First Fruits: A Selection of Poems on Mishnah Bikkurim 3

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Dalia Wolfson

A few years ago, making our way through a weekly Mishnah study of Seder Zera’im, my havruta and I found ourselves reading Bikkurim. The little tractate, all of four chapters long, surprised us in many ways, not least for its attention to agricultural aesthetics—which fruits count as adornments? (3:9)—and for the appearance of in-between categories, such as the koy (2:8-11). Perhaps the strongest impression, however, was made by the densely visual description of the Shavuot procession in Chapter 3. The chapter begins with an individual, alone, tying a reed rope around his ripened fruit and announcing: “Let these be bikkurim” (3:1). Soon after, he is whisked into a bustling crowd that overnights in a designated country town, and then—led by a lusty ox with golden horns and accompanied by piping flutes—the pilgrims make their way to Jerusalem, to offer up their personal baskets and read a declaration that includes the “Arami oveid avi” (literally, “my forefather was a fugitive Aramean”) lines we’ve come to know so well from the Passover Haggadah (3:2-6).

As Dalia Marx writes, this bikkurim process contains elements of both the private (the farmer with their crops as they ripen, the face-to-face encounter with the priest) and the highly public, where “the personal obligation borne by the individual finds expression in the communal journey to the Temple.”[1] It is a journey that is joyous, ecstatic: a highly participatory celebration of the land and its bounty, glossy grapes and juicy figs fit to burst. Indeed, it is one of the rabbinic narratives of Temple ritual that can be categorized as utopic, writes Naftali S. Cohn: “a world not only of perfectly functioning ritual, but also of social harmony and inclusiveness.”[2] In the passages of Chapter 3, things seem to go right: fruits are gathered, baskets laden, recitations are made, Jerusalem’s gates are open, and the Temple stands intact. Yet, as we are reminded, the harvest and the holiday are not a given: they rest on good deeds and on gratitude to the Divine. In what Marx calls a “double alienation,” neither one of the audiences involved in the declaration detailed in Deuteronomy 26—the desert