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Shiur #24: The Land of Israel (7): Bikkurim and Berit Avot

  • Rav Dr. Judah Goldberg

            Over the last several shiurim, we have differentiated between the “sanctity of the soil” of the Land of Israel (category #5) and other dimensions of the Land, such as the “title” of the Land of Israel (categories #1-2) or the holiness of the  Divine Presence (categories #3-4).  The “sanctity of the soil,” as a technical, legal concept, we identified as a berit Sinaicategory, while the other conceptions of the land seem to be at least rooted in berit Avot (though the covenant of Sinai may add further layers to them).


            We have presumed throughout our discussion that the mitzvot that are specifically incumbent upon the produce of the Land of Israel are strictly a function of category #5.  However, are there any exceptions?  Might any of the classic agricultural mitzvot of the Land of Israel reflect a different aspect of the Land’s significance and heritage?  In this shiur and the next, we will focus on the dual mitzvot of offering bikkurim (first fruit) and mikra bikkurim (reciting the accompanying text) for their possible connection to berit Avot and the “title” of the Land of Israel.


Is Bikkurim a “Soil-Based” Mitzva?


            From the words “that you harvest from your land” (Devarim 26:2), the Talmud (Bava Batra 81a) learns that bikkurim are only offered from the produce of the Land of Israel.  While at first glance this would seem to confirm bikkurim’s identity as one of the “mitzvot ha-teluyot ba-aretz,” whose practice is confined to the Land of Israel, Tosafot note the peculiarity of this inference.  After all, the Talmud does not provide similar proof texts with respect to teruma, tithes and other soil-based obligations.  Rather, they all fall under the broad principle that “any mitzva that is tied to the land is practiced only in the Land [of Israel],” for which the Talmud provides a separate textual source (Kiddushin 36b).  Why should bikkurim be any different?


            Tosafot quote a radical answer from R. Shimshon of Sens:  Indeed, bikkurim should not be considered a soil-based mitzva at all!  R. Shimshon observes that soil-based mitzvot share a common framework:  The produce of the sanctified soil of the Land of Israel is naturally invested with a certain status that obligates it in particular mitzvot, such as the separation of teruma and tithes.  As such, the produce is inherently forbidden for consumption until those mitzvot have been fulfilled.  Furthermore, the obligation is driven by the produce itself, rather than by the people involved, which is why the obligation depends upon the Land’s fruits and grains reaching the status of “produce,” post-harvesting.


            The mitzva of bikkurim differs from soil-based obligations in all these respects.  According to R. Shimshon, it is a “personal obligation, just like the obligation of tzitzit.”  The farmer must descend into his field or orchard and designate bikkurim to be delivered to the Temple, but doing so is not demanded by an inherent state of the produce, nor does his action change its overall status.  Similarly, the Torah can ask the farmer to designate bikkurim even before there is any genuine “produce”—while the fruits are still growing on the trees.


            Therefore, the confinement of bikkurim to the Land of Israel cannot be taken for granted.  The mitzva is not necessarily tied to the sanctity of the soil, and therefore a farmer could have conceivably been asked to separate first fruits anywhere, until the Biblical text taught us otherwise.  In other words, the mitzva of bikkurim is not primarily a function of category #5, of the “sanctity of the soil.”[1]  But then what aspect of the Land of Israel does bikkurim reflect?[2]


The “Land of Israel” for Bikkurim


            In earlier shiurim, we learned to appreciate different aspects of the Land of Israel from the fact that different laws apply within different boundaries.  Conversely, we may be able to learn something about the nature of bikkurim and its relationship with the Land by examining the scope of the territory that is obligated in this mitzva.  The Tannaitic literature offers multiple reasons for restricting the territory obligated in bikkurim.  We will consider them one by one:


1.    “Land Flowing with Milk and Honey”


