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The Essential Nature of Bikkurim

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The Israel Koschitzky Virtual Beit Midrash

Special Holiday Shiur



The Essential Nature of Bikkurim

By Rav Moshe Taragin


Even though Shavuot is known to us as "zeman matan Torateinu," the day on which we received the Torah, this aspect is omitted in the Biblical description of the holiday. Most of the mitzvot which the Torah actually prescribes for Shavuot are communal mitzvot relating to the various sacrificial offerings (shetei ha-lechem, shenei ha-kevasim), as well as the generic holiday mitzvot of pilgrimage, joy, and chagiga offerings. There is one specific mitzva which begins on Shavuot and is alluded to by the Torah: "chag ha-katzir BIKUREI ma'asekha" (the festival of harvest of the first and best fruits). From this description, the gemara assigns Shavuot as the period in which bikkurim (first fruits) first may be brought to the Mikdash. This shiur will investigate the essential nature of bikkurim and, particularly, its relationship to the world of korbanot (sacrifices).

At first glance, we might easily associate bikkurim with the realm of matanot kehuna, priestly gifts. Like teruma and ma'aser, bikkurim are composed of agricultural produce, selected through a process known as hafrasha, can be eaten only by Kohanim, and lastly, permit the eating of the remainder of the produce. (Before bikkurim are selected, the entire produce is known as tevel - prohibited to eat.) In fact, both the mishnayot and the Rambam insert the laws of bikkurim in the section dealing with Zera'im (agricultural laws), which also contains the laws of teruma, ma'aser, etc.

If anything, bikkurim seems very similar to ma'aser sheni (the tithe of produce separated on years 1,2,4,5 of the shemitta cycle and transported to Yerushalayim). The second chapter of Mishna Bikkurim details the respective similarities between bikkurim and teruma, on the one hand, and between bikkurim and ma'aser sheni, on the other. This corroborates our suspicion that indeed bikkurim is comparable to priestly gifts given from agricultural produce.

Amidst this list of similarities to teruma and ma'aser sheni, the mishnayot list several UNIQUE traits of bikkurim which neither teruma nor ma'aser sheni possesses:

1) Unlike the others, bikkurim can be designated (and, according to the simple reading of the mishna, should be designated) while the fruits are still growing on the trees or from the ground. Indeed, the mishna (3:1) cites the opinion of Rabbi Shimon that a second selection should be performed upon harvesting. However, most Rishonim rule against Rabbi Shimon, instead following the ruling of the Tanna Kama, that it suffices to designate the fruits while they are still growing. Teruma and ma'aser MUST be designated after the fruits have been harvested and partially processed.

2) If a person selects bikkurim and they are stolen or lost, he must replace them, unlike terumot and ma'aser, which do not have to be replaced if lost.

3) Bikkurim are offered along with a korban shelamim (peace offering) - something absent from teruma or ma'aser.

4) The Levi'im would sing while the bikkurim were offered (see Bikkurim 3:4).

5) The owner and the Kohen performed tenufa - the ceremony of lifting and waving - with bikkurim. The gemara in Makkot derives the mitzva of tenufa from a linguistic comparison to korban shelamim.

To be sure, the Yerushalmi and the Rishonim cite sources for each of these additional halakhot, and these differences can be accommodated without fundamentally distinguishing between bikkurim and teruma. However, these halakhot and ceremonies of bikkurim are eerily reminiscent of another mitzva - that of korbanot. Korbanot are selected while still alive, in many cases must be replaced if lost or destroyed after selection, are accompanied by the singing of the Levi'im during the sacrifice, and are waved in the ceremony of tenufa.

In fact, one final halakha - which the mishna did not cite - casts this association between bikkurim and korban in even sharper relief. Indeed, ma'aser sheni is transported to Yerushalayim, but it doesn't have to be delivered to the Mikdash (Temple). Bikkurim, like korbanot, have to be carried to the Mikdash, where they are delivered to the Kohen after several ceremonies which are highly evocative of korbanot.

Can we define bikkurim as a pseudo-korban? Stated otherwise, do we view bikkurim as a hybrid of matanot kehuna and korbanot? The aforementioned list is certainly suggestive of this, but we should attempt to locate additional halakhot in order to confirm this suspicion.

An interesting issue arises regarding the cancellation of bikkurim in the absence of a Mikdash. The mishna (2:4) claims that unlike terumot and ma'aser, which apply even without a Beit Ha-Mikdash, the mitzva of bikkurim is only obligatory in the presence of the Mikdash. This in itself might indicate the status of bikkurim as korban, but could just as easily be imputed to unrelated factors. The Rishonim differ as to the source of this limitation of bikkurim. The Rambam and many other Rishonim cite the verses in Shemot (23:19, 34:26) that the bikkurim should be brought to the "house of God." The Rivan, in his explanation to the mishna in Shekalim, cites a Sifri which derives this exemption from another source:

"He should place the bikkurim near the altar" - only during times in which there exists an altar.

Certainly, the latter source strongly establishes bikkurim as a type of korban which must be offered on or near the altar.

It should be noted that these two sources are essentially different and certainly don't overlap. Unlike korbanot, which according to many require only an altar and not a Mikdash, bikkurim might require both. (See the Ramban [Makkot 19] as to whether bikkurim can be offered if the altar is standing without a Mikdash.)

