"You shall bring your first fruits to the House of the L-rd your G-d... " (Ex. 23:19)
The Names of the Festival
Shavuot is the anniversary of the Revelation of the Law at Mount Sinai, when the Children of Israel received the Torah from the Holy One, blessed be He. Shavuot literally means "weeks;" Shavuot is thus known as the Festival of Weeks. It is called so because it culminates the seven week period of counting the omer which begins on the second day of Passover, when the omer barley offering is brought to the Temple. But the Bible also refers to it as the "Feast of Firstfruits" (Exodus 23:16, Numbers 28:26), and the firstfruits cannot be brought to the Temple until
The "Seven Species" of the Land of Israel
In many ways this festival is the celebration of the Land of Israel itself, when thanks is given to G-d for the produce of the Promised Land. The bringing of the firstfruit offering to the Holy Temple is a manifestation of the land's intrinsic holiness, given expression through the holiness of the Temple. The Shavuot offering of "firstfruits" which is mandated by this Biblical commandment to be brought to the Holy Temple and presented to the priest, are the first fruits of the season which ripen on the trees. However, the Divine commandment does not include every species of fruit, but only those of the "seven species for which the Land of Israel is praised," as described by the verse in Deut. 8:8: wheat, barley, grapes, figs, pomegranates, olives, and dates.
In the beginning of the 26th chapter of the book of Deuteronomy, we find detailed instructions relating to this important occasion:
"When you come to the land that the L-rd your G-d is giving you as a heritage, occupying and settling it, you shall take the first of every fruit of the ground produced by the land that the L-rd your G-d is giving you. You must place it in a basket, and go to the site that G-d will choose as the place associated with His name. There you shall go to the priest officiating at the time, and say to him, 'Today I am affirming to the L-rd your G-d that I have come to the land that G-d swore to our fathers to give us'."
"The priest shall then take the basket from your hand and place it before the altar of the L-rd your G-d. You shall then make the following declaration before the L-rd your G-d:
'My ancestor was a homeless Aramaean. He went down to Egypt and sojourned there with a small number of men, but there he became a great, mighty, and populous nation. The Egyptians were cruel to us and caused us to suffer; they placed harsh slavery upon us. We cried out to the L-rd, the G-d of our fathers, and He heard our voice and saw our suffering, our harsh labor, and our distress.'
'The L-rd brought us out of Egypt with a strong hand and an outstretched arm, with great visions, signs and miracles. He brought us to this place, giving us this land flowing with milk and honey. I am now bringing the first fruit of the land that the L-rd has given me.'
Then, you shall set the basket down before the L-rd your G-d, and then you shall bow down before the L-rd your G-d. You, the Levite, and the proselyte in your midst shall rejoice in all the good that the L-rd your G-d has granted you and your family."
How Are the Firstfruits Separated?
When the fruit begins to ripen on the trees, the owner would mark the first fruit to ripen by tying a reed around it. Thus he would literally be bringing the first fruit of his harvest to the Holy Temple, not just a symbolic representation.
The Mishna (Bikurim 3, 1) teaches:
"How are the firstfruits separated? One goes into his field, and finds that his figs, his grapes or his pomegranates have begun to ripen. He ties it around with a reed band (or any other distinguishing mark - in order to identify that these have been separated as firstfruits. This is so that later, when the time comes to harvest the fruit, he will be able to identify exactly which fruits were the first to ripen).
"He ties the band and declares orally: 'These are the firstfruits!'" In effect, it is this declaration which transforms the status of this produce into the Biblically-mandated firstfruits; once the name has been given to them at this point, no other official designation is required. Thus, later, when the fruits are picked, he need not repeat his declaration.
The Pilgrims Make Their Way to Jerusalem
Innumerable streams of pilgrims made their way to Jerusalem from towns and villages all over the Land, in large bands and individually. Many families traveled by foot, with the little children in tow; some rode atop camels and donkeys; some even rode in wagons and chariots. As men, women and children trekked through bountiful golden and green fields of harvest, the entire land was literally teeming with excitement and anticipation, as the great throngs of festival worshippers took over every road and path. They crisscrossed the countryside from every direction and approach, converging together as they traveled towards the city of each vicinity's local Assembly Head, who was the official responsible for the pilgrims.
