The bikkurim (first fruits) were brought by farmers in ancient Israel to be placed near the altar in the Holy Temple in Jerusalem.

Bikkurim in the Bible

The text is familiar to anyone who has attended a traditional Passover Seder: “A Syrian had nearly caused my father to perish: and he went down into Egypt and sojourned there with a few persons, and there What is it doing in the Haggadah?became a nation, great, mighty and numerous.” (Passover Haggadah, 1955 Maxwell House Edition)

Where is this text from, and what is it doing in the Haggadah?

These words are lifted from the verses that Jewish farmers would say every year when they brought bikkurim, first fruits, to the Holy Temple in Jerusalem. Here is the entire narrative in its original context in the book of Deuteronomy:

It will be, when you come into the land which the L‑rd, your G‑d, gives you for an inheritance, and you possess it and settle in it, that you shall take of the first of all the fruit of the ground which you will bring from your land which the L‑rd, your G‑d, is giving you. You shall put [them] into a basket, and go to the place which the L‑rd, your G‑d, will choose to have His Name dwell there. You shall come to the kohen [priest] who will be [serving] in those days, and say to him:

“I declare this day to the L‑rd, your G‑d, that I have come to the land which the L‑rd swore to our forefathers to give us.”

The kohen will take the basket from your hand, laying it before the altar of the L‑rd, your G‑d.

Then you shall call out and say before the L‑rd, your G‑d:

“An Aramean [sought to] destroy my forefather, and he went down to Egypt and sojourned there with a small number of people, and there he became a great, mighty and numerous nation. The Egyptians treated us cruelly and afflicted us, and they imposed hard labor upon us. So we cried out to the L‑rd, G‑d of our fathers, and the L‑rd heard our voice and saw our affliction, our toil and our oppression. The L‑rd brought us out from Egypt with a strong hand and with an outstretched arm, with great awe, and with signs and wonders. And He brought us to this place, and He gave us this land, a land flowing with milk and honey. So now, behold, I have brought the first of the fruit of the ground which You, O L‑rd, have given to me.”

Then, you shall lay it before the L‑rd, your G‑d, and prostrate yourself before the L‑rd, your G‑d. Then you shall rejoice with all the good that the L‑rd, your G‑d, has granted you and your household—you, the Levite, and the stranger who is among you.1

How the First Fruits Were Selected and Sacrificed

The mitzvah of bikkurim began when a farmer in Israel (and some of the surrounding areas) would go out to his field and find budding fruit, and tie a reed around them, verbally declaring them “first fruits.”

This applied only to fruits of the seven species of the land of Israel: wheat, barley, grapes, figs, pomegranates, olives and dates.

The first fruits were brought to the Temple from Shavuot, which the Torah calls “the harvest festival, the first fruits of your work,” until Chanukah.

The Torah does not specify how much fruit was to be brought, but the rabbis said that one should bring at least one-sixtieth of the crop.

The fruit was packed in containers. Wealthy people would use trays of gold and silver, and simple folk would use baskets of grass and reeds. They would also carry turtledoves and pigeons in their hands. Similarly, they would hang turtledoves and pigeons from the sides of the baskets, in order to adorn the first fruits. Those that were with the baskets would be offered as burnt offerings, and those they would bring by hand would be given to the priests.

How were the first fruits brought to Jerusalem? Villagers of each region would gather in a central town, where they would sleep in the city’s thoroughfare. They did not enter the town’s homes, lest they contract impurity by being under the same roof as a corpse.

In the morning, the leader would call out: “Arise and let us ascend to Zion, to G‑d our L‑rd.”

An ox with horns coated in gold would lead the procession, a crown of olive branches on its head, representing the seven species from which the first fruits were taken.2 A flute was played before the procession until it approached Jerusalem. The entire way, the people proclaimed: “I rejoiced when it was told me: ‘Let us go to the house of G‑d.’”3

They would travel for only two-thirds of the day, allowing others along the way to notice them and join in the procession.

When they were close to Jerusalem, emissaries were sent to notify the inhabitants of Jerusalem, and they adorned their first Even important people, such as the king, placed baskets on their shouldersfruits and beautified them. If they had some produce that was fresh and other produce that was dried, the fresh produce was placed on top.

The leaders of the Israelites and of the priests, and the Temple treasurers, would go out from Jerusalem to greet them.

When the procession had entered the gates of Jerusalem, the people began declaring: “Our feet were standing in your gates, O Jerusalem.”4

All of the artisans in Jerusalem would stand and greet them: “Our brethren, the inhabitants of so-and-so, you have come in peace.”

They proceeded through Jerusalem, the sound of a flute accompanying them, until they reached the Temple Mount. There, even important personages, such as the king of Israel, placed baskets on their shoulders and proceeded until the Temple Courtyard, all the while singing Psalm 150.

At that point the Levite choir would sing, “I will exalt You, G‑d, for You have raised me up . . .”5

There, with the basket still on his shoulder, the farmer would make the first declaration: “I declare this day to the L‑rd, your G‑d . . .”

He then held the edges of the basket, and the priest held it from below and waved it up and down and in four directions before reciting the formula “An Aramean [sought to] destroy my forefather . . .”

He then placed the first fruits near the southwest corner of the altar, bowed reverently and departed.

The first fruits were given to the priests who were on duty at that time. They divided the produce among themselves to be eaten within the walls of the holy city of Jerusalem. The priest took the fruit and returned the expensive containers to the owners. In the case of a reed or grass basket, both the first fruits and the basket were given to the priests.

After sleeping in Jerusalem overnight, the farmer was free to return home.6

Bikkurim Today

In the absence of the Temple, the mitzvah of bikkurim no longer applies. However, there are numerous ways in which we carry on the spirit of the mitzvah.

The text of the bikkurim was selected to become a fundamental part of the Passover Haggadah, and the Seder plate is seen as a symbolic representation of the bikkurim basket. Thus, the entire Seder experience becomes an annual reenactment of the bikkurim ceremony. Why was this text chosen? It is a wonderfully succinct telling of our exodus from Egypt and expression of our gratitude to G‑d, just the right text to be expounded on during the Passover Seder.7

In addition, a primary theme of bikkurim is that of thankfulness, appreciating the good we are given. In Hebrew, this is known as hakarat hatov (recognizing the good). The bikkurim ceremony teaches us how important it is to verbally acknowledge G‑d, our The Seder becomes an annual reenactmentprincipal benefactor, as well as His many agents.

The sages say that “one who brings a gift to a Torah sage is considered to have brought bikkurim.”8 And indeed, it was the custom of chassidim to bring such “bikkurim” gifts to their rebbes, particularly around the holiday of Shavuot.

Even though we have no Temple, G‑d assured us through the prophets that when we study about the Temple and its sacrifices, He considers it as if we have built the Temple and brought sacrifices there. Thus, through study of the text in Deuteronomy, along with all the commentaries cited in the Haggadah, the Talmudic tractate of Bikkurim and the further elucidations of Maimonides and others, we hope and pray that the merit of our Torah study be the final act to tip the scales and bring Moshiach. And then, the farmers of Israel will once again bring bikkurim, declaring, “I will exalt You, G‑d, for You have raised me up . . .”9

Further Reading

Here are some classic articles with chassidic insights into this beautiful and intriguing mitzvah:

Questions and Answers About Bikkurim

The Six-Sentence Thank You

I’m a Jewish Body Part

Crossing the Border

The Case of the Basket