First Fruits 101

Back when the Torah was originally given, the three Hebrew main-events each year were inseparable from locally grown agriculture.  Even as city-folk, we can see the parallels with spiritual fruit which blossom and produce tangible growth in our attitudes and outlook throughout the year.   Before jumping into allegory, themes, and metaphor, here’s an abbreviated breakdown of the practical aspects of First Fruits, the aptly named beginning of this cycle of harvest and celebration.

Agriculturally:

Agriculturally speaking, the idea behind the day of First Fruits is simple enough.  The fresh produce from each season’s planting cannot be eaten until this day has finally come.  Technically, if one year’s timing or climate is off by a week or two, it’s permitted to harvest the crop, it just can’t be consumed until the High Priest completes his ceremony before YHWH.  Since it’s specifically the barley harvest that happens in the earliest spring, all Israelite farmers, not to mention people sick and tired of canned goods from last season, patiently await this day.  On the day after the weekly Sabbath which follows the start of Matzah, the High Priest takes the first sheaf (aka an omer) of barley and waives it before YHWH.  This officially marks day one of this new year’s harvest season.  From that moment forward, each individual crop has its first harvested fruits set-apart for YHWH.  This amount is different than a “tithe”, which is literally 10% of your harvest…the first fruits offering is more of a symbolic quantity, left up to the discretion of each farmer.  Throughout the fifty days of Shavuot, baskets of such first fruits would be brought to the Temple.  (This is where the expression “counting the omer” comes from, although that phrase doesn’t appear in scripture specifically.)  The day after the Feast of Weeks is over, the wheat harvest would then officially begin.  The rest of the summer and fall crops would be treated similarly until the final feast of Sukkot, in the 7th month, where the remaining tithes and offerings would be brought once again.  For this reason, Sukkot is also known as “The Feast of Ingathering”.

Linguistically :

Looking at the language and terms the Torah gives us, it’s surprisingly difficult to separate the “Feast of First Fruits” from “Shavuot” since technically it’s all one long celebratory event.   Both day one and day fifty have their own focus, but the words we are given in Scripture makes dissecting the two not-so-easy.

For example, “The Feast of First Fruits” is a phrase you’ll actually never read in the Bible, except maybe in various translations study notes or chapter headings.  As nerdily accurate as I strive to be (except of course in my English grammar and spelling) I have to admit this is simply a traditional English phrase assigned to day one of Shavuot.  The Hebrew phrase Ha Yom Ha Bikkurim (The Day of First Fruits) is also completely traditional.  That exact phrase is used in Numbers 28:26, but the full sentence is this: “On the day of the first fruits, when you offer a grain offering of new grain to the YHWH at your Feast of Weeks, you shall have a holy convocation.  You shall not do any ordinary work,,,”  Since only day fifty is a “Holy Convocation”, than the phrase “The day of the first fruits” is referring to offering wheat grain on that final day.  The letter of the law alone would then make “The Day of First Fruits” to be synonymous with the final day, not the starting day. 

When the concept of First Fruits is first mentioned in Exodus 23:16, it’s called “The Feast of the Harvest of First Fruits“, or in Hebrew Chag HaKatzir Bikkuri.  But looking closer, that too seems to be connected more to the final day of celebration (Shavuot) than the first day of the harvest.  The first word of that phrase, chag, means “pilgrimage feast”, and only the final day of the 50 truly requires a Hebrew to travel to the Temple.  (This is why Jerusalem was packed in Acts Chapter 2.)

Next we come to Leviticus 23:10 where the phrase “Reshit Kitzir” is mentioned, meaning “Head of the Harvest.”  This seems to nail it right on, but its still not used as a proper name, as is done so emphatically with “Pesach”, for example.   Reshit kitzir describes more of the timing and the focus of day one.

A few verses later in Leviticus 23:12, we see another phrase, Yom Hanifcem et HaOmer, which is my own horrible transliteration.  If you say that out-loud to anyone fluent in Hebrew, please don’t tell them you read it here first.  It translates to “The Day of the Waving of the Sheaf,” which again perfectly describes the action the High Priest would do on this day, but isn’t a proper title either.  Plus, it’s a little wordy for a Holiday, don’t you think?

My personal vote for the name for day one is Reshit Kitzir “Head of the Harvest”, but even after more than a decade  of celebrating and counting and studying, we still continue to call day one, “The Day of First Fruits”.  Technically and thematically it is 100% true, even if the phrase itself is hard to pin down in scripture.  I may just have to leave it to my children to rebrand it for my grandchildren’s sake.  Tradition and repetition is powerful stuff.