Descriptions in the writings of the Mishna and Midrashim abound which paint a vivid picture of the caravans of pilgrims in procession, and how these entourages appeared as they bore their firstfruit offerings, by hand, laden in wagons, or on their heads. Though who were at the head of the procession and were closer to Jerusalem, carried fresh fruits - for since they were closer, their was no danger that their offerings would spoil. Those who were further back and who would not arrive as early, brought dried fruits. Sheep, goats and bullocks also accompanied the great processions, to be sacrificed in the Holy Temple as the various holiday offerings.
The Mishna (Bikurim 3, 2) relates how the pilgrims made their way through the way-stations in the field cities on the road to Jerusalem, and how they were welcomed upon entering the holy city.
In the City of the Assembly Head
In each district along the long road to Jerusalem, all the pilgrims from the outlying towns and villages gather together in the city of the local assembly head, who is responsible for the pilgrimage. From there, the entire multitude will continue their procession to Jerusalem all together, in a large entourage-for "The King's honor is in a multitude of people" (Proverbs 14:28), meaning the more the participants, the greater the glory for G-d and His Divine commandments.
In the Assembly Head's city, the pilgrims spend the night sleeping in the town's streets, under the open sky. This is not on account of any lack of hospitality on behalf of the townspeople. Rather, they do not enter into the houses, in order to avoid the possibility of becoming exposed to ritual impurity (because impurity which may be inadvertently caused in a building, effects everything under its roof).
They are awoken at dawn, as the first rays of sunlight begin to illuminate the sky, by the overseer who cries out: 'Get up, and let us go up to Zion, to the House of the L-rd our G-d!'" (Jer. 31:5)
The Approach to Jerusalem
As the caravans of pilgrims draw near to Jerusalem and the Holy Temple, an ox whose horns are overlain with gold is led before them, and flutes are played as the company advances. As they make their way, they sing out "I was happy when they said to me, 'Let us go to the House of the L-rd!' (Psalms 122:1; JT Bikurim 3,5). As the festive entourage draws close to the outskirts of the city, a delegation is sent on ahead to the Holy Temple to announce their arrival.
While awaiting the arrival of the officials and treasurers from the Temple, the pilgrims beautify their firstfruit offerings, placing the dried fruits towards the bottom and the fresh fruit on top.
All of the assistant priests and Levites and the officers of the Temple would go out to greet them, and all the tradespeople of Jerusalem would cease their work to stand and greet them as they entered the gates of the city: 'Our brothers from so-and-so, welcome, and peace unto you!" And as the entourage entered the city, the pilgrims joyously sang "Our feet stood steadfast in your gates, O Jerusalem!" (Psalms 122:2, JT Bikurim 3,5)
Bringing the Firstfruits to the Temple
How Are the Firstfruits Brought?
There are a number of opinions as to how the firstfruits should be brought to the Temple. It is desirable for the offering to be presented in as beautiful and honorable a fashion as possible, in order to beautify the commandment. Such is the practice of the righteous, who seek to demonstrate how precious the will of G-d is to them.
The seven types of fruit can all be placed in one basket, but the most praiseworthy manner in which to observe the commandment is by placing each type of fruit in its own basket. This is the custom of those who are scrupulously pious to observe the Divine commandments.
Thus the sources of Jewish law and practice state: "The choicest way of performing this commandment is to bring the seven species of firstfruits in seven separate vessels, and not in one mixture. The barley should be on the lowest level, with the wheat above it, followed by olives, then dates, with pomegranates above the dates, and figs at the very top" (Tosefta Bikurim 2,8; Maimonides).
The two pigeons which were brought by each pilgrim were also fastened to the firstfruit baskets, either on top (Bikurim 3, 5) or along the sides (Jerusalem Talmud).
Decorating the Baskets
Grapes were positioned amongst the fruits in the baskets as a decoration. There are several opinions as to how these grapes were placed. Decorative leaves were also used to separate between the layers of fruits.
The Rich and Poor of Israel Give Thanks Together
The experience of bringing the firstfruits to the Temple served to unite the entire nation. By expressing heartfelt thanks for G-d's bounty and presenting the beginning of one's harvest to Him, a circle was closed as nature's yield was returned to its origin. The spiritual aspect of the produce was elevated, and all felt a deep reverence, awe and joy as they reflected with the recognition and realization that it is the Holy One who is the Source of all blessing. "And you shall rejoice for all the goodness which the L-rd your G-d has given to you and your household" (Deut. 26:11).
