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Shavuot, the Festival of the First Fruits
by Larry Fine
Today we refer to the holiday of Shavout as the holiday that commemorates the giving of the Torah at Mount Sinai. Back in the time of the Holy Temple it was celebrated as the harvest festival and as the day of bringing the first fruits to the Temple.
Remember that the Land of Israel during the time of the Temple was a mainly agricultural country. The twelve tribes that inherited the land divided it up into large parcels and each family worked their individual portion. Most people were farmers or at least had trees and some crops. Therefore the time of the harvest was a particularly happy time since it marked the beginning of the food stocks that would see them through the year.
No one is more dependent upon the 'natural' elements than the farmer was in ancient times. No one worked as hard as he did what with his first preparing the land by hand and with the aid of a animal powered plow. Then came the planting by hand and carefully watching that the crops grow properly. With all of the hard work that the farmer invested in the land he was not assured of a year of good crops. What was necessary was beyond his powers. The field needed to have the right combination of sunshine, heat and dew and most important, rain and without this combination, his entire year's toil could well be in vain. Too much heat and sunshine could spoil the crops; too little could produce inferior crops. Without rain fall in the winter, his fruit trees would not give their abundant crops. Irrigation by hand was difficult and back breaking.
There was not much that the farmer could do after all of his hard work to insure a good harvest except to pray to the good G-d that had given him his land that He bless the crops and give him a good harvest. Therefore when the harvest time finally did come and it was a good harvest, there was much rejoicing and thanksgiving. The Jewish farmer in his land, the Land of Israel, knew that everything that he had and worked so hard to earn was really a gift from the G-d of Israel, as we recite in our 'Shema' prayer, ...and it shall come to be, if you listen to my commandments ...then I will give you the rains in their season,
and you shall gather in your grain, your wine and your oil.
Harvest time in the ancient Land of Israel began shortly after the Passover holiday when the barley crop was harvested. A large measure of barley called an 'omer' was brought to the Holy Temple as a thanksgiving offering. Soon afterward, the other crops began to ripen and were harvested. The other crops and fruits that ripened were delayed until the holiday of Shavuot when they were brought as a offering in the holy temple. They are known in Hebrew as Bikurim, meaning the first fruits.
The Bikurim were brought only from the seven types of crops which the Torah praises the Land of Israel: wheat, barley, grapes, figs, pomegranates, olives and dates (Deut. 8:8). There is indeed an entire tractate of Mishnah with the name Bikurim that discusses the various aspects of the laws and obligations of the first fruits.
How did the Bikurim work?
When a farmer went into his field or orchard and saw for the first time a ripe fig, date or grape cluster, he would tie it with a reed and declare that these are his first fruits. Although he may have been tempted to eat or just taste it to see how tasty it was, he had to withhold this temptation and instead he would designate it as the first fruit, the bikurim. When the time came for the harvest he would take these first fruits, together with all of his choicest fruits, and put them in a decorative basket. He would then assemble with his neighbors at a nearby town and together they would march up to Jerusalem. As these 'pilgrims' began to approach Jerusalem, they were joined by many others who were coming from other directions until as they approached the gates of Jerusalem their numbers swelled to many thousands and as the numbers increased so did the rejoicing and happiness.
At the head of the procession was beautiful ox that was intended to be a peace offering. Its horns were covered with gold and a wreath of olive branches adorned its neck. A flute provided musical accompaniment as they came up to Jerusalem. As they approached the gates, the city heads and priests would come out to greet them. When they reached the gates of the Temple, even the king would come bringing a basket on his shoulder. The Levy's would sing a song (Psalms 30), I will exalt you, my G-d, for You have set me up and not give my enemies to triumph over me.
Each person would make a special declaration in the Temple:
and He has brought us to this place and given us this land, a land that flows with milk and honey. And now behold I have brought the first fruits of the land with You, my Lord, have given me.
After this declaration the farmer would leave his basket near the side of the altar and would prostrate himself down to G-d to express his thanks and subjugation and then leave to enjoy the holiday with his friends and family as it is stated in the Torah:
and you shall rejoice from all the goodness that the Lord, your G-d, has given you and your house; you, the Levy, and the stranger that is among you.
Today we do not have the Holy Temple and most Jews living in the Land of Israel do not individually posses their own land. We can no longer perform the mitzvot of bikurim as it was performed in ancient times. Yet we still can look up to G-d and beseech Him to help us with our daily life and to have mercy upon us, the descendents of those Jews who did live in the Land of Israel and give us back the Holy Temple under the wise direction of the righteous messiah.
from the April 2010 Edition of the Jewish Magazine
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