            If the offering of bikkurim is indeed similar to other soil-based obligations, then we would expect it to apply throughout the territory of category #5, which includes, according to most opinions, both sides of the Jordan.  Indeed, this is the first opinion in Bikkurim 1:10.  However, the mishna continues with the opinion of Rabbi Yosi Ha-Gelili:  “We do not bring bikkurim from ‘across the Jordan,’ for it is not ‘land flowing with milk and honey,’” as mikra bikkurim refers to the Land of Israel (Devarim 26:9).  Additionally, the Sifrei (on that verse), prior to quoting the opinion of Rabbi Yosi Ha-Gelili, learns from another verse (Shemot 13:5) that only the territory of five out of the seven Canaanite tribes is considered “flowing with milk and honey.” Therefore, according to this first opinion in the Sifrei, bikkurim can only be offered from this limited area.


            We can suggest two possible explanations for the limitation of bikkurim to the produce of “land flowing with milk and honey.”  First, as bikkurim are supposed to represent the best of the Land of Israel,[3] perhaps they must come from only its richest parts.  In this case, the limitation relates more to the actual fruits than it does to the land.  Land that is not flowing with milk and honey is technically worthy of sending bikkurim to the Temple, but its produce is not worthy of being offered.


Alternatively, we can understand the restriction of bikkurim to “land flowing with milk and honey” as a more fundamental statement about its nature.   This phrase originally appears in God’s command to Moshe to lead the Jewish people out of Egypt to a “land flowing with milk and honey” (Shemot 3:8,17) and is frequently accompanied by some reference to berit Avot.[4]  In other words, the descriptor of “a land flowing with milk and honey” seems to represent God’s historical promise to deliver the Jewish people to the Land of Israel—that is, berit Avot.[5] 


If this phrase not only appears in the text that is recited upon offering bikkurim but also influences the very parameters of the mitzva,[6] then perhaps it is telling us that bikkurim is first and foremost a reflection of berit Avot—specifically, its fulfillment.  Indeed, this perspective on bikkurim is almost explicit in the first statement attributed to the bearer of first fruits:  “I have declared today to Hashem, your God, that I have come to the land that God promised our forefathers to give us” (Devarim 26:3).  As the Ramban explains:


“I have declared today”—with this fruit that I have brought, I have declared and thanked Hashem, your God that He has brought me “to the land [He] promised our forefathers to give us,” and behold, God fulfills His word, and I thank and praise His Name.[7]


Bikkurim symbolizes the fulfillment of God’s promise to the Avot to deliver their progeny from bondage and to the Land of Israel.  If so, the mitzva is fittingly restricted to the “land flowing with milk and honey” promised to the Avot (category #1), even though soil-based obligations can be extended by further conquest.[8]


            A practical distinction between these two different explanations of bikkurim’s restriction to “land flowing with milk and honey” may be the actual scope of this territory.  Regarding the Sifrei we cited earlier, the Ramban (Shemot 13:5) seems to understand that Rabbi Yosi Ha-Gelili is responding to the first opinion that limits bikkurim to the “land of five tribes.”  In addition, Rabbi Yosi Ha-Gelili excludes territory east of the Jordan.[9]  The first opinion, then, while excluding the land of the remaining two Canaanite tribes, does not completely discount the territory east of the Jordan.  Land east of the Jordan that was held by one of the five tribes and is “flowing with milk and honey” is in fact eligible for bikkurim.  In that case, the condition of “land flowing with milk and honey” does not seem to describe a particular area, but rather is a necessary feature of the actual produce offered.[10] 


            The mishna’s discussion, on the other hand, makes no mention of the “land of the five tribes,” but simply quotes a dispute about the territory east of the Jordan.  Rabbi Yosi Ha-Gelili excludes that territory, as it is not “flowing with milk and honey,” but presumably includes the entire historical Land of Canaan[11]; this is also the Rambam’s ruling (Hilkhot Bikkurim 2:1).[12]  Regarding the Sifrei’s contention that not the entire Land of Canaan is “flowing with milk and honey,” Rabbi Yosi Ha-Gelili might simply disagree.  Alternatively, R. Menachem Ziemba suggests that Rabbi Yosi Ha-Gelili might agree but think it is sufficient that the Land of Canaan is, in the words of the Yerushalmi (Bikkurim 1:8), the land “that has in it [areas] flowing with milk and honey.”[13]  According to this characterization, R. Ziemba notes, “‘flowing with milk and honey’ is not a condition for bikkurim, but rather a sign of the land.”  I would add that it is not just any sign, but a sign of the land that was promised to the Avot.[14]