Thus all would stand together, side by side, and participate in this humbling and gratifying experience in the hallowed courts of the Temple - rich and poor alike. "When they entered into the Hulda Gates," states the Mishna, "Even King Agrippa placed the basket on his shoulder" like a common pilgrim. "Every man shall give as he is able, according to the blessing of the L-rd your G-d which He has given you" (Deut. 16:17).
The rich brought their firstfruit offerings in baskets of gold, or of silver; the poor brought their offerings in baskets of peeled willow-shoots. At the conclusion of the ceremony, the wealthy brought their baskets home with them, and the poor gave theirs to the priests (Maimonides, Bikurim, 3:8).
The Firstfruits are Brought Opposite the Entrance to the Sanctuary
The ceremony of bringing the firstfruits offering is held in a special area within the Holy Temple, a section designated as "between the hall and the altar." This area has a special sanctity, and entrance therein is forbidden to ordinary Israelites-and even to blemished priests (who are unfit to serve - Maimonides, Laws of the Temple, 7:20). However, the commandment of the firstfruit offering differs from all other sacrifices, in that an ordinary Israelite is not only permitted, but actually commanded to fulfill this Divine obligation in that very place (see Sifre on Deut. 26:4, and commentary of Malbim). This serves to instruct us how great and precious is the commandment to bring the firstfruits before the Presence of the L-rd.
Reciting the Biblical Passages Out Loud
In the Temple, each pilgrim must read aloud from the Biblical portion of "My father was a homeless Aramaean" (Deut. 26:5) as presents his offering to the priests. The officiating priest recites the Biblical portion together with the pilgrim in responsive fashion. First the priest recites each verse aloud in Hebrew, and the pilgrim follows him, repeating after him verse by verse. This section of Deuteronomy is the required reading to be recited by each Jew when bringing the firstfruits offering to the Holy Temple. (see BT Sotah 32:A; Kesef Mishna on Bikurim 3, 11).
Waving the Firstfruits
At the Holy Temple, the pilgrim lowers the basket from his shoulder, holding it by the rim or by its handles. The officiating priest stands opposite him, places his own hands underneath the basket, and "waves" it before G-d. Maimonides explains that this refers to moving the basket in four directions: extending it outwards, drawing it back towards oneself, raising it and lowering it (Laws of Firstfruits, 3:12).
According to the opinion of one of the commentators on the Talmud (Tosafot, BT Menachot 61:2) the pilgrim and officiating priest hold the basket together and wave it simultaneously. The pilgrim holds the basket underneath, and the priest places his own hands under those of the latter, and they wave the basket together.
Setting the Firstfruits Down
Once the pilgrim has completed the recitation of the Biblical verses, he sets down his basket of firstfruits in the Court, before the Presence of G-d-as the verse states (ibid. v.11), "And you shall place it before the L-rd your G-d." The basket is placed on the southwestern corner of the altar. Afterwards the bearer bows down before G-d, and then departs (Maimonides Laws of Firstfruits)
"And You Shall Prostrate Yourself Before the L-rd Your G-d" (Deut. 26:10)
The ceremony of bringing the firstfruits concludes with an act which both expresses the deepest feelings of thanksgiving, and demonstrates one's acceptance of the yoke of heaven at the same time - bowing down on the ground "before the L-rd." This is done while fully extended on the ground, hands and feet spread out, opposite the stairs leading up to the Sanctuary's entrance. A special stone was used especially for this purpose in the Holy Temple (see also "Mahzor of the Holy Temple" for the Day of Atonement, Part I).
The Twin Loaves
In addition to the firstfruit offering of the seven species, another offering was brought to Temple on Shavuot from the first of the harvest: The "twin loaves," two loaves of wheat bread brought from the new wheat. This special sacrifice, the only leaven ever brought to the Temple, was also "waved" before the presence of G-d and thus elevated... and these breads represented the blessing of G-d's influence and blessing on man's earthly, physical needs throughout the year. These two breads were waved on the eastern side of the altar by a priest, together with an offering of two sheep for the festival.