Prayerfully:

Another set of verses that is often overlooked, especially by we non-farmers (living outside of the land and with no Levitical High Priest) is this detailed set of instructions as to the thankful spirit behind our offering of first fruits, whatever those fruits may be:

Deuteronomy 26:1-11, “When you come into the land that YHWH your God is giving you for an inheritance and have taken possession of it and live in it, you shall take some of the first of all the fruit of the ground, which you harvest from your land that YHWH your God is giving you, and you shall put it in a basket, and you shall go to the place that YHWH your God will choose, to make his name to dwell there.  And you shall go to the priest who is in office at that time and say to him, ‘I declare today to YHWH God that I have come into the land that YHWH swore to our fathers to give us.’  Then the priest shall take the basket from your hand and set it down before the altar of YHWH your God.  And you shall speak these words before YHWH your God:”

“‘A wandering Aramean was my father. And he went down into Egypt and sojourned there, few in number, and there he became a nation, great, mighty, and populous.  And the Egyptians treated us harshly and humiliated us and laid on us hard labor.  Then we cried to YHWH, the God of our fathers, and YHWH heard our voice and saw our affliction, our toil, and our oppression.  And YHWH brought us out of Egypt with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm, with great deeds of terror, with signs and wonders.  And he brought us into this place and gave us this land, a land flowing with milk and honey.  And behold, now I bring the first of the fruit of the ground, which you, O YHWH, have given me.’ And you shall set it down before YHWH your God and worship before YHWH your God. And you shall rejoice in all the good that YHWH your God has given to you and to your house, you, and the Levite, and the sojourner who is among you.”

Here are some takeaways from these verses:  

The blueprint to experience the thankfulness that drives us through the rest of the year is plotted out in this second set of verses.  

This prayer is designed thematically in the same way that Messiah taught us The Lord’s Prayer.  It’s not supposed to be memorized and robotically repeated…it’s demonstrating a series of thoughts that leave our spirits in the right place for the season. 

Matthew 6:9-13, Messiah said, “Pray then like this:

“Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name.

Your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.

Give us this day our daily bread, and forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors.  And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil.”

Like the Lord’s Prayer, the First Fruits prayer begins with connecting to our Father, in this case with Abraham, but “Holy be your name” kicks in immediately.  The Holy name, YHWH, is used seven times first in the instructions for interacting with the High Priest, and then used seven more times in our modeled interaction between the farmer and YHWH Himself.  How literally and numerically perfect.   By instantly putting father (father Abraham and Father YHWH) first we humble ourselves, and approach Him as children, which is the only way to see the Kingdom of God.   

This spirit of humility continues to pour out as we acknowledge the fact that we are were once wanderers, free agents without knowledge of YHWH and with nothing but worldly wisdom, if there is such a thing.  That leads us to recognize that our wanderings led us to be trapped, needing a miracle and desperate for a savior.  When finally cried out, the savior was right there, and he freed us.  He led us away from our past and will take us to a place where we can be fruitful.   All of this, including remembering the mighty miracles that freed us, is “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in Heaven.”  

Thanking YHWH for our daily bread is exactly what our Deuteronomic farmer does next.  “I bring the first of the fruit of the ground, which you O YHWH have given me.” 

Both prayers then quickly shift the focus to showing grace and charity to others.  Once that fruit is produced, we offer it gladly, not just to YHWH, but to all those we see in need.  Of course this works with literal fruit, which is limited, but how much more does it work with the fruits of the spirit!   Forgiveness first and foremost, but continuing through forgiveness to love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.

Both prayers minimize the importance of ourselves, while elevating Him and others.   This is the nature of the Kingdom of God, and certainly it’s the spirit we are intended to soak up at the start of the feast cycle each year.  If you are waiting for the Kingdom to come, follow these steps, and you’ll begin to see that it’s actually all around you.

Geographically

The phrase “the place that YHWH your God will choose to make His name to dwell there” certainly ends up referring to Jerusalem historically, but I find it important to point out the Torah itself doesn’t ever mention Jerusalem.  To me, at least, this shows that the spirit of commands like these (and every feast, really) aren’t meant to be geographically limited.  He chose us and He puts His name upon us.  He’s building a living temple out of us.  He’s given us a perfect High Priest, and offered His Holy Spirit to us.  Of course this doesn’t mean we have Levitical authority to sacrifice animals or build altars, but it should lead us to take the spirit of commands like this more personally and more seriously.   First Fruits (or whatever you choose to call it) should bring out the same level of thankfulness that we see in the above verses.  It doesn’t matter if we’re farming just outside Jerusalem, mowing our yard in Nashville, or watering a begonia in Brooklyn.  Where ever we are, we are commanded to praise humble beginnings, and bloom where we have been planted. 

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