The Message of the Mitzva of Bikurim
"ואלו מביאין וקורין מן העצרת ועד החג, משבעת המינים מפירות שבהרים מתמרות שבעמקים ומזיתי שמן מעבר הירדן. רבי יוסי הגלילי אומר, אין מביאין בכורים מעבר הירדן שאינה ארץ זבת חלב ודבש".
מסכת ביכורים, פרק א', משנה י'
[Mesechet Bikurim, Perek 1, Mishna 10]
“And these bring and recite (one who brings) from Shavuot until Sukkot, from the seven species, from produce on the mountains, from dates of the valleys, and from oil-olives (even if they are) from beyond the River Jordan. Rabbi Yose HaGalili says: First fruits are not brought from beyond the Jordan, for that is not a Land flowing milk and honey.”
The Torah commands bringing “Of the first of fruit of the soil” to the Beit Hamikdash (Temple) in Jerusalem. [Devarim (Deuteronomy) 26:2] This mitzva applies only after Eretz Yisrael (the Land of Israel) was conquered and settled, and specifically within the Land. The farmer offers praise and thanks to God for His beneficence to Am Yisrael (the Nation of Israel), in taking them out of Egypt and bringing them to Eretz Yisrael, the “Land flowing milk and honey.” In so doing, the farmer thanks God for his own harvest. This is the declaration which accompanies bringing bikurim (first-ripened fruit) to the Beit Hamikdash. The Mishna quoted above discusses from which fruits bikurim are to be brought and from which places in Israel they are to be brought.
The Mishna presents a difference of opinion among the sages. The (anonymous) author of the Mishna is of the opinion that bikurim are to be brought from the portions of Eretz Yisrael east of the River Jordan, while Rabbi Yose HaGalili asserts that the areas east of the Jordan are not “flowing milk and honey,” and hence precluded by the Torah’s formula for the declaration of bikurim: "וַיְבִאֵנוּ אֶל הַמָּקוֹם הַזֶּה וַיִּתֶּן לָנוּ אֶת הָאָרֶץ הַזֹּאת אֶרֶץ זָבַת חָלָב וּדְבָשׁ"
“And He brought us to this place, and He gave us this Land, a Land flowing milk and honey.”[ Devarim 26:9]
Questions on the Mishna
1. Why does the Torah limit the places from which bikurim are to be brought?
2. Why does Rabbi Yose HaGalili understand that growing the fruit in the “Land flowing milk and honey” is a prerequisite for bringing bikurim?
Analysis of the essence of the mitzva of bikurim and the reason that bikurim are brought only from the fruit of the Land will provide answers to our questions.
The Message of the Mitzva of Bikurim
In his book Akeidat Yitzḥak, Rabbi Yitzḥak Arama (1420 – 1494) offers an explanation of the message of the mitzva of bikurim. The essence of accepting God is the understanding that all good emanates from Him, and that human success stems from God. Eretz Yisrael is the place most suited to connecting with God. The reason Am Yisrael is commanded to fulfill the mitzva of bikurim only upon entering the Land [Devarim 26:1] is that specifically at that point there is a danger that the nation will be caught up in the bounty of the Land and believe that it is “My strength and the might of my hand that has accumulated this wealth for me," [Devarim 8:17] forgetting that it is God’s grace which brought them into its Land, and that He is the source of all good. Therefore, the Israelite farmer is commanded to bring the first fruits of his harvest to God, attesting to the understanding that everything comes from God.
Kli Yakar (Rabbi Shlomo Ephraim Luntschitz 1550 – 1619) suggests that the mitzva of bikurim expresses the nature of Israel’s connection to its Land and conveys the message that the Land was given to Am Yisrael by God. Once in the Land and connecting to its physical goodness, Am Yisrael is at risk of forgetting that the Land is a Divine gift which God designated for His nation.
The above comments explain the connection between the mitzva of bikurim and Eretz Yisrael.
While the entire Land of Israel is holy, not all places within the Land have equal status. Bikurim may be brought only from those places which fully express the message of the mitzva.
This brings us to analysis of the eastern side of the Jordan.
The Eastern Side of the Jordan
Parashat Matot [Bamidbar (Numbers) 32] describes the request of the sons of Gad and Reuven to be allowed to settle the eastern side of the Jordan, a request motivated by the shevatims’ (tribes’) abundance of livestock. Midrash Bemidbar Rabba [22:7] teaches:
"כן אתה מוצא בבני גד ובני ראובן שהיו עשירים והיה להם מקנה גדול וחבבו את ממונם וישבו להם חוץ מארץ ישראל, לפיכך גלו תחלה מכל השבטים"
We find that the sons of Gad and of Reuven were wealthy and possessed of much livestock; they held their wealth dear and chose to settle outside the Land (while the eastern side of the Jordan has the sanctity of the Land of Israel, it is a lower level than the sanctity of the Land west of the Jordan), it is for this reason that they were exiled before the other tribes.
The mistake of the shevatim of Gad and Reuven was their failure to appreciate that both their wealth and the Land are gifts of God.
The western side of the Jordan is the Chosen Land which God originally designated for His nation. While the eastern side of the Jordan is part of the Land of Israel, it is not a “Land flowing milk and honey.” In the Midrash quoted above, Chazal (our Sages) equated dwelling east of the Jordan with dwelling outside the Land.
There is a story which conveys the Chazal’s message. In his old age, an extremely wealthy person wrote a will for his children, or more exactly, he wrote two wills. The man asked his sons to read the first will immediately after his death, before his burial, and the second only one month later. The children wondered about their father’s request, but honored it. After the father’s death, the children read the first will, which contained the request to be buried in his favorite pair of socks. The children found this request to be quite odd. In addition, the local burial society explained to the children that the body may not be buried in socks. While the children wished to honor their father’s request, they reluctantly realized that they were unable to.
One month after the father’s burial, the children read the second will, in which their father wrote: “You have no doubt discovered that it was not possible to bury me in my socks. In fact, I was not at all interested in being buried in my socks, but merely wanted you to understand that even one as wealthy as I cannot bring even a pair of socks with him to the World of Truth.
Exposition of the Opinion of Rabbi Yose HaGalili
Returning to the questions we raised, we can say that the basis of the mitzva of bikurim is the understanding that whatever we have is a gift of God. Eretz Yisrael too was given to us as God’s gift and in order to allow us to fulfill our destiny in the world. The Land is not ours simply by virtue of conquest. The choice of the sons of Gad and Reuven to prefer the eastern side of the Jordan demonstrates their failure to appreciate this point. They did not proceed to the Land God designated for them, but chose an area more suited to their tangible needs. They saw the Land as serving their economic needs, which is an invalid attitude towards the inheritance given by God. Thus, in Rabbi Yose HaGalili’s opinion, bikurim may not be brought from the eastern side of the Jordan.
Bikurim strengthen the connection of Am Yisrael (the People of Israel) and God by expressing awareness that all comes from Him. As well, bikurim strengthen the nation’s connection to the Land through recognizing the greatness of the Land. Eretz Yisrael is Divine gift, and we therefore love the Land and long to be within her. The bounty and blessings of Eretz Yisrael intensify our appreciation of God’s goodness to us. The mitzva of bikurim does not apply universally, but specifically in the place most conducive for expressing this appreciation.
The eastern side of the Jordan is not on the same level as the western side, which alone is considered a “Land flowing milk and honey.” It is not the Land which God initially designated for Israel. Therefore (in Rabbi Yose HaGalili’s opinion) bikurim are not brought from the eastern side of the Jordan, since it does not convey love of the Land by virtue of its being God-given.
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