Skip to main content

Crop, Confession and Covenant

Rav David Silverberg



This shiur is dedicated in memory of Shmuel David Reece, David S. Reece z"l,
by his children an
d grandchildren.


     Parashat Ki-Tavo begins with two mitzvot involving agricultural life in the Land of Israel.  The Torah makes many demands of the Jewish farmer in the Land, requiring a series of donations from the yearly crop, each of which featuring its own set of rules and specific responsibilities.  The details of these laws appear in the first section of the mishna, Seder Zera'im.  The first eleven verses of our parasha discuss the mitzva known as "bikkurim," or "first fruits," to which an entire masekhet (tractate) is devoted in Seder Zera'im.  This is not the first time in the Torah where we read of this mitzva.  In Sefer Shemot (23:19; 34:26), it earns very brief mention as part of the sampling of mitzvot presented following the Revelation at Sinai: "The first fruits of your soil you shall bring to the house of the Lord your God."  This obligation arises again amidst the list of "matenot kehuna" - required gifts to the kohanim - presented in Parashat Korach (Bemidbar 18:13): "The first fruits of everything in their land, that they bring to the Lord, shall be yours [the kohanim]."  Here, in Parashat Ki-Tavo, we encounter a more elaborate discussion, with specific focus on the associated obligation generally known as, "mikra bikkurim," or the bikkurim proclamation.  The farmer must issue a specifically-worded declaration, as dictated in the verses, when bringing his first fruits to the kohen.


     This particular requirement appears to form the point of connection between bikkurim and the second mitzva outlined in our parasha - "viduy ma'asrot," literally, "the confession of tithes" (18:26:12-15).  To properly understand this obligation, we must briefly review the basic rules of tithes.  Two obligations vis-à-vis a farmer's yield apply annually: "teruma," a small contribution to a kohen; and "ma'aser rishon," or "first tithe," a donation of one-tenth of one's crop to a levi.  An additional requirement fluctuates in accordance with the Torah's seven-year agricultural cycle.  In most years, a farmer must take an additional tenth of his crop to Jerusalem and partake of the produce there; in the third and sixth years, this requirement is replaced by a mandatory 10% donation to the poor.  The seventh year, of course, is observed as a sabbatical year, wherein no agricultural activity is permitted and no tithes can be required, insofar as everyone, technically, owns all produce grown in the land.


     In essence, then, the tithing cycle concludes every third year.  In Parashat Ki-Tavo, the Torah requires a farmer to issue a verbal accounting of his tithing every three years, in which he declares that he has satisfactorily upheld his obligation concerning the requirements of this last ma'aser period.


     In this week's shiur, we will carefully analyze these two required proclamations - mikra bikkurim and viduy ma'asrot, and consider the comparisons and distinctions between them.  Finally, we will assess the location of these two mitzvot within the structure and framework of Sefer Devarim.


Mikra Bikkurim


     The bikkurim proclamation is clearly far more complex than the viduy ma'aser and thus requires more careful analysis and explanation.  This declaration consists of two basic components, the first of which involves a puzzling statement addressed to the kohen: "higadeti ha-yom la-Hashem Elokekha ki vati el ha-aretz… " (26:3).  This peculiar declaration literally translates as, "I have told to the Lord your God, for I have come into the land… "  The syntactical difficulty in this verse is obvious: the second clause should contain the content of that which the individual "tells" God.  However, by beginning with the word, "ki" ("for," or "because"), it appears to constitute the reason for the first clause, which would clearly be illogical: how could the farmer's entry into the land be a reason for "telling" God anything?


     The commentators have suggested two basic approaches in dealing with this verse.  Some, like Targum Yonatan Ben Uziel, reinterpreted the first word of this statement, "higadeti," such that it does not require any modification later in the verse.  According to the Targum Yonatan, the term denotes praise and thanksgiving.  The individual thus informs the kohen that he has come to praise God for bringing Benei Yisrael into the Promised Land.


