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The 1901 Jewish Encyclopedia
As the firstling among the cattle, so the first-fruits of the field ("reshit," "ḥeleb" [LXX. ἀπαρχή], "bikkurim" [LXX. πρωτογεννήματα]), of corn, of wine, and of oil belonged to Yhwh. According to Exodus 22:28 (A. V. 29), the Israelite was not to delay to offer "of his abundance," a phrase that is explained in Exodus 23:19 and 34:26 as meaning the choicest products, the first-fruits of the land. These first-fruits, as in the case of the first-born, were used for a feast-offering, even at the time of the compilation of the Deuteronomic code, according to which the offering had to take place at Jerusalem. If the distance was too great, the gifts might be sold at home, and a feast might be procured at Jerusalem with the proceeds (Deuteronomy 14:22 et seq.). This ordinance agrees only in part with another given in Deuteronomy 26:2 et seq., according to which the feast-offering was prescribed for only two years. The first-fruits of the third year were to be brought to Jerusalem and given to the Levites, widows, orphans, and the poor. This is probably an innovation due to the emphasis laid on charity toward the poor and the Levites, a feature characteristic of the Deuteronomic code.
In view of these ordinances it is remarkable that, according to Deuteronomy 18:4 (probably written at a later date), the priest might claim the reshit of corn, wine, oil, and wool. This is hardly intended to supersede previous ordinances, the reshit being evidently taken from the first-fruits set apart for the feast-offering (comp. 26:12 et seq.). The same is probably to be inferred from Ezekiel 44:30, where a reshit of all the first-fruits of all things ("terumat kol") and of the first of the dough is demanded for the priest. These ordinances, at all events, form the transition to P, where both the first-fruits and the first-born lose their original signification, and assume the character of a tax paid to the priest. According to Numbers 18:12, the priest's reshit (called also "terumah, "ib. 18:27) was to consist of the best of the corn, wine, and oil. In verse 13, "whatsoever is first ripe in the land" ("bikkurim") is added. It is not clear what "bikkurim" means here, although it may refer to the fruit which ripens first.
The distinction made between "reshit" and "bikkurim" in post-exilic times is clearly evident from Nehemiah 10:36 (A. V. 35), 38, where the congregation agrees to deliver the reshit to the chambers of the Temple, but to take the bikkurim to the house of Yhwh in a solemn procession, and with the ceremonies laid down in Deuteronomy 26:2 et seq. (comp. Nehemiah 12:44, 13:5; 2 Chronicles 31:5,12). Besides this double offering, the reshit of the dough is demanded as terumah for Yhwh (Numbers 15:1 et seq.). Just as the Israelites offered up grains from the thrashing-floor, so they were to make an offering—a cake ("ḥallah")—from the dough.
Finally, Leviticus 19:23 decrees that the fruit of young trees shall not be eaten during the first three years, and that in the fourth year all the fruit thereof shall be given to Yhwh as a praise-offering ("ḳodesh ḥillulim"). The reshit and bikkurim developed into the later institution of the tithe ("ma'aser"), which was originally identical with these, as may be learned from Deuteronomy. While, according to Deuteronomy 14:22, the annual offering of the tithe in the sanctuary is made the occasion for a feast, in 26:2 et seq. the word "reshit" appears to designate the offering which is made obligatory for two successive years at the central sanctuary; the tithe ("ma'aser") in the third year being given at home to the indigent. The expression "ma'aser" evidently arose in the endeavor to determine the amount of the reshit, which depended on personal option, and was not fixed by law. "Ma'aser," however, in earlier times may have signified merely an approximate estimate. The expression perhaps reflects the customs prevailing at the sanctuaries of northern Israel (comp. Amos 4:4 et seq.; Genesis 28:22). Thus the absence of any mention of the tithe in the old laws is probably due to its identity with the reshit. Ma'aser is first mentioned as a separate tax in connection with reshit and bikkurim in P (comp. Numbers 28:21 et seq.). See TITHE.
—In Rabbinical Literature:
The first-fruits ("bikkurim") are known under three designations: (1) "reshit ḳeẓirkem" (Leviticus 23:10), "the first-fruits of your harvest"; (2) "leḥem ha-bikkurim" (Leviticus 23:17-20), "the bread of the first-fruits"; (3) "reshit bikkure admateka" (Exodus 23:19)," the first of the first-fruits of thy land," or "reshit kol peri ha-adamah" (Deuteronomy 26:2), "the first of all the fruit of the earth."