Preparing Wheat for the "Twin Loaves"-The Procedure of "Rubbing and Beating"
The manner in which the kernels of wheat are prepared to make flour for the offering of the 'twin loaves' differs from that which is generally used by those who toil the soil. For the accepted method is to remove the seeds from the fiber and chaff by threshing and winnowing. But the preparation of flour for this offering consisted of a procedure known as "rubbing and beating." Maimonides explains how this was done. In his words (Laws of Things Forbidden for the Altar, 7:5): "All the wheat used for these offerings must be "rubbed" 300 times, and "beaten" 500 times. It is rubbed once, then beaten twice; rubbed twice and beaten thrice. Thus after a cycle of three and five, the process starts again, until reaching the numbers mentioned above, so that the peel is separated well... afterwards it is ground exceedingly fine."
According to other commentators, "rubbing" is accomplished by simply rubbing the grains in the palm of the hand, and "beating" means pounding with might. Some say this was done with the foot (Maimonides on the Mishna, Menachot 6, 5).
Preparing the Flour for the Twin Loaves
3 seah'im (app. 24 liters) of freshly-harvested stalks of wheat are used for preparing the flour. After the wheat has been rubbed and beaten, it is ground into fine flour using a millstone. Once ground, the flour is then sifted through 12 separate sifters, each sifter being finer than the previous one, so that in the end about 5 liters of exceptionally choice, fine flour has been produced. This is the measure of two isaron - the amount required to bake two loaves of bread.
Kneading and Baking the Twin Loaves.
Each bread is kneaded separately, and leaven is added to enable the dough to rise. The breads are formed into brick-like shapes. Their Biblical measurements: seven handbreadths long and four handbreadths wide (each "handbreadth" measures app. 8 centimeters), and four fingers high (the measurement of a "finger" is about 2 centimeters).
According to the opinion of the great commentator Rashi, the breads are fashioned with four "horns," one horn in each of its four corners. The dough was placed into molds which gave the breads their specific shape, and each bread was placed separately into the oven. When the bread is removed from the oven, it is placed into another tray, so that it will not be ruined (commentaries on Menachot 11, 1).
Trumpets, Flute and Song as the Twin Loaves Are Brought
When the time for the wine libation arrived and the twin loaves were offered, the Levite choir began its music-the singers, trumpeters and musicians. Indeed, the special holiday commandment for this day calls for the blowing of trumpets: "And on the days of your joy, and on your festivals... you shall sound off with trumpets" (Numbers 10:10). Additionally, the festival of Shavuot is included as one of the 12 days of the year in which the flute is played before the altar, even if it falls out on the Sabbath (Maimonides, Laws of Temple Vessels 3:2,5,6).
"Waving" the Festival Sheep Offering Before G-d
The officiating priest waves the two living sacrificial sheep, on the eastern side of the altar before the Presence of G-d. Although the language of the Mishna (see BT Menachot 61:A) seems to indicate that these sheep were waved by the priest simultaneously with the twin loaves, Maimonides' simple interpretation seems to allow for the sheep to be waved separately, perhaps on account of their great weight (app. 150 kg.), which would be difficult enough even without the loaves.
The Priests Partake of the "Twin Loaves" Within the Sanctified Area
Following the act of "waving," the priests eat from the two breads together with the remaining meat from the congregational peace offerings. Members of all the priestly shifts join together for this repast, which is eaten within the sanctified area of the Court (Maimonides, T'midim U'Musafim, 8:11).
There is a general rule that all but kings of the Davidic dynasty are forbidden to sit in the court. However since this meal includes meat which is "holy of holies" and eating from it was a necessary part of the Divine service, it was eaten sitting down with honor and dignity (Tosafot BT Yoma 25:A). It was eaten in a regal manner (BT Zevachim 91:A).
In reality, each priest received only a minute amount of both the twin loaves and the sacrificial meat... but he was entitled to eat them together with other foods (BT Temurah 23:A) since this would add honor to the meal by allowing him to feel satiated from it (Tosafot BT Pesachim 120:A).
With regard to the exact location of where this meal took place, it would appear that it could not have been within the Court proper, since that area was filled to capacity with the holiday pilgrims. It is probable that the priests partook of the twin loaves in the Place of Fire, within the sanctified section which opens out onto the court (Midot 1,6). The twin loaves are baked in an oven in this same chamber; this was the same oven in which the showbread was baked.