The Essential Nature of Bikurim

  • Rav Moshe Taragin

Even though Shavu'ot is known to us as Zeman Matan Torateinu - the day on which we received the Torah, this aspect is omitted in the Biblical description of the Yom Tov. Most of the mitzvot which the Torah actually prescribes for Shavu'ot are communal mitzvot relating to the various korbanot (Shtei ha-lechem, shnei ha-kevasim - see last year's Shavu'ot methodology article detailing this mitzva: and of course the generic Yom Tov mitzvot of aliya le-regel, mitzvat simcha, and korbanot chagiga. There is one specific individual mitzva which begins on Shavu'ot and is alluded to by the pasuk. The Torah describes Shavu'ot as "chag ha-katzir BIKUREI ma'asekha (the festival of harvest of the first and best fruits); from this description the gemara assigns Shavu'ot as the period in which bikurim may first be brought to the Mikdash. This shiur will investigate the essential nature of bikurim and particularly its relationship to the world of korbanot.


     On first glance we might easily associate bikurim with the world of matanot kehuna. As teruma and ma'aser it is composed of agricultural produce, selected through a process known as 'hafrasha,' can only be eaten by the Kohanim, and lastly, permits the eating of the remainder of the produce. In fact both the mishnayot and the Rambam insert the laws of Bikurim in the sections dealing with Zera'im containing the laws of teruma, ma'aser, etc. If anything, bikurim seems very similar to ma'aser sheni (1/10 of produce separated each year #1,2,4,5 of the shemitta cycle and transported to Yerushalayim). The second perek of Bikurim details the respective similarities between bikurim and teruma on the one hand and between bikurim and ma'aser sheni on the other, corroborating our suspicion that indeed bikurim is comparable to matanot given from agricultural produce.


     Amidst this list of similarities to teruma and ma'aser sheni, the mishnayot list several UNIQUE traits of bikurim which neither teruma nor ma'aser sheni possess:


1) Unlike the others, bikurim can be designated (and according to the simple reading of the mishna should be designated) - while the fruits are still growing on the trees or from the ground. Indeed the mishna (3:1) cites the opinion of Rebbi Shimon that a second selection should be performed upon harvesting. However most Rishonim rule against Rebbi Shimon and according to the Tanah Kama who sufficed with a designation of fruits still growing. Teruma and ma'aser MUST be designated after the fruits have been harvested and partially processed.


2) If a person selects bikurim and they are stolen or lost, he must replace them, unlike terumot and ma'aser which if lost do not have to be replaced.


3) Bikurim are offered along with a korban shelamim - something absent from teruma or ma'aser.


4) The Levi'im would sing 'shir' while the bikurim were offered (see Bikurim 3:4).


5) The owner and the Kohen performed 'tenufa ' - the ceremony of lifting and waiving - with bikurim. See the gemara in Makkot which derives the mitzva of tenufa from a linguistic comparison to korban shelamim.


To be sure the Yerushalmi and the Rishonim cite sources for each of these additional halakhot and these differences can be accommodated without fundamentally dividing between bikurim and teruma. However these halakhot and ceremonies of bikurim are eerily reminiscent of another mitzva - that of korbanot. Korbanot are selected while still 'alive,' in many cases must be replaced if lost or destroyed after selection, are accompanied by the singing of the Levi'im during the sacrifice, and are engaged in the ceremony of tenufa. In fact, one final halakha - which the mishna did not cite - casts this association between bikurim and korban in even sharper relief. Indeed, ma'aser sheni is transported to Yerushalayim but it doesn't have to be delivered to the actual Beit Ha-mikdash. Bikurim, like korbanot, have to be carried to the Mikdash where they are delivered to the Kohen after several ceremonies which are highly evocative of korbanot. Can we define bikurim as a pseudo korban? Said otherwise, do we view bikurim as a hybrid of matanot kehuna and korbanot? The aforementioned list is certainly suggestive of this fact, but we should attempt to locate additional halakhot in order to confirm this suspicion.


     An interesting issue arises regarding the cancellation of bikurim without a Mikdash. The mishna (2:4) claims that unlike terumot and ma'aser which apply even without a Beit Ha-mikdash, the mitzva of bikurim is only obligated in the presence of the Mikdash. This in itself might indicate the status of bikurim as korban but could just as easily be imputed to unrelated factors. The Rishonim, however, differ as to the source of this limitation of bikurim. The Rambam and many other Rishonim cite the pasuk in Shemot (23:19, 34:26) that the bikurim should be brought to the 'house of God.' The Rivan in his explanation to the mishna in Shekalim cites a Sifri which derives this exemption from another source: "he should place the bikurim near the mizbei'ach - only during times in which there exists a mizbei'ach." Certainly the second source strongly establishes bikurim as a type of korban which must be offered on or near the mizbei'ach. It should be noted that these two sources are essentially different and certainly don't overlap - unlike korbanot which according to many only require a mizbei'ach and not a mikdash, bikurim might require both. See the Ramban in Makkot (19) as to whether bikurim can be offered if the mizbei'ach is standing without a mikdash.


