“And you shall take from the first of all the fruit produced by your land that the LORD your G-d is giving you. And you should place it in a basket and go to the place that the LORD your G-d will choose to associate with His name.” (Devarim 26:2)
I would bet many people are not familiar at all with this ancient ritual. Beginning with the holiday of Shavuot (Pentecost), Jews from all around Israel would gather the first ripened fruits and bring them to Jerusalem to present them to the priest at the Temple. Though we no longer have a Temple in Jerusalem, many Jewish communities have adopted the custom of “fruit parades.” In my synagogue, when I lived in Australia, the kids would make beautiful baskets of fruit and parade in a big circle and then place them down in the front of the sanctuary. Later we would take them to a homeless shelter where the fruits would be enjoyed by the needy.
Sounds nice but what is this all about? What is the deeper message?
Let me describe the ritual in greater detail and then we will be able to draw a beautiful conclusion so stay with me until the end!
Point #1: The fruits that were brought had to be from what is called the “Seven Species.” These are the produce mentioned in the Bible that is common in the land of Israel. Deuteronomy 8:8 tells us that Israel was "a land of wheat, barley, grapevines, figs, and pomegranates; a land of oil olives and date honey."
Point #2: The townspeople would gather together, sleep overnight on the street and then gather together in a beautiful parade/processional and march to Jerusalem with their fruits. They decorated the horns on their animals, sang and played musical instruments. It must have been quite a spectacle!
Point #3: The farmers carried the fruits in a special basket that was designated for this ritual.
Point #4: The basket was brought to the Temple, placed in the hands of the priest and then placed by the altar and a declaration was made. Here it is:
The declaration is essentially a summary of all of Jewish history and provides us with the key to understanding this ritual.
Let's put it this way. The ritual was meant to be a kind of re-enactment of the Jewish experience of wandering and homelessness concluding with finally having a land of our own to grow our crops. We acknowledge that God is the source of all of this and we thank Him for the land which after a long journey we have come home to.
After reliving the desperation of exile symbolized by carrying the basket from place to place, we can sincerely appreciate God's gift of the Land. After recognizing His blessing, we then put down the basket next to the altar. The resting basket is the opposite of exile and wandering, as if to say, "Now I have a home in which I can place down my possessions, and that home is God's precious gift of a land."
This ritual of the “First Fruits” has beautiful meaning for our generation who has witnessed the Jewish people coming home to the land of Israel after a nearly 2000 year exile. We are once again planting and enjoying the fruits of our labor---both literally and figuratively. It is nothing short of a miracle and for that we thank God.