2. The “Oath”


The connection between the territory from which bikkurim is offered and berit Avot is most explicit in the Mekhilta (Masekhta De-Pischa 17).  The Mekhilta also compares the Torah’s description of bikkurim in Devarim 26 to Shemot 13:5, not because of the common phrase of “flowing with milk and honey,” but because of the common mention of an “oath.”  The bearer of first fruits announces that he has reached “the land that God swore to our forefathers to give us” (Devarim 26:3).  From Shemot 13:5, the Mekhilta gleans more details about this sworn land:  “the land of the Canaanites, the Hittites, the Amorites, the Hivvites and the Jebusites that [God] swore to your forefathers to give you.”  God’s oath to our forefathers was made specifically about the historical Land of Canaan,[15] and it is from this land alone that bikkurim are brought, as a symbol of God’s fulfillment of berit Avot.


3. “That You, God, Gave Me”


            Finally, we can return to the first opinion of the mishna, which maintains that bikkurim can be offered from both sides of the Jordan.  Our initial assumption was that this opinion does not connect bikkurim to berit Avot but instead treats it as any other soil-based mitzva, which is practiced in all conquered lands.  The Rambam, however, seems to offer a different approach:  “Even though [the eastern bank of the Jordan] is not ‘flowing with milk and honey,’ behold, it, too, was given to us, and one can say ‘that You, God, gave me’ (Devarim 26:10)” (Commentary on Bikkurim 1:10).  The Rambam is hinting at an alternative explanation for excluding the eastern bank of the Jordan that is quoted by the Yerushalmi:  “‘That You gave me” (Devarim 26:10)—[but] “not that which I took for myself on my own.”[16]  To this, the Rambam explains, the first opinion in the mishna would respond that the eastern bank of the Jordan is also a Divine gift.  Even though it was settled by the tribes of Reuven and Gad by their own initiative, they can also proudly refer to their inheritance as “the soil that You, God, gave me.”[17]


            According to the Rambam, what are these two opinions arguing about?  Perhaps everyone agrees that the mitzva of bikkurim must reflect berit Avot, but they disagree about exactly which aspect it reflects.  Those who exclude the eastern bank of the Jordan believe that bikkurim narrowly reflects category #1—the land actually acquired and inhabited by the Avot.  The opinion that includes the eastern bank believes that bikkurim reflects category #3—the expansive Land of Israel that was anticipated by berit bein ha-betarim.  Even if some of the conquests were not Divinely commanded, one who reads Jewish history through the lens of berit bein ha-betarim can reasonably see all conquered lands as that which “You, God, gave me.”




In summary, different commentators treat restrictions on the territory obligated in bikkurim in different ways.  Some, based on the Ramban’s approach, seem to view these restrictions more technically, in which case bikkurim may still in principle belong to the cluster of soil-based mitzvot.  Others, however, such as the Rambam, draw boundaries that are more suggestive of a fundamentally different conception of the Land of Israel with regard to bikkurim.  Of course, the divergent Tannaitic opinions we have seen may differ on exactly this issue, though the Rambam, at least, minimizes the gap between the two opinions in the mishna.




Finally, returning to the beginning of this shiur, we find that we have jumped from one extreme to the other regarding bikkurim and the Land of Israel.  Our starting point was the Talmud’s consideration that bikkurim could apply universally.  Our conclusion is that not only are bikkurim not offered from other lands, but they may be even more restricted within the Land of Israel than the traditional “mitzvot ha-teluyot ba-aretz”!


