FIRST FRUITS, that portion of the fruits of each year's harvest that following the biblical injunction was to be taken to the Temple in Jerusalem.
In the Bible
The Hebrew term bikkurim and related terms for the “first fruits” derive from the same root as bekhor, “firstborn (see Firstborn). On the same general principle that the firstborn of man and beast belonged to the God of Israel and were to be devoted to Him, the first fruits, including the first grains to ripen each season, were to be brought as an offering to God. Every Israelite who possessed the means of agricultural productivity was under this obligation (Ex. 23:19; 34:26, Num. 15:17–21; 18:12–13; Deut. 26:1–11). A frequent synonym for bikkurim is reshit, “the first [fruits].”
Deuteronomy 26:1–11 contains detailed procedures for the offering of the first fruits, including the text of a liturgical recitation incumbent upon any who offered their first fruits in the sanctuary. The manner of oblation prescribed in that passage represents a distinctive mode, whereby the substances involved were not burnt on the altar but were merely displayed, and later assigned to the priests as part of their cultic income (cf. Num. 18:12–13; Deut. 18:3–5). On the other hand, Leviticus 2:14 speaks of minhat bikkurim, “a grain offering of first fruits,” prescribing that part of it be burnt on the altar. It would seem, therefore, that at least some of the grain brought as first fruits was disposed of in that manner, although the prescription of Leviticus may reflect the tendency to accommodate older forms of sacrifice to the particularly Israelite practice of the burnt offering. It is difficult to identify this minhah within the context of first fruit offerings. It has been identified with the “grain offering of fresh grain” (minhah hadashah) of Leviticus 23:16; but that poses a problem, since the rule was that no leavened dough could be brought up on the altar, and the offering of fresh grain mentioned in that passage was to be baked from leavened dough. The offerings of first fruits were both an individual obligation and a part of public festival celebrations, particularly the celebration of Shavuot, also called Hag ha-Bikkurim, “the first fruits festival” (Ex. 23:16; 34:22; Lev. 23:16–17; Num. 28:26).
A sheaf of the new barley harvest ('omer) was offered on the second day of the Passover festival (Lev. 23:10–11, 15–16). According to the Mishnah (Bik. 1:3,6,9), in Second Temple times the pilgrimage to the Temple for the purpose of offering the first fruits could be undertaken anytime between Shavuot, in the late spring, and Sukkot, in the fall (but see below), but the festival of Shavuot was the first date for this offering. A rite notionally related to the offering of first fruits was the bringing of the fruit of trees during their fourth year of fruit bearing (Lev. 19:23–25). In both cases, an offering was required to release the fruit, as it were, for consumption by its owners. According to Leviticus 23:17, the offering of fresh grain was to be presented in the form of two loaves of baked, leavened bread.
There are no specifications as to the amounts or percentages of seasonal yield required for the offering of first fruits, but there does exist, on the other hand, a text for the recitation which was to accompany the offering, in Deuteronomy 26:5–10. A part of it has been incorporated in the Passover Haggadah. It consists of a review of Israel's early history, tracing Israelite origins to the pre-Egyptian period, and expressing gratitude to God for the redemption from Egypt. It culminates in an acknowledgment that as an Israelite, the one reciting the declaration is thankful for having been brought to the rich Promised Land, in recognition of which he is offering the first fruits of the land as a sacrifice. Only a few such recitations are preserved in the Torah, another being designated for the bringing of a type of tithe (Deut. 26:13–15).
Typologically, the offering of first fruits would seem to represent a very ancient practice, and yet it is not referred to in the historical books of the Bible, in descriptions of cultic activity, and most references are limited to the Pentateuch, post-Exilic literature and the Book of Ezekiel. The celebration mentioned in Judges 9:27, in connection with the grape harvest, may be related to the offering of first fruits, and a possible reference may be I Samuel 2:29. The Book of Proverbs (3:9) refers to the practice as a prerequisite to securing God's material blessings.
As noted above, certain problems remain in reconciling the codes of Leviticus and Deuteronomy, and generally speaking, the biblical evidence leaves some gaps in understanding precisely how the rites connected with the first fruits operated.
[Baruch A. Levine]
According to rabbinic interpretation the duty of bringing first fruits was confined to the seven distinct species growing in Erez Israel, i.e., wheat, barley, grapes, figs, pomegranates, olive oil, and dates (“honey”). The fruits were given to the priests after the donor had recited the confession (Deut. 26; 1–11) acknowledging God as the one who redeemed the Israelites from the Egyptian bondage, and expressing gratitude to God who brought them to the Promised Land. The bikkurim were brought between Shavuot (hence its designation as Hag ha-Bikkurim—“the first fruits festival”) and Sukkot. They could be brought as late as Hanukkah, but after Sukkot no declaration was made.
If the fruits were stolen or became unclean or unfit for consumption, others had to be brought. A proselyte also had to offer the first fruits but he did not recite the confession as he could not say “which the Lord swore unto our fathers to give us” (Deut. 26:3). An Israelite (i.e., one who was not a priest or levite) was strictly forbidden to eat the first fruits; if he consumed them in error, a fifth of their worth in money had to be added as restitution (penalty). The Mishnah (Bik. 3:2–9) gives a vivid account of the first fruit offering ceremony in the period of the Second Temple. In the early morning hours, the people gathered in the open squares of the district towns and started their journey to Jerusalem, singing “Arise ye and let us go up to Zion, unto the Lord our God.” The people walked in procession headed by an ox whose horns were wreathed with gold and silver, and his head with olive branches. The pilgrims were accompanied by musicians playing the flute. Rich people took the first fruits in baskets of silver and gold, while the poor carried them in wicker baskets made of peeled willow branches (which they gave to the priests together with the first fruits). The baskets contained the choicest fruits and had pigeons perched on top; these were sacrificed at the Temple. At the outskirts of Jerusalem, the procession was met by the Temple prefects and treasurers, and the pilgrims were escorted amid the cheers of the populace to the Temple Mount. There the choir of the levites welcomed them with the chanting of Psalm 30. Originally, everyone who could recite the confession did so by himself. However, in order not to shame those who did not know the text (and might, therefore, refrain from offering the first fruit) it was ordained that all people repeat the confession as it was read to them by the priest.
Those who lived close to Jerusalem brought fresh fruit and those who lived far, dried fruits. The minimum quantity of first fruits that could be offered was 1/60 of the harvest. The first fruit had to be brought only from the harvest of the soil of historic Erez Israel. According to rabbinic law, however, this included also sore parts of Transjordan and southern Syria.
The first-fruit offering was accompanied by other shelamim (“peace offerings”) and the pilgrims were bound, out of respect for the Temple, to stay in Jerusalem overnight before returning to their villages (Deut. 16:7). Like all terumah (“heave offerings”), the first fruits were consumed by the priests. A priest in mourning for a relative was, however, forbidden to eat them. With the destruction of the Temple, the duty of first-fruit offerings was suspended. The description of the first-fruit offering in the Mishnah Bikkurim is corroborated by Philo (Spec. 2:215–222).
In modern lsrael, the kibbutzim hold bikkurim celebrations on Shavuot which are evocative of the ancient Temple ritual. The children participate in a procession in which agricultural products are carried and donations are made to the Jewish National Fund for land reclamation.
[Editorial Staff Encyclopaedia Judaica]