     The second approach, espoused by Seforno and others, attempts to read the verse's second clause in such a way that it does, indeed, modify the first.  This is done simply by redefining the Hebrew word, "ki" - which often means, "because" - as "that," or the Hebrew, "she-," another common usage of the term.  The verse thus reads as follows: "I have told the Lord your God that I have come into the land… "  Of course, this approach, too, must adjust its translation of the first term, "higadeti."  Why would a landowner have to "tell" God that he has entered the land?  Therefore, Seforno, and, more explicitly, Rav Shimshon Refael Hirsch, explain the word to mean, "demonstrate," rather than, "tell."  The act of bringing the first fruits itself expresses the notion that this farmer has entered the land promised to him by God.  Thus, immediately upon his arrival in the Temple with his bikkurim, the landowner informs the kohen that he understands the meaning and significance behind this ritual: to express his awareness of the fact that he and his nation have entered this land.


     Further explanation of this symbolic meaning behind bikkurim is provided by Seforno, who explains this introductory declaration as follows:


"Therefore, I, the foreigner, who has come into the land as a resident through His gift, have brought the first fruits that are worthy for one who gives land as a gift or on lease."


     The landowner brings the first produce of his field much like a sharecropper must pay his lord the percentage owed before himself partaking of the yield.  It is striking that even centuries after Benei Yisrael's conquest and settlement of the land, farmers must still declare annually, "I have come into the land… " as if they personally had emigrated from foreign countries to Eretz Yisrael.  Even a landowner who had never in his life stepped foot outside the boundaries of the Promised Land must make such a proclamation.  This speaks volumes about the nature of this entire obligation: it compels the farmer to reassert his "foreigner" status on his territory, even if he tills the same land owned and cultivated by his family for generations.  He comes submissively before the Almighty to acknowledge His ownership over the land.  For this reason, perhaps, the farmer refers to God as "the Lord your [the kohen's] God."  The individual approaches God with such humble submission that he is allowed an audience only with His representative, the kohen, and may not address God Himself.  (Only in the final verse of mikra bikkurim, as we will see, does the farmer speak directly to God.)


     This brings us to the second section of mikra bikkurim (26:5-10), recited by the landowner after handing the first fruits to the kohen.  Here he briefly reviews the story of the Egyptian exile and the Exodus, concluding with Benei Yisrael's entry into the land.  On one level, this recounting of the exile and redemption merely continues the theme begun with the landowner's statement to the kohen.  He acknowledges not only that he is a foreigner of sorts in Eretz Yisrael, but that he - and his entire people - began in slavery under bitter persecution, with not a glimmer of hope for the possession of any personal property, let alone a thriving, independent country.  Only with God's intervention did he arrive in the Land, where he owns land and sows and reaps his own crop.  More generally, perhaps, recalling the process of exile and freedom serves to put one's personal achievements into a broader, historical perspective.  Success often leads to an exaggerated focus on one's own accomplishments and inflate the importance of his specific endeavors.  This section of mikra bikkurim compels the landowner to view his agricultural success within the broader context of God's redemption of Benei Yisrael for the purpose of establishing a unique relationship with them in His Land.  In any event, the historical segment of mikra bikkurim is intended as a humbling experience for the farmer, as he acknowledges his dependence on the Almighty for the soil he tills and the crop he harvests.


     The account of exile and freedom is then followed by the conclusion of mikra bikkurim: "And now I have brought the first fruits of the land which You, O Lord, have given me."  Wherein lies the significance of this conclusion, and what does it add onto everything that has been said until now?  The answer may lie in the final clause - "which You, O Lord, have given me."  To what does this refer?  What does the farmer describe here as having been given to him by God?  It appears from the commentaries of the Rashbam and Seforno that it refers to the Land, such that here, too, the landowner emphasizes God's exclusive role in bringing Benei Yisrael to the Land.  According to this approach, it is difficult to identify the contribution of this conclusion to the general theme of mikra bikkurim.  Perhaps, therefore, we may entertain a different possibility, that "which You, O Lord, has given me" refers not to the land, but to the first fruits.  In other words, we might read the verse as follows: "And now I have brought the first fruits-of-the-land which You, O Lord, have given me."  If so, then the farmer here attributes to God not only the land itself, but the crop, as well.  God has compassionately given him not only the soil on which to farm, but even the produce.  Significantly, nowhere throughout the Torah's discussion of bikkurim does it even allude to the farmer's efforts in tilling the land.  From the perspective of this mitzva, it is the Almighty who provides the grain, fruits and vegetables of Eretz Yisrael, not the human being.  The farmer thus declares that the fruits he brings to the Temple have been given to him by God, rather than produced through his own initiative and effort.


