Timely Thoughts

Mikra Bikkurim at the Seder: A View from Deuteronomy

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Tzvi Sinensky

This is the fourth in a series arguing that there are unexpected biblical roots for many Jewish holidays and their practices. By exploring these foundations, we gain fresh insight into many well-trodden aspects of the Jewish tradition. Read the first article in the series here, the second here, and the third here.

The problem is familiar enough: why does the Haggadah feature mikra bikkurim, the grateful farmer’s declaration, as the textual basis for analyzing the miracles of the Exodus, instead of the original story in Parshat Bo?

Many of the classic solutions are widely known.[1] Daniel Goldschmidt claims that in the early centuries of the Common Era, when the Haggadah was being formed, Jews were simply more familiar with the text in Devarim.[2] The brilliant if controversial Yisrael Yuval theorizes that the Rabbis sought to avoid the text in Bo for a polemical reason: many Easter homilies were based on Christological renderings of Exodus 12. They therefore preferred to select a different chapter entirely.[3]

Joshua Kulp suggests that the relative brevity of the passage in Deuteronomy made it more attractive for inclusion on the already-lengthy Seder night.[4] R. Joseph Soloveitchik similarly contends that if Torah study is the primary vehicle for retelling the Exodus narrative, the concise text in Deuteronomy better serves this purpose than the far longer narrative in Exodus.[5] Finally, R. Shmuel Goldin hypothesizes that the farmer, who never left Egypt himself, is meant to serve as a role model for the Passover celebrant: just as the farmer successfully linked his personal narrative to the Exodus, we are urged to do the same. Had we used the verses in Parshat Bo, the model of one who “sees himself as if he left Egypt” would be lost.[6]

Many of these resolutions are rooted, naturally enough, in an understanding of the Seder night or the historical moment in which the farmer’s recitation was introduced as part of the Haggadah liturgy. None is rooted in an understanding of the larger significance of the pilgrim’s recitation. Yet, as we will demonstrate, a proper understanding of the Rabbis’ selection of mikra bikkurim is best understood against the backdrop of the book of Deuteronomy as a whole.

This is particularly true given that the aforementioned commentators sidestep a basic observation: the farmer’s declaration allocates a full four verses to the Exodus, and just two to the entry to Israel. Given that the declaration is intended to thank God for gifting us “the land flowing with milk and honey,” this proportion seems imbalanced. What’s more, the farmer could have easily omitted the Exodus entirely. Instead, he seems to disproportionately underscore the Exodus.

The pilgrim’s emphasis on the Exodus is part of a larger pattern that recurs throughout Deuteronomy. It’s not so much that Moses regularly references the Exodus – that is to be expected – but the regularity with which he does so, especially as compared with the sin of the Spies (Devarim chapter 1), Matan Torah (only mentioned in Devarim chapters 4-5), and the Golden Calf (only mentioned in Devarim 9:8-21), each of which receives significant emphasis but on only one occasion apiece.

Moreover, Moses unexpectedly invokes the Exodus in particularly consequential contexts. For instance, as opposed to Parshat Yitro, which explains that Shabbat commemorates creation (Shemot 20:11), Parshat Vaethanan contends that Shabbat is intended to recall the Exodus (Devarim 5:15). As the commentators note, this linkage is bewildering: Shabbat and the Exodus seem to have no connection.[7] And, as opposed to the rebuke of Parshat Behukotai, which ends on an optimistic note (Vayikra 26:44-45), Ki Tavo concludes with the prediction that the Jews will be sold again into Egyptian bondage (Devarim 28:68).

Why the repeated, seemingly disproportionate emphasis on the Exodus? As Nahmanides notes in his Introduction to Devarim, Moses invokes the Exodus not only because of its centrality, but also to demonstrate to the Jewish people that God wishes the best for them.

The theme of God’s beneficence occurs repeatedly throughout the sefer. To take just two examples, Moses exhorts the nation that “the Lord commanded us to observe all these laws, to revere the Lord our God, for our lasting good and for our survival” (6:24). Later, he reminds them to “keep the Lord’s commandments and laws, which [He] enjoin[s] upon you today, for your good” (10:13). Moses’ point is simple: as the Jews are on the cusp of entering the Land of Canaan, they might feel overburdened by the host of commandments God imminently will demand of them. Addressing this concern, Moses reminds the people that God is not capricious. Of course, if the Jews continue to sin and overlook God’s kindness, they will be severely punished. But in the end, the commandments are not intended to make life miserable but to enable the Jewish people to flourish.