            What these two poles have in common is that they both remove bikkurim from the familiar group of soil-based mitzvot that strictly reflect category #5.  If bikkurim are indeed only offered from the Land of Israel, perhaps it is because the mitzva is so closely tied to the story of our national heritage.  The next shiur will further explore this idea by examining the recitation that accompanies the offering of the bikkurim.



For Further Thought:


1.    This shiur analyzed the nature of bikkurim through the prism of their place of origin, concluding that they primarily reflect either category #1 (the land of the Avot) or category #3 (the political Land of Israel) of the Land.  However, we can also analyze bikkurim in light of their ultimate destination—the Temple.  Bikkurim, according to the Rambam, are genuine Temple offerings whose status is similar to that of a sacrifice (Hilkhot Bikkurim 2:16, 19 and 3:1).[18]  For this reason, R. Menachem Ziemba argues (Kuntres Otzar Ha-Sifrei, pp. 29-31), Keilim 1:6 groups bikkurim together with the omer offering and the two loaves of Shavuot:  What they have in common is that they are all special offerings to the Temple that can come only from the land of the Divine Presence.[19]  Thus bikkurim, in addition to representing either category #1 or #3 (and possibly being contingent upon category #5, the sanctity of the soil—see footnote #1 above), are also a function of category #4 (the land of the Temple).


2.    In addition to bikkurim, another central mitzva of the Land of Israel that does not seem to adhere to the typical pattern of soil-based mitzvot is challa.  On the one hand, challa resembles teruma and tithes in that the dough or bread is forbidden prior to the separation of challa, and both Rashi (Kiddushin 37a) and Tosafot (Bava Batra 81a) lump it together with the other “mitzvot ha-teluyot ba-aretz.”  On the other hand, the laws of challa include multiple possible exceptions to the usual rules of the soil-based mitzvot, such as:  (1) the obligation to begin the practice of separating challa immediately upon the Jewish people’s entry into the Land of Israel, even prior to the conquering and distribution of the Land (Sifrei Bamidbar 15:18); (2) an obligation to separate challa from unripe grains and from other grains that are exempt from tithes (Challa 1:3 and Yerushalmi there); (3) an obligation to separate challa from grain that grew prior to the Jews’ arrival in the Land of Israel or from grain that is imported from other lands (Challa 2:1 and Yerushalmi there)[20];  (4) an obligation to separate challa in territory that lies outside the boundaries of the immigrants from Babylonia (see Rambam’s commentary on Challa 4:8) or to separate challa after the nullification of the “sanctity of the Land” (Ketubot 25a and Nidda 47a)[21]; and (5) the rabbinic obligation to separate challa anywhere in the world, in contrast to teruma and tithes (see Tosafot Kiddushin 36b).  Also, the need for an explicit exclusion of other lands (Bamidbar 15:19), similar to bikkurim, suggests that challa is not fundamentally a soil-based obligation (Sefer Ha-mikna Kiddushin 36b).[22]


If challa is indeed not a function of category #5, what aspect of the Land of Israel might it reflect?  Rather than applying to the produce of the Land of Israel, like teruma and tithes, perhaps the obligation of challa applies to the bread eaten by the inhabitants of the Land of Israel.  In other words, challa may relate to the Land of Israel as a place of Jewish inhabitance (category #3),[23] rather than to the soil of the Land (category #5).[24]


3.    According to R. Ilai, the mitzvot to give parts of a slaughtered animal and the first part of a shearing to a priest (Devarim 18:3-4) apply only in the Land of Israel, because of a comparison to teruma (Chullin 136a).  Which aspect of the Land of Israel do these mitzvot reflect?  What are the boundaries within which they should be practiced?


Questions or Comments?


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[1] Rashi, in explaining that soil-based obligations are “incumbent upon the ground or its produce,” lists ten examples: “terumot and tithes; challa; leket, shikhecha and pei’a; the sabbatical year; chadash; orla; and kil’ayim” (Kiddushin 37a).  Bikkurim, we should note, is conspicuously absent.  Nonetheless, bikkurim in practice likely require the sanctity of the soil; see Gittin 47a-b and Rambam Hilkhot Bikkurim 2:15 (however, see Rashi there).  Conceivably, this could merely be a condition for their sanctified status, rather than the driving force behind the mitzva.  By comparison, however, the sanctity of challa does not seem to depend on the sanctity of the soil; see “For Further Thought,” #2 below.  

