Timely Thoughts

First Fruits (Bikkurim) and the Talmudic View of Capital: An Essai in the Philosophy of Halakhah

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Bezalel Naor

The Torah commanded that the first fruits (bikkurim) be placed in a basket and brought to the site of the future Temple. There, the basket is presented to the kohen or priest and the owner recites a lengthy narrative (mikra bikkurim) which recounts the collective history of the People of Israel. The narrative commences with the tribulations of Jacob in Laban’s house, continues with the descent to and bondage in Egypt, proceeds to the wondrous Exodus from Egypt, and concludes with the arrival in this “land flowing with milk and honey” (Deuteronomy 26:9). The last line, in an abrupt update, switches to first person singular: “And now, behold, I have brought the first fruit of the land that You have given me, O Lord” (Deuteronomy 26:10).

According to the Mishnah, the bringing of the first fruits to the Temple Mount in Jerusalem would commence on the festival of Shavuot and continue until Sukkot. (The actual bringing could continue until Hanukkah, as explained in m. Bikkurim 1:6, but after Sukkot the accompanying narrative would no longer be recited.)

If not transparent enough, the Sefer ha-Hinnukh spells out the rationale of this biblical commandment:

When the Lord has been good to man and blessed him and his land to yield fruits, and he has merited to bring them to the House of our Lord, it is fitting for us to arouse our hearts with the words of our mouths, and to think that everything reached one from the Master of the World, and one should recount His kindnesses to us and to all the People of Israel in general (Sefer ha-Hinnukh, No. 606).

Hoping not to sound clichéd, this is a lesson in humility. In fact, Maimonides, in an interesting twist of language, refers to this narrative as “viddui,” or confession.[1]

With this introduction in mind, my aim is to examine one unit of the many laws of bikkurim as laid out in the Talmud. This single halakhah may very well serve as a microcosm of a “philosophy” of bikkurim.

In Tractate Gittin 47b, we read:

If a man was coming on the way [to Jerusalem] and the first fruits of his wife were in his hand, and he heard that his wife died—he brings [the first fruits] and recites [the narrative].

Only if she died [does he recite the narrative]?[2]

The law would be the same if she did not die, but it is necessary to stipulate that the law obtains even if she dies, for I might have assumed that in such a case we should decree [that the husband not recite the narrative] because of the principle enunciated by Rabbi Yosé bar Hanina, who said:

[If the owner of the land] harvested them and sent them with an emissary, and the emissary died on the way [to Jerusalem]—the owner brings, but does not recite, for it says: “You shall take” (ve-lakahta) and “You shall bring” (ve-heveta).[3] [One does not recite] unless the taking (lekihah) and bringing (hava’ah) are done by one person.[4]

[Therefore,] we are apprised [that there is no decree disqualifying the husband from reciting if his wife died].

Rabbi Yosé bar Hanina taught that when it comes to the recitation of mikra bikkurim there can be no division of labor. The “taking” and “bringing” of the first fruits can be done by two people, but in such a scenario, upon arrival at the Temple, the owner will not be able to recite the narrative. Mikra bikkurim is contingent upon the harvesting and conveyance being executed by one and the same person.

One is left wondering. Why would we have entertained the thought of comparing the two vastly different scenarios? Who would ever make an analogy between the case of the husband en route discovering that his wife died and Rabbi Yosé bar Hanina’s case of the emissary dying en route?

Rashi explains that his wife’s death has altered the husband’s relation to her real estate. While yet she lived he had merely the usufruct (kinyan perot).[5] With her death, as her heir, he now has full possession of the land (kinyan ha-guf). One might have thought that his new socioeconomic status has transformed the husband into a new man, so to speak. Whereas previously, in a sense he was bringing his wife’s bikkurim as her surrogate or shali’ah, he is now transformed into the owner or be‘alim.

By outer appearances, it is as if the emissary died en route and has been replaced with the owner himself. Thus, one might have deemed this case analogous to that of Rabbi Yosé bar Hanina, where the emissary actually, physically died en route and the bringing of the bikkurim was completed by the owner.

For some reason not made explicit in the Talmud, the analogy breaks down. Therefore, no gezerah or decree precluding the husband from reciting mikra bikkurim was ever issued. Where does the analogy founder? Perhaps the point is that it beggars belief that an upward turn in financial status would turn one into another person altogether; that the original version and the wealthier version would be for all intents and purposes “two bodies” (trei gufei).[6]

Mikra bikkurim requires continuity from the harvesting of the fruits until their arrival at the Temple. The lekihah and hava’ah must be done by one and the same person. The physical death of the shali’ah shatters the unity. An uptick in terms of ownership of the parcel of land does not.

