put it in a basket and go to the place that the Compassionate One your God, will choose, to make His Name dwell there. You shall come to whomever will be the Kohen in those days, and you shall say to him, 'I declare today to the Compassionate One, your God, that I have come to the Land that the Compassionate One swore to our forefathers to give us.' The Kohen shall take the basket from your hand and lay it before the altar of the Compassionate One, your God." (Deuteronomy 26:1-4)
In the next part of the declaration, the farmer is to humbly remember how the Compassionate One redeemed us from oppression and slavery:
"Then you shall call out and say before the Compassionate One, your God: 'An Aramean would have destroyed my father, and he descended to Egypt and sojourned there, few in number, and there he became a nation - great, strong, and numerous. The Egyptians mistreated us and afflicted us and placed hard work upon us. Then we cried out to the Compassionate One, God of our ancestors, and the Compassionate One heard our voice and saw our travail, and our oppression. The Compassionate One took us out of Egypt with a strong hand and with an outstretched arm, with great awesomeness, and with signs and with wonders. He brought us to this place, and He gave us this land, a land flowing with milk and date-honey. And now, behold! I have brought the first fruit of the ground that You have given me, O Compassionate One!' " (26:5-10)
The following is a summary of the procedure for bringing the First Fruits to the Temple in Jerusalem:
The people of each regional district would spend the night in the public square of the town, and early in the morning, the leader would proclaim, "Arise, let us ascend to Zion, to the Compassionate One, our God" (Jeremiah 31:5). Those who came from areas near to Jerusalem would bring fresh figs and grapes (because they would not be spoiled on a short journey); those who came from areas far from Jerusalem would bring dried figs and raisins.
An ox went before them with its horns overlaid with gold, and a crown of olive leaves was upon its head. The flute was played before them until they approached Jerusalem. On the journey, they would chant, "I rejoiced when they said to me, 'Let us go to the House of the Compassionate One' " (Psalm 122:1).
When they came close to Jerusalem, they sent messengers before them, and they would decorate their first-fruits. The officials of the Temple then went forth to greet them. And all the craftsmen of Jerusalem would stand before them and inquire concerning their welfare. The craftsmen would say to the pilgrims, "Our brethren, from such-and-such a place, you have come to shalom!"
Within Jerusalem, the pilgrims would chant, "Our feet stood firm within your gates, O Jerusalem" (Psalm 122:2). The flute was played before them until they reached the Temple Mount.
Once they reached the Temple Courtyard, the Levites would sing (Psalm 30:2), "I will praise You, O Compassionate One, for You have raised me up, and You have not allowed my enemies to rejoice over me!" (This may be referring to their gratitude over the fact that the enemies of Israel did not attack the Land of Israel during this collective pilgrimage to the Temple.)
On the Temple Mount, Psalm 150 was also sung. This psalm describes how we praise God "with the blast of the shofar, with lyre and harp, with drum and dance, with organ and flute." And it concludes with the following universal proclamation: "Let all souls praise God, Hallelu-yah!"
(The above description is based on Mishnah Bikurim, Chapter 3, and the commentary of Maimonides to the Mishnah. Maimonides cites the Jerusalem Talmud on Bikurim 3:2.)
The season for bringing the first fruits begins on the Festival of Shavuos - the Festival when we commemorate the giving of the Torah to our united tribes. The pilgrimage to the Temple during this season reinforced our sense of unity. Imagine the moving experience of seeing many thousands of people from all the tribes entering Jerusalem with their baskets of first fruits, with the flutes playing, and being led by oxen with "crowns" of olive-leaves.
Our collective memory of this pilgrimage to Jerusalem is one of the reasons why our people have yearned for the rebuilding of our unifying Temple. In this spirit, we sing at the Shabbos table the following words:
"May the Temple be rebuilt; may the City of Zion be full of pilgrims; there we shall sing a new song, and with joyous singing ascend!" (Tzur MeShelo)
May we be blessed with the contentment, joy, light, and shalom of Shabbos.
Yosef Ben Shlomo Hakohen