Sale of New Flour.
- The "first-fruits of the harvest" were offered on the 16th day of Nisan, from that fruit which ripened first in Palestine—barley (but see Men. 84a)—and with considerable ceremony, in order to emphasize dissent from the Sadducean interpretation of the Scripture text, "the morrow after the Sabbath" (Leviticus 23:11), which is, according to the Sadducees, always Sunday (Men. 65b). The ceremony occurred toward the evening of the first day of Pesaḥ, in a field in the neighborhood of Jerusalem, sheaves of choice barley having been bound there before-hand by men deputed to this work by the authorities. In the presence of a vast throng, from the neighboring towns as well as from Jerusalem, the sheaves to the amount of three seah were cut by three men with three sickles and placed in three baskets. As soon as it grew dark the "harvester" addressed to the assembly the following questions, repeating each one three times, and receiving to each an affirmative reply: "Has the sun set?" "Is this the sickle?" "Is this the basket?" and on Sabbath, "Is this the Sabbath day?" He next inquired thrice: "Shall I harvest?" to which they answered:" Do harvest." All this was to confound the Sadducean heresy. The barley was then gathered into the baskets and carried to the hall of the Temple, where it was beaten out, not, as usually, with sticks, but with soft reeds; or, according to a divergent opinion, it was first roasted in a perforated vessel over a fire, so that the heat might touch all parts evenly. Then it wasspread out on the floor of the hall and winnowed in the draft. Ground in a coarse hand-mill, an 'omer of the finely sieved flour mixed with oil and incense was "swung and offered up," and a handful was burned as incense by the priest. The rest was distributed among the priests (Men. 10:1-4; Maimonides, "Yad," Temidin, ). The completion of this ceremony was the signal for opening the bazaars for the sale of new flour and "ḳali" (see Bread), somewhat to the displeasure of the Rabbis (Men. 10:5). Israelites in distant districts, in fact, were permitted to eat from the new crop from midday on, a privilege withdrawn by Johanan ben Zakkai after the destruction of the Temple (Men. 10:5). The ceremony of the "reshit ḳeẓirkem" was considered as an act of gratitude to God for His providential care of the fields (Lev. R. ).
- The "bread of the first-fruits" consisted of two loaves baked of new wheat, though, according to Akiba and Nathan, they were not unusable even if baked of old wheat (Men. 83b). No meal-offering ("minḥah") could be brought before these two loaves had been offered up on Shabu'ot (Sifra to Leviticus 23:16; Sifre, Pineḥas). They had to be exactly alike (Sifra, c.), the leaven rising from the dough itself, though, according to another opinion, the yeast was added to the dough (Men.; Sifra, c.); these loaves were offered by the whole community (at public expense).
- The third class of bikkurim embraced the first-fruits of all the land. Laying stress on the words "thy land" (Exodus 23:19), the Rabbis provide that the law is not applicable to fruit not literally grown on land (Bik. 1:1), or to that grown on land not one's own propeity. Renters, in whole or in part, robbers, and despoilers ("sicarii"), therefore, are exempt (so also Mek. to Exodus 23:19). For the reason that they could not consistently recite the benediction (Deuteronomy 26:5), slaves and women and persons of uncertain sex, as well as proselytes unless their mothers were Israelites, were permitted to offer up the first-fruits without pronouncing the eulogy (Bik. 1:4; Mek., c.). The proselyte praying by himself or with the congregation pronounced a modified benediction ("the fathers of Israel"; "the God of your fathers"). The bikkurim were offered only from the "seven" plants (comp. Deuteronomy 8:8); not from dates, grown in the mountains nor from fruits grown in the valleys; not from olives unless they were of the best quality (Bik. 1:3); and never before the Feast of Weeks. But if one offered, between that festival and the Feast of Tabernacles, fruit of the "seven" plants, or fruit from the mountains, or dates grown in the valleys, or olives from beyond the Jordan, the offering was accepted and the benediction was allowed (ib. 1:10). Olives and grapes were accepted as fruits, but not in their liquid state ("mashkim") as oil and wine ("Yad," Bikkurim, 2:4; Ter. 59a; 'Ar. 11a; Yer. Ter. 11:3; Ḥul. 120a; Mek., c.). Fruit from beyond the border of Palestine, "the land flowing with milk and honey," was exempt; but Syria and the cities of Sihon and Og were included; not so Moab and Ammon. Jose the Galilean therefore took exception to including in the Holy Land the district beyond the Jordan (Gilead; Bik. 1:10). The law of the first-fruit is held in abeyance, now that the Temple is not extant and Israel is not in possession of Palestine ("Yad," Bikkurim, 2:1).