A talmudic genius who delved deeply into the relation between personhood and capital was Rabbi Joseph Rosen (1858-1936), the famed Rogatchover Gaon.[7] One of his points of departure is the statement that occurs several times in the Talmud: “Since if one should desire to relinquish ownership of his possessions and become a poor man, it would be fitting for him, now too it is fitting for him.”[8]

One context where this principle of potentiality is applied is that of demai. Demai is produce which may or may not have been tithed. Most common folk do tithe, but then there is the minority who do not. The ruling is that only the poor are allowed to consume demai; the wealthy may not (m. Demai 3:1). Now what is the halakhah if the first night of Passover a rich man eats matzah of demai? Does he fulfill the commandment of eating matzah? The answer is affirmative. Though in actuality he is a wealthy man, in potential he is a poor man, for he can always divest himself of his assets.[9]

There is continuity of personality. Rich and poor are not two bodies (trei gufei). Loss of possessions does not transform one into a different person. Essentially, one remains the same person. This is the opposite of the scenario of bikkurim discussed earlier. There the individual’s financial status improved. The principle remains the same. Altered economic status does not result in discontinuity of personality. The integrity of personhood is uncompromised.

The Rogatchover is well-known for applying to the study of Talmud philosophic categories of thought gleaned from Maimonides’ Guide of the Perplexed. In regard to the potential transformation “from riches to rags,” the Rogatchover writes: “The issue is whether this is an attribute of the body or an external cause … And so wrote Rabbenu [i.e., Maimonides] in the Moreh that every change comes from elsewhere, not from the essence … Perforce, this is not an essential change.”[10]

The method by which this East European rabbi harnesses Aristotelian modalities obtained by way of Maimonides’ Guide to the study of Talmudic jurisprudence might bring a smirk to the face of a cynic. Nonetheless, the Rogatchover’s point is well taken. Capital is not the essence of the human being but rather external; it belongs to the realm of the material (homer) as opposed to the formal (tzurah).

A talmudic genius in the same league as the Rogatchover, of the generation preceding him, was Rabbi Zadok Hakohen Rabinowitz of Lublin (1823-1900).[11] In the eighty-sixth chapter of his seminal work Tzidkat ha-Tzaddik, he wrote: “Whatever is a possession (kinyan) of man—his wife and children, manservant and maid, ox and donkey, tent and silver and gold, and all that is his—all is from the root of his soul.”

This is a mystical vision of the interconnectedness of the various elements of reality. Such empathic thinking could lead to enhanced concern for ecology and the environment. It could sensitize one to social justice and animal welfare.

But the key word in Rabbi Zadok’s pronouncement is “kinyan.” Rabbi Zadok came to the Hasidic court of Izhbitsa (Polish, Izbica) from the Talmudic stronghold of Lita. It is as if he brought with him the Talmudic terminology. Thus, the “torat ha-kinyanim” (theory of possessions or acquisitions) of Talmudic analysis was married to the mysticism of the Ba‘al Shem Tov.

Rabbi Zadok is fascinated by the way in which a man’s moral standing impacts upon that of his children, his wife, and even his beast (as is the case regarding the donkey of Rabbi Pinhas ben Yair in b. Hullin 7a). All are “from the root of his soul” (mi-shoresh nafsho). Once again, we have an accomplished Talmudist (albeit turned Hasidic master) exploring the borders of selfhood, probing the relation between man and his acquisitions, and arriving at a notion of possessions as extensions of one’s personality.

Is it pure coincidence that Rabbi Zadok penned those lines in 1848, the very year in which Karl Marx issued his Communist Manifesto?[12] Did the same Zeitgeist waft into the Hasidic study hall of Izhbitsa and the secret society of The League of the Just in Brussels? The sound waves of the “bat kol” certainly registered differently in the consciousness of the two men.[13]

Marx would go on to publish these lines: “The mode of production of material life determines the social, political and intellectual life process in general. It is not the consciousness of men that determines their being, but, on the contrary, their social being that determines their consciousness.[14]

Marx observed how in the Industrial Era the alienation of the laborers from their products resulted in their alienation (Entfremdung).

Rabbi Zadok’s stance is diametrically opposed to that of Marx. Where Marx has capital defining personality, Rabbi Zadok has a romantic notion of the “root of the soul” impacting upon “kinyanim.”

The moral lesson of Bikkurim is that one’s material bounty is a divine gift. Material possessions are not essential to, nor do they define one’s personality. This assertion was buttressed by the Rogatchover with proofs from the Guide. Two contemporaries, Rabbi Zadok Hakohen of Lublin and Karl Marx, expressed opposite ideas concerning the relation of man to his possessions. Whereas for Rabbi Zadok they may be extensions (but never the essence of self), for Marx, capital defines man.