Again and again, Moses returns to this motif. The word tov appears twenty-eight times in Sefer Devarim. Moreover, the emphasis on the mitzvot being for the Jews’ good also explains the conspicuousness of the hovot ha-levavot [obligations of the heart] in the book of Devarim. Throughout Parshat Vaethanan in particular, Moses urges the Jews to revere God (6:2) and love Him (6:5), because He loves them (7:8). Our obligation to love God is an outgrowth of the fact that He desires the best for us.

Conversely, during the desert sojourn, Moses regularly cites the Jews’ complaints to underscore their inability to appreciate God’s benevolence. Hoping that the new generation will not be entrapped by the slave mentality that plagues their parents, Moses underscores the twin sentiments of underappreciation and appreciation, as he tries to move a new generation from the former toward the latter.[8]

Urging a new generation not to fall into the mentality of the previous generation, Moses references the Exodus no less than twenty-one times in his final address.[9] God’s miraculous intervention, he argues, is the clearest evidence that God loves His people.

This accounts for the anomalous references to the Exodus in relation to Shabbat and the rebuke. As Maimonides suggests (Guide to the Perplexed 2:31), the verse in Va-Ethanan suggests that the Exodus enabled us to observe and appreciate the gift of Shabbat.[10] Had we not been freed, we would be unable to enjoy a weekly respite from hard work. Shabbat, like all the commandments, is a loving gift from God, and the Jews should respond by faithful observance.

Much the same may be said for the rebuke, which concludes on a straightforward if sobering note: spurn the gift of the Exodus, and you will be sold right back into Egyptian bondage. What is more, in this light, we may understand Moses’ admonition in Parshat Shoftim that the king not return the nation to Egypt (17:16) along similar lines: whatever the king does, he ought not desire to roll back Jewish history and return the Jewish people to an abusive place that they thought they had left for good.[11]

And so, Moses concludes, the events of Exodus serve as evidence that the gifting of Canaan and its attendant commandments are borne of love. This also explains why Moses opens his farewell speech with the story of the Spies, who questioned the value of the Land: the book of Devarim, which combats precisely such ingratitude, opens with the Spies’ shortcoming.

The farmer’s appreciation of God’s gifts can be even more fully understood in light of Ki Tavo‘s extensive textual parallels to the episode of the spies in Parshat Shelah,[12] as noted by R. Elchanan Samet.[13] Picking up on these striking similarities, R. Menahem Ziemba[14] cites the Arizal as having suggested that bikkurim are a tikkun, antidote, to the sin of the spies. If the spies were unable to appreciate the uniqueness of God’s gift that is the Land of Israel, the farmer celebrates precisely this kindness. If the spies’ spiteful report was the ultimate act of ingratitude, the farmer’s heartfelt appreciation is the perfect paradigm for the praise we are charged to offer on the Seder night.

In fact, in the classic verses cited in the Haggadah, Moses makes precisely this point, linking the Exodus and entry to Canaan:

When, in time to come, your children ask you, “What mean the decrees, laws, and rules that the Lord our God has enjoined upon you?”you shall say to your children, “We were slaves to Pharaoh in Egypt and the Lord freed us from Egypt with a mighty hand. The Lord wrought before our eyes marvelous and destructive signs and portents in Egypt, against Pharaoh and all his household; and us He freed from there, that He might take us and give us the land that He had promised on oath to our fathers. (6:20-23)

This is precisely the pilgrim farmer’s achievement: he fulfills the mandate of the Deuteronomic Jew, atoning for the generation of the desert.[15]

In this light we may return to mikra bikkurim. The farmer fulfills the entire message that Moses seeks to impart. R. Soloveitchik put it the following way:

Even though haggadah (as in “ve-higgadta le-vinkha”) and mikra bikkurim constitute two separate, independent mizvot, their common root is to be found in the norm of hakarat ha-tov, expressing gratitude and thanksgiving.[16]

To R. Soloveitchik’s insight about the centrality of gratitude to the Seder night we may add one further observation. The farmer sees the fullest evidence of his gratitude as rooted not just in the Exodus, but in its larger significance: God redeemed us from Egypt because He cares for us, and He gifted us our Homeland for the same reason. The second-generation pilgrim atones for the sins of his parents’ generation by correctly seeing the beneficence of God as manifest by his gift of Canaan and as evidenced by the Exodus. It is for this reason that mikra bikkurim features the Exodus so heavily: far from an afterthought, a true appreciation of the Exodus’ lesson is the starting point for the farmer’s declaration.

In this light, the pilgrim’s prayer is the perfect model for the Seder participant. We too have been gifted a rich heritage, yet it is filled with persecution and countless other struggles. Like the farmer of old, despite the attempts of the Lavans and Pharaohs to destroy us, we remain eternally grateful, and see the events of the Exodus as a model for our own appreciation of God’s ongoing kindness.