[2] Other approaches in the Rishonim do not follow R. Shimshon’s broad characterization but instead offer specific reasons why we might have thought to apply bikkurim even outside the Land of Israel, such as the juxtaposition of bikkurim with the universal prohibition of cooking meat and milk (Tosafot).  Still, the fact that we could entertain the possibility of bikkurim outside the Land, in contrast, for instance, to teruma and tithes, might reflect fundamental differences between them.  The question becomes, then, what the phrase “from your land” teaches us.  Does it teach us to ultimately classify bikkurim as a standard soil-based mitzva, or does it merely indicate that despite bikkurim’s distinct character, they are nevertheless offered only from the Land of Israel?

[3] See Bikkurim 1:3 and Yerushalmi there.

[4] See Shemot 13:5 and 33:1-3; Devarim 6:3, 11:9, 26:15 and 27:3; Yehoshua 5:6; and Yirmiyahu 11:5 and 32:22.

[5] Admittedly, the phrase “land flowing with milk and honey” does not appear in Sefer Bereishit.  See Ramban on Devarim 26:15.

[6] Contrast, for instance, with viduy ma’aser (confession over tithes), in which the phrase “land flowing with milk and honey” (Devarim 26:15) appears, but no rules are derived from it (see Ma’aser Sheini 5:13-14).

[7] Ibn Ezra and Chizkuni similarly interpret the verse.  However, in a second interpretation the Ramban renders the verse as a statement of intention, rather than as a statement of confirmation.

[8] According to this interpretation, the mitzva of bikkurim constitutes yet another halakhic reflection of “the land of the Avot” (see shiur #23).

[9] Both the Minchat Chinukh (91:[9 in Mechon Yerushalayim ed.]) and R. Menachem Ziemba (Kuntres Otzar Ha-Sifrei, printed in Ambuha De-Sifrei, p. 36) understand the Ramban in this fashion.  Also see R. Shlomo Sirlio on Yerushalmi Bikkurim 1:8 (printed in R. Kalman Kahana, Masekhet Bikkurim:  Cheiker Ve-iyyun, 1989).

[10] The Minchat Chinukh carries this logic one step further by asking whether other lands that are captured by the Messiah and happen to be “flowing with milk and honey” will also be eligible for bikkurim.  Clearly, he believes that all sanctified land (category #5) is fundamentally fit for bikkurim, as long as it also meets the condition of “flowing with milk and honey.”

[11] Regarding the Sifrei’s quotation of Rabbi Yosi Ha-Gelili, the Ramban understands that he is commenting on the earlier opinion.  Alternatively, we could suggest that Rabbi Yosi Ha-Gelili’s opinion is fully independent and is simply juxtaposed because he, too, derives his stance from the phrase “flowing with milk and honey.”  Also see the textual variants to this passage, which already appear in the Ramban (Shemot 13:5) and Chizkuni (Devarim 26:9). 

[12] Characteristically, the Rambam does not explain how he arrives at his conclusion.  R. Yosef Colon (Maharik) suggests that according to the Rambam, all opinions agree that the eastern bank of the Jordan is Biblically excluded from bikkurim.  The only point of disagreement concerns a rabbinic requirement to offer bikkurim from that territory, which the first opinion in the mishna advances and Rabbi Yosi Ha-Gelili rejects (ResponsaMaharik 122:3).  However, see the Rambam’s Sefer Ha-Mitzvot, positive commandment #125 and Commentary on the Mishna (cited below).  The Maharik also glosses over the differences between the mishna and the Sifrei.  Also see Responsa Beit Ha-Levi 2:50.

[13] In our text of the Yerushalmi, this comment is attributed to Rabbi Yona.  In R. Shlomo Sirlio’s text, the comment is attributed to Rabbi Yosi Ha-Gelili himself; however, R. Shlomo Sirlio interprets the passage differently. 