[1] See Maimonides, Mishneh Torah, Bikkurim 4:1 and earlier 3:10. Cf. Rabbi Nissim ben Reuben of Gerona’s commentary to Alfasi, Megillah (7a in foliation of Alfasi): “Viddui Bikkurim.” Finally, see Rabbi Aryeh Leib Ginsburg, Turei Even, Megillah 20b; and Rabbi Joseph Babad, Minhat Hinnukh, commandment 606, para. 1.

[2] In Talmud Yerushalmi, Rabbi Shim‘on ben Lakish is truly of the opinion that only after the wife’s death may her husband, as heir, recite mikra bikkurim. See y. Bikkurim 1:5 and Ketubot 8:5; and Rabbi Samson of Sens, Bikkurim 1:5.

[3] The exact word “ve-heveta” does not occur in Scripture. See Rashbam, Bava Batra 81b, s.v. ve-lakahta ve-heveta.

[4] The two brothers Rabbi Samuel ben Meir (Rashbam) and Rabbi Jacob ben Meir (Rabbenu Tam) disagreed as to the definition of lekihah. Rashbam equated it with “betsirah” or harvesting, and Rabbenu Tam understood it as “removal from the house.” See Tosafot, Gittin 47b, s.v. betsaran.

[5] The land entered the marriage as “nikhsei melug.”

[6] See Rashi, Temurah 20a, s.v. trei gufei ninhu, and Tosafot, ibid., s.v. hanei trei gufei.

[7] See Rabbi Menahem Mendel Kasher, Mef‘ane’ah Tzefunot (New York, 1959), 6:6, “‘Ani ve‘Ashir” (pp. 147-149); and Rabbi Moshe Shelomo Kasher, Ha-Ga’on ha-Rogatchovi ve-Talmudo (Jerusalem, 1958), 49-52 (“‘Ani ve‘Ashir”).

[8] In b. Bava Metzi‘a 9b, in regard to Pe’ah, this is typified as a mi-go.” In regard to Demai, the terminus technicus “mi-go” interchanges with “keivan.” See the following note.

[9] B. Pesahim 35b. See also Berakhot 47a; Shabbat 127b; ‘Eruvin 31a; and Sukkah 35b.

[10] Tzofnat P‘ane’ah, Mahadura Tinyana (Dvinsk, 1930), 73c (p. 146). Though in this particular instance the Rogatchover did not provide the exact reference in Maimonides’ Guide, by cross-referencing to other passages in the Gaon’s writings, Rabbi Kasher was able to find the Rogatchover’s two sources in the Guide: “All bodies subject to generation and corruption are attained by corruption only because of their matter; with regards to form and with respect to the latter’s essence, they are not attained by corruption, but are permanent.” Maimonides, Guide of the Perplexed III, 8 (Pines trans. p. 430); “Everything that passes from potentiality to actuality has something other than itself that causes it to pass, and this cause is of necessity outside that thing.” Guide II, eighteenth premise (Pines trans. p. 238). See Mef‘ane’ah Tzefunot (New York, 1959), 6:6:5 (p. 148) and 14:4:1,2 (p. 221). The exact references to the Guide are supplied in Tzofnat P‘ane’ah, Kuntres Hashlamah (Warsaw, 1909), pp. 3 and 26.

[11] See the account of the meeting of Rabbi Joseph Rosen of Denenburg (later Dvinsk, today Daugavpils, Latvia) and Rabbi Zadok, in the short biographical sketch that prefaces Sihat Mal’akhei ha-Sharet (Lublin, 1927).

[12] See Rabbi Gershon Kitsis’ bibliography of the writings of Rabbi Zadok in Me’at la-Zaddik, ed. Kitsis (Jerusalem, 2000), 346.

[13] Rabbi Zadok expounded his theory of the bat kol or “kala de-hadra” (Zohar), whereby a divine idea enters the world and is immediately refracted through the consciousness of various people and individuals, yielding some astonishingly different interpretations. See Dover Zedek (Piotrków, 1911), 71d-72c; English translation in Bezalel Naor, Lights of Prophecy (New York: Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations of America, 1990), 38-41.

[14] The Portable Karl Marx, ed. Eugene Kamenka (New York: Penguin, 1983), 159-60.

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Bezalel Naor
Bezalel Naor is the author of several works of Jewish thought with concentration upon Kabbalah, Sabbateanism, and Hasidism. Recently, his annotated English translation of Rav Kook's seminal work Orot was published by Koren/Maggid (2015). Naor is presently at work on a kabbalistic novel and collection of poems.