     In conclusion, mikra bikkurim expresses submission and even a degree of self-negation.  The farmer portrays himself as but a helpless foreigner mercifully and undeservingly redeemed by the Almighty, who brought him to God's land and allowed him to feed off the fat of the earth.  We will more fully appreciate the significance behind this perspective of mikra bikkurim when we contrast it with the second mitzva addressed in our parasha - viduy ma'aser.


The Ma'aser Confession


     A quick glance at viduy ma'aser reveals that it more closely resembles the final verse of mikra bikkurim than either of the previous two sections of mikra bikkurim.  Until its final verse, the ma'aser confession describes the individual's satisfactory fulfillment of all his responsibilities concerning the required tithes.  Just as the farmer concludes mikra bikkurim by proclaiming, "I have brought the first fruits of the land," in fulfillment of the divine command, so does the individual affirm his adherence to God's law in viduy ma'aser.  This parallel is noted by the Malbim, as he develops the distinction between the historical segment of mikra bikkurim and the personal quality of its conclusion.  The Malbim observes that the Torah introduces the obligation of mikra bikkurim with two expressions: "ve-anita ve-amarta" ("You shall respond and you shall declare").  He claims that these two terms correspond to the two sections of mikra bikkurim: "ve-anita" refers to the brief historical review of the exile, and "ve-amarta" speaks of the final verse, where the farmer affirms his fulfillment of the bikkurim obligation.  Viduy ma'aser, by contrast, is introduced with the single term, "ve-amarta," the word used earlier in reference to the final verse of mikra bikkurim.  In this way, the Torah itself suggests an association - or at least a parallel - between the final verse of mikra bikkurim and the ma'aser confession.


This clear parallel notwithstanding, these two proclamations are hardly comparable.  The most obvious difference between them is the brevity of mikra bikkurim as opposed to the elaboration of viduy ma'aser.  Whereas the affirmation regarding bikkurim occupies but a single verse in the bikkurim proclamation, affirmation constitutes the central theme of viduy ma'aser:


"I have cleared out the consecrated portion from the house; and I have given it to the Levite, the stranger, the fatherless, and the widow, just as You commanded me; I have neither transgressed nor neglected any of Your commandments: I have not eaten of it while in mourning; I have not cleared out any of it while I was impure, and I have not deposited any of it with the dead.  I have obeyed the Lord my God; I have done just as You commanded me."


These verses express pride and confidence in one's observance of God's laws.  Whereas the final verse of mikra bikkurim simply states the facts - "I have brought the first fruits… " - viduy ma'aser gives a sweeping assessment of the individual's compliance: "I have obeyed the Lord my God; I have done just as You commanded me." 


     This confidence allows the farmer to conclude with the supplication that forms the final verse of viduy ma'aser: "Look down from Your holy abode, from heaven, and bless Your people Israel and the soil You have given us, a land flowing with milk and honey."  Chazal (in the Sifrei), cited by Rashi, succinctly capture the essential meaning of this petition: "We have done that which You decreed upon us, now You do that which is incumbent upon You."  It is unlikely that any of us would have allowed ourselves the audacity to interpret this verse as such a brazen demand of the Almighty, as it were.  But the Sages noted the simple, obvious structure of viduy ma'aser: an elaborate claim of complete fulfillment of one's obligation, followed by a petition that the Almighty bless His people.  Chazal explained that the second section follows naturally from the first: the farmer's compliance with God's laws allows him to demand that God bless Benei Yisrael with successful crops in the future.