[14] According to the Ramban, Rabbi Yosi Ha-Gelili only allows bikkurim from territory held by the five tribes west of the Jordan.  On the one hand, according to this view, Rabbi Yosi Ha-Gelili could understand “flowing with milk and honey” as a condition, rather than as a defining feature of the land.  Alternatively, he might believe that this limited area symbolizes the promise that God made regarding the entire historical Land of Canaan.  The Ramban notes that the Sifrei elsewhere sets apart the territories of the five tribes from the rest, for “they constitute the primary land, for through [that land] did God promise [the Jewish people], for it is ‘flowing with milk and honey’” (Shemot 13:5).

[15] Regarding the fact that only five tribes are mentioned in Shemot 13:5, the Mekhilta explains that the Torah is speaking about “the land of five tribes who are [listed as] seven in another place (Devarim 7:1)” (Horowitz ed.).  I take this to mean that this verse, as well as the parallel one about bikkurim, is ultimately referencing the entire Land of Canaan.  Admittedly, various commentators on the Mekhilta offer other interpretations, some by amending the text.  Also see the Ramban, who tersely states that the Mekhilta is consistent with his reading of the Sifrei.

[16] Also see Sifrei on Devarim 26:3:  “‘To give to us’… Rabbi Shimon says, ‘to exclude ‘across the Jordan,’ which you took by yourself.’”  The Yerushalmi goes on to assert that this opinion is slightly more inclusive than that of Rabbi Yosi Ha-Gelili.  Whereas Rabbi Yosi Ha-Gelili excludes any territory east of the Jordan, the opinion that the Sifrei attributes to R. Shimon would allow bikkurim from the land held by families of the tribe of Menashe, who never requested a share of the eastern bank but were instructed by Moshe to join the tribes of Reuven and Gad there (see Bamidbar 32:33).  This represents a middle position that does not directly correspond to any “map” of the Land of Israel that we have previously seen.

[17] Also see R. Shlomo Sirlio on the mishna

[18] Also see Rashi, Rashbam and Chizkuni on Vayikra 2:12 and Ramban on Bamidbar 5:9.

[19] See shiur #18, including n. 14.  R. Ziemba further notes that the status of bikkurim seems to be the subject of a Tannaitic debate (see Bikkurim 3:12 and Yerushalmi Bikkurim 1:2) and thus explains the conflicting versions of the statement in Keilim 1:6 that either include or omit bikkurim from the text.  The Rambam does mention bikkurim (Hilkhot Beit Ha-bechira 7:12), which is consistent with his rulings that their status is similar to that of Temple sacrifices.  Also see mori ve-rabbi R. Hershel Schachter, Nefesh Ha-Rav, 78.  

[20] See Chiddushei Rabbeinu Chayyim Ha-Levi, Hilkhot Terumot 1:22 and Iggerot Ha-Grid Ha-Levi, beginning of Hilkhot Melakhim, 2.

[21] See R. Ahron Soloveichik, Parach Mateh Aharon, Sefer Ahava, 179.

[22] See the excellent articles on this topic by R. Yair Kahn, “Ma’amad Challa Ke-mitzva Ha-teluya Ba-aretz,” Alon Shevut 86, 16-24 and mori ve-rabbi R. Michael Rosensweig, “Be-inyan Mitzvot Challa U-teruma Be-Eretz Yisrael,” Kol Tzvi 3 (5763[2001]), 25-48.

[23] However, regarding the relevance of category #1 (the land of the Avot) to challa, see shiur #23, n. 18.

[24] This distinction can also answer a different question:  Inasmuch as challa is a form of “teruma” (Me’ila 15b), why should grains be “double taxed” with two different teruma obligations – one at the point of harvesting (teruma gedola) and another at the point of bread preparation (challa)?  If, however, the two mitzvot apply to fundamentally different entities—teruma to the produce of the Land of Israel and challa to the bread of the people of Israel—then the apparent redundancy between them is eliminated.