[1] For useful summaries, see David Silber, A Passover Haggadah: Go Forth and Learn (Philadelphia: JPS, 2011), 1-3; and R. Shmuel Goldin, Unlocking the Torah Text, Devarim (Jerusalem: Gefen Publishing House, 2014), 262-6.

[2] The Passover Haggadah: Its Sources and History (Jerusalem: Bialik Institute, 1960), 30.

[3] Two Nations in Your Womb: Perceptions of Jews and Christians in Late Antiquity and the Middle Ages (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2006), 109.

[4] Joshua Kulp and David Golinkin, The Schechter Haggadah: Art, History, and Commentary (Jerusalem: Schechter Institute of Jewish Studies, 2009), 213-15.

[5] Shiurim le-Zekher Abba Mari z”l, Vol. 2 (Jerusalem: Mossad ha-Rav Kook, 2002), 156-7.

[6] Ibid., 265-6.

[7] See, for example, Nahmanides to Deuteronomy 5:15. Bothered by the apparent incongruity, some commentators sought to downplay the connection between Shabbat and the Exodus. Ibn Ezra (Shemot 20:10, Peirush Sheni) maintains that unlike creation, remembering the Exodus is not the reason for Shabbat, but merely for including one’s servants in the day’s observance. Alternatively, Nahmanides (ibid.) contends that the Exodus is not a theme in its own right, but that its miraculousness serves to reinforce our faith in God as Creator.

The seeming difficulty in drawing this connection may have motivated Maimonides (Hilkhot Shabbat 29:1) to omit the requirement of mentioning the Exodus in his description of the essential obligation of Kiddush, notwithstanding R. Aha bar Yaakov’s teaching that one is obligated to mention the Exodus in Kiddush (Pesahim 117b). For further discussion of the halakhic implications of this requirement, see Tosafot Rid (Pesahim 117b s.v. tzarikh), Magen Avraham Orah Hayyim 271:1, Minhat Hinnukh 31, and Beiur Halakhah Orah Hayyim 271 s.v. mi-yad.

[8] This also accounts for the emphasis on chosenness and being children of God, such as in 14:1. It is also no coincidence that Sefer Devarim describes the land of Canaan as “flowing with milk and honey” seven times, more than any other book in the Bible.

[9] 4:20, 5:15, 6:12, 7:8, 7:18-20, 8:14, 10:19, 10:22, 13:6, 13:11, 15:15, 16:1-3, 16:12, 17:16, 20:1, 23:5, 24:9, 24:19, 24:22, and 25:17.

[10] See also Bekhor Shor to Exodus 20:10.

[11] It is not only regarding the Exodus that Moses argues for God’s goodness. A close reading of Va-Ethanan demonstrates that a primary thrust of Moses’ invocation of the Sinaitic revelation is to argue for God’s beneficence: As Devarim chapter five concludes:

Be careful, then, to do as the Lord your God has commanded you. Do not turn aside to the right or to the left.

Follow only the path that the Lord your God has enjoined upon you, so that you may thrive and that it may go well with you, and that you may long endure in the land you are to possess. (5:29-30)

[12] For a summary of some of these parallels, see http://congkins.blogspot.com/2009/09/parshat-ki-tavo-mitzvah-of-bikurim-and_04.html.

[13] Iyyunim be-Farashot ha-Shavua, Vol. 2. (Jerusalem: Mekhon Ma’aliyyot, 2002), 398-9.

[14] Sefer Hiddushei ha-Gaon R. Menahem Ziemba, no. 50.

[15] It is worth noting that we find this linkage elsewhere in the Haggadah, such as in Dayyenu, in which we express gratitude for each stage of God’s redemption.

[16] Kol ha-Rav, cited in The Seder Night: An Exalted Evening (New York: OU Press, 2009), 60.

Tzvi Sinensky
Rabbi Tzvi Sinensky is the Director of Interdisciplinary Learning and Educational Outreach at the Rae Kushner Yeshiva High School in Livingston, NJ, where he teaches Judaic Studies classes, collaborates with faculty to deepen the culture of interdisciplinary student learning throughout the school, and develops educational outreach programs for the school’s families and partner communities. He previously served as Rosh Beit Midrash of Kohelet Yeshiva in Lower Merion, PA. A popular lecturer and author, Rabbi Sinensky completed book-length treatments of the Jewish return to Zion during the Second Temple period and the mitzvah of Torah study, published by Yeshivat Har Etzion’s Virtual Beit Midrash. He holds a graduate certificate degree in Gender Studies from Utah State University, and is pursuing a PhD on the intersection between Jewish thought and gender studies at the Bernard Revel Graduate School of Jewish Studies. His interdisciplinary high school course on Jewish & Western philosophy and the humanities was awarded the inaugural Kohelet Prize.