     The final mishna in the 3rd perek of Bikurim describes the manner of distributing the bikurim within the tribe of Kohanim. Rebbi Yehuda demands that bikurim be given only to knowledgeable Kohanim to insure that they be treated in the appropriate halakhic manner. The bikurim can be given to any Kohen provided he is familiar and proficient in the halakhot of tum'a and tahara. The Chakhamim argue with Rebbi Yehuda on two counts. The bikurim must be evenly distributed to the Kohanim serving on call in the Mikdash the week in which you deliver them - known as the Kohanim of the mishmar. Within this group any Kohen - even less knowledgeable ones - may receive bikurim. The reason which the Chakhamim offer to justify both their claims is that bikurim are "just like sacrifices offered on the mizbei'ach." If we read this statement literally we might conclude the Rebbi Yehuda and the Chakhamim argue whether bikurim possess the status of korban. By recognizing this feature the Chakhamim are able to demand distribution to the serving group of Kohanim (akin to korban) but allow any Kohen to partake (again similar to korbanot which are treated with greater vigilance which diminishes the risk of abuse). Rebbi Yehuda might reject this concept and allow transfer to non-serving Kohanim as well as limiting distribution to vigilant ones.


     It might be possible to recognize this issue in a fundamental machloket Tana'im regarding the ceremony of the bikurim. The gemara in Makkot (18b) cites a machloket between Rebbi Yehuda and the Chakhamim as to whether the act of placing the bikurim near the mizbei'ach is me'akeiv (so that its non-performance would invalidate the mitzva). According to Rebbi Yehuda one can fulfill bikurim without actually performing 'hanacha' while the Chakhamim demand it. If there is any part of the bikurim ceremony which is most similar to korban it would clearly have to be the hanacha - placing the fruit near the mizbei'ach. The gemara in Makkot (19a) distinguishes between bikurim and bekhor (the first born animal brought to mikdash and sacrificed) and ma'aser sheni by demonstrating that the former miztvot each possess an element relating to mizbei'ach - in the case of bekhor the actual sacrifice and in the case of bikurim the hanacha near the mizbei'ach. Wouldn't the Chakhamim's insistence upon the necessity of hanacha indicate their belief that bikurim contains features of korban? In fact this machloket might be consistent with the aforementioned debate between Rebbi Yehuda and the Chakhamim in the end of the 3rd perek of Bikurim regarding the manner of distribution.


     The Yerushalmi in Bikurim (1:2) cites an additional halakha that might stem from bikurim's similarity to korban. Items which themselves were avoda zara or which were used in such worship are forbidden to use. Once they are canceled from being avoda zara (see Masechet Avoda Zara) pleasure can be derived from them. Though they are now permissible for general purposes they still cannot play any part in a korban since they are ma'us - disgusting (because of their past) and korbanot deserve a higher grade. According to the Yerushalmi fruit from a tree which was ONCE avoda zara but were since canceled cannot be part of the bikurim selection. This korban-like governance once again confirms the status of bikurim as a korban. Interestingly, the Yerushalmi links this issue to the machloket between Rebbi Yehuda and the Chakhamim cited earlier regarding the distribution of bikurim. The Chakhamim maintaining the status of bikurim as korban would not allow former asheira fruit to be used as bikurim. Rebbi Yehuda might not accept this designation and would allow canceled avoda zarah to be used for bikurim.


An additional gemara in avoda zara which might highlight bikurim's status as korban can be found on (51a-b). Items which are placed upon avoda zara for embellishment are forbidden to use; if they are placed in a belittling manner (hanging ordinary items) they are permitted to use. This distinction applies to general items. If the hung items happen to be substances which are offered on the mizbei'ach they are forbidden regardless of the manner or purpose in which they were hung. Among the 'sacrificial' items listed are wreaths of grapes. The Rishonim question the classification of bikurim as sacrificial items and only justify this designation because grapes can be offered as bikurim (see the Ramban in his commentary to avoda zara). Once again we notice the korban dimension within bikurim.


     The Ramban in particular often adopts halakhot and commentaries that reflect this association. The pasuk in Bemidbar (5:8) describes a type of teruma which is 'sacrificed to the Kohen' - yakrivu la-Kohen. The Sifri asks, "is teruma actually sacrificed?" It must be referring to bikurim that is brought to the mikdash and "sacrificed." The Ramban in his commentary to the pasuk elaborates that the Sifri understood the term 'yakrivu' literally as referring to the sacrifice procedure and not figuratively (in the sense of bringing close). Hence it could only refer to bikurim which is actually brought to the vicinity of the mizbei'ach (hagasha) and waived (tenufa). As such, the Ramban continues, the bikurim belong to the Kohen who actually presided over the ceremony. (Note - several pesukim in the Torah suggest that the Kohanim who actually performed the korban receive its relevant parts. The gemara interprets this to mean that the serving mishmar equally divides the korban. Recall the mishna in Bikurim (3:11) which cites Rebbi Yehuda who considers bikurim 'kodshei mizbei'ach' and limits distribution to the Kohanim of the mishmar).


     In his commentary to Devarim 26:2 the Ramban claims that one who brings bikurim to another location outside of Mikdash has violated a prohibition similar to shechutei chutz - sacrificing an animal outside of the Mikdash. Indeed we might question whether this violation is exactly identical to the one governing korbanot. The very existence of this prohibition according to the Ramban once again indicates his willingness to view a korban component within bikurim.



Methodological Points:


1) Often a halakha or mitzva exhibits similarities to several different categories. By inspecting the halakhot, these similarities can be proven to reflect authentic associations with multiple categories.


2) Sources for particular halakhot can often be indicative of their nature. Deriving the limitation of bikurim to Mikdash from different pesukim might affect the nature of this limitation.