     Herein lies the basic distinction between mikra bikkurim and the ma'aser confession.  In the former, the individual receives an undeserved gift from the Almighty and must therefore bring a gift as a sign of appreciation and recognition.  In the latter, the farmer has satisfied his requirement and thus rightfully deserves God's blessing.  Rav Yaacov Steinman, in his shiur for the VBM parsha series last year, described the distinction as follows: in mikra bikkurim, God has done His part, and thus man must do his; in viduy ma'aser, man has done his part, so now God must do His.


The Two Sides of the Covenant


     These two mitzvot, then, reflect the two aspects of mitzva observance.  On the one hand, we must observe and perform by virtue of our status as God's nation.  The redemption from Egypt itself formed a bond between God and Benei Yisrael that requires our unwavering compliance with His command.  Having begun our national existence in bondage, we became the Almighty's servants when He freed us from Pharaoh and his taskmasters.  Secondly, we must observe the commandments in order to guarantee our survival in Eretz Yisrael.  As we discussed in our shiur to Parashat Eikev, the climatic reality in the Land of Israel requires divine assistance to survive there, assistance that we earn through our observance.  In mikra bikkurim, we express our obligation by virtue of God's having taken us from Egypt; in viduy ma'aser, we speak of God's obligation towards us, as it were, once we obey His command.


     With these two commandments, Moshe concludes his  presentation of specific mitzvot that had begun in Parashat Re'ei (12:1).  Several reasons have and can be offered as to why he selects these two laws, of mikra bikkurim and viduy ma'aser, as a fitting conclusion to the mitzva-unit.  One explanation may arise from the verses immediately following these two mitzvot, in which Moshe summarizes the covenantal relationship between God and Benei Yisrael:


"On this day the Lord your God commands you to observe these laws and rules… You have chosen the Lord today, [for Him] to be for you a God and follow in His ways, and to observe His laws and commandments and rules, and you will obey Him.  And the Lord has chosen you today, [for you] to be for Him a treasured people who shall observe all His commandments, and to set you in fame and renown and glory high above all the nations that He has made, and for you to be a holy people to the Lord your God, as He promised." (26:16-19)


[The precise meaning of these verses is subject to a debate among the commentaries, revolving primarily around the terms, "he-emarta" and "he-emirekha," which we translate here as, "chosen," following Rashi's interpretation.]


     In this passage, Moshe succinctly lists the commitments of each "party" in this covenant between God and His people.  Benei Yisrael take it upon themselves to acknowledge the exclusive divinity of the one, true God and to obey all His commands.  In turn, He promises to make the Israelites a treasured people, enjoying success and prosperity under His unique and singular providence.  This brief description of the covenant forms the final summary of the mitzva section.  (Note that chapter 27 begins a new address to Benei Yisrael.)  Moshe reminds the people that they must obey the commandments for two reasons: because they have taken the responsibilities of the Torah upon themselves, and because in response to their obedience, God will, as He promised, bless them.  Benei Yisrael are bound by their covenantal relationship to God in and of itself, and by their dependence on God's promise to them, which they earn through their observance of the mitzvot.


     The duration of Parashat Ki-Tavo, through Parashat Nitzavim, develops further the concept of the covenant between God and His people.  (See especially 28:69, chapter 29.)


     One could speculate that herein lies the particular significance of mikra bikkurim and viduy ma'aser within the context of Moshe's address.  These two obligations call upon the individual to affirm his acceptance of the two aspects of the covenant.  In mikra bikkurim, one declares his basic obligation and debt of gratitude to the Almighty for establishing this relationship with Benei Yisrael.  Viduy ma'aser then expresses the awareness that by upholding our responsibilities of the covenant, we ensure that God will uphold His. 

This website is constantly being improved. We would appreciate hearing from you. Questions and comments on the classes are welcome, as is help in tagging, categorizing, and creating brief summaries of the classes. Thank you for being part of the Torat Har Etzion community!