The following was the method of selecting fruits for the offering: Upon visiting his field and seeing a fig, or a grape, or a pomegranate that was ripe, the owner would tie a fiber around the fruit, saying, "This shall be among the bikkurim." According to Simeon, he had to repeat the express designation after the fruit had been plucked from the tree in the orchard (Bik. 3:1). The fruits were carried in great state to Jerusalem. Deputations ("ma'amadot"), representing the people of all the cities in the district, assembled in the chief town of the district, and stayed there overnight in the open squares, without going into the houses. At dawn the officer in charge (the "memunneh") called out: "Arise, let us ascend to Zion, the house of Yhwh our God." Those from the neighborhood brought fresh figs and grapes, those from a distance dried figs and raisins. The bull destined for the sacrifice, his horns gilded and his head wreathed with olive-leaves, led the procession, which was accompanied with flute-playing. Arrived near the Holy City, the pilgrims sent messengers ahead while they decorated the first-fruits. The Temple officers came out to meet them, and all artisans along the streets rose before them, giving them the salutation of peace, and hailing them as brothers from this or that town. The flute kept sounding until they reached the Temple mount. Here even King Agrippa, following the custom, took his basket on his shoulder, and marched in the ranks, until they came to the outer court and hall. There they were welcomed by the Levites, singing Psalms 30:2. The doves which bad been carried along in the baskets were offered for burnt offerings, and what the men had in their hands they gave to the priests. But before this, while still carrying his basket, each man recited Deuteronomy 26:3 et seq.; at the words "a wayfaring Aramæan was my father" the basket was deposed from the shoulder, but while the owner was still holding its handles or rims, a priest put his hand under it and "swung it" (lifted it up), and repeated the words "a wayfaring Aramæan," etc., to the close of the Deuteronomic section. Then placing the basket by the side of the altar, the pilgrim bowed down and left the hall.
The custom of having the section of the Torah read by the priest and not by the pilgrim arose out of the desire to spare the feelings of those that did not know how to read. The rich brought their fruits in gold and silver baskets, the poor in such as were made of peeled reeds; these baskets were left with the priests. The fruit was decorated with other fruits and plants, so that the offering really consisted of the first-fruit, an addition to the first-fruit, and the decorations. These additions had to be eaten in purity like the first-fruit. Like other property of the priest, the bikkurim could be utilized by him to purchase slaves, fields, or cattle; and he could settle his debts or pay his wife's dower ("ketubbah") with them. Judah holds that the first-fruits were considered as the provincial offerings, which the donor could give to anybody he liked. Itwas advisable he should give them to a "ḥaber" in exchange for thanks; while the majority of the rabbis considered them as sacrifices of the altar, which could be divided only among the men of the watch—that is, the division of priests who happened to be on duty—and who should divide them like other sacrifices (Bik. ).
The quantity of the first-fruits to be brought into the Temple was in the Scriptures (Deuteronomy 16:10) left to the pleasure of the owner, but the Rabbis afterward decided that it should amount to one-sixtieth of the whole crop ("Yad," Bikkurim, 2:17). After the destruction of the Temple bikkurim could not be offered, but the Rabbis regarded acts of philanthropy as a proper substitute (Yer. Peah 19a; Lev. R. ), especially in the form of assistance extended to men of learning (Ket. 104).
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Singer, Isidore, Ph.D, Projector and Managing Editor. Entry for 'First-Fruits'. 1901 The Jewish Encyclopedia. https://www.studylight.org/​encyclopedias/​eng/​tje/​f/first-fruits.html. 1901.