The final mishna in the third chapter of Bikkurim describes the manner of distributing the bikkurim among Kohanim. Rabbi Yehuda demands that bikkurim be given only to knowledgeable Kohanim, to insure that they be treated in the appropriate halakhic manner. The bikkurim can be given to any Kohen who is proficient in the laws of tum'a and tahara (impurity and purity). The Chakhamim (Sages) argue with Rabbi Yehuda on two accounts. The bikkurim must be evenly distributed among the Kohanim serving on call in the Mikdash during the week in which one delivers them - known as the Kohanim of the mishmar. Within this group, any Kohen - even less knowledgeable ones - may receive bikkurim. The reason which the Chakhamim offer to justify both their claims is that bikkurim are "just like sacrifices offered on the altar."

If we read this statement literally, we might conclude that Rabbi Yehuda and the Chakhamim argue over whether bikkurim possess the status of korban. By recognizing this feature, the Chakhamim are able to demand distribution to the serving group of Kohanim (akin to korban) but allow any Kohen to partake (again similar to korbanot, which are treated with greater vigilance and therefore unlikely to be abused). Rabbi Yehuda might reject this concept and allow transfer to non-serving Kohanim, as well as limiting distribution to vigilant ones.

It might be possible to recognize this issue in a fundamental dispute among Tannaim regarding the ceremony of the bikkurim. The gemara (Makkot 18b) cites a dispute between Rabbi Yehuda and the Chakhamim as to whether the act of placing the bikkurim near the altar is a necessary condition for the mitzva's fulfillment, such that its non-performance would invalidate the mitzva. According to Rabbi Yehuda, one can fulfill bikkurim without actually performing hanacha (placing near the altar), while the Chakhamim demand it.

If there is any part of the bikkurim ceremony that is most similar to korban, it would clearly have to be the hanacha. The gemara (Makkot 19a) distinguishes between bikkurim and bekhor (the first-born animal brought to Mikdash and sacrificed), on the one hand, and ma'aser sheni, on the other hand, by demonstrating that the former miztvot each possesses an element reto altar - in the case of bekhor the actual sacrifice and in the case of bikkurim the hanacha near the altar. Wouldn't the Chakhamim's insistence upon the necessity of hanacha indicate their belief that bikkurim contains features of korban? In fact, this dispute might be consistent with the aforementioned debate between Rabbi Yehuda and the Chakhamim at the end of the third chapter of Bikkurim regarding the manner of distribution.

The Yerushalmi (Bikkurim 1:2) cites an additional law that might stem from bikkurim's similarity to korban. Items which themselves were avoda zara (idols) or which were used in such worship are forbidden to use. Once they are canceled from being avoda zara, pleasure can be derived from them. Though they are now permissible for general purposes, they still cannot play any part in a korban, since they are ma'us (disgusting) because of their past, and korbanot deserve a higher grade. According to the Yerushalmi, fruit from a tree which was ONCE avoda zara but was since canceled cannot be part of the bikkurim selection.

This korban-like ruling once again confirms the status of bikkurim as a korban. Interestingly, the Yerushalmi links this issue to the dispute between Rabbi Yehuda and the Chakhamim cited earlier regarding the distribution of bikkurim. The Chakhamim, maintaining the status of bikkurim as korban, would not allow fruits of a tree formerly worshiped as an idol to be used as bikkurim. Rabbi Yehuda might not accept this designation, and would allow canceled avoda zara to be used for bikkurim.

An additional gemara (Avoda Zara 51a-b) might highlight bikkurim's status as korban. Items which are placed upon avoda zara for embellishment are forbidden to use; if they are placed in a belittling manner (hanging ordinary items), they are permitted to use. This distinction applies to general items. If the hung items happen to be substances which are offered on the altar, they are forbidden regardless of the manner or purpose in which they were hung. Among the "sacrificial" items listed are wreaths of grapes. The Rishonim question the classification of bikkurim as sacrificial items and justify this designation only because grapes can be offered as bikkurim (see the Ramban's commentary to Avoda Zara). Once again, we notice the korban dimension within bikkurim.

The Ramban in particular often adopts this association. The verse in Bemidbar (5:8) describes a type of teruma which is "sacrificed to the Kohen." The Sifri asks, "Is teruma actually sacrificed?" It must be referring to bikkurim, which are brought to the Mikdash and "sacrificed." In his commentary to the verse, the Ramban elaborates that the Sifri understood the term "yakrivu" literally, as referring to the sacrificial procedure, and not figuratively (in the sense of bringing close). Hence, it could refer only to bikkurim, which are actually brought to the vicinity of the altar (hagasha) and waved (tenufa). As such, the Ramban continues, the bikkurim belong to the Kohen who actually presided over the ceremony.

(Note - several verses in the Torah suggest that the Kohanim who actually performed the korban receive its relevant parts. The gemara interprets this to mean that the serving mishmar equally divides the korban. Recall the mishna in Bikkurim (3:11) citing Rabbi Yehuda, who considers bikkurim "sacred items of the altar" and limits distribution to the Kohanim of the mishmar.)

In his commentary to Devarim 26:2, the Ramban claims that one who brings bikkurim to another location outside of Mikdash has violated a prohibition similar to shechutei chutz - sacrificing an animal outside of the Mikdash. Indeed, we might question whether this violation is identical to the one governing korbanot. The very existence of this prohibition, according to the Ramban, once again indicates the Ramban's willingness to view a korban component within bikkurim.


Methodological Points:

1) Often a halakha or mitzva exhibits similarities to several different categories. By inspecting the laws, these similarities can be proven to reflect authentic associations with multiple categories.

2) Sources for particular laws can often be indicative of their nature. Deriving the limitation of bikkurim to Mikdash from different verses might affect the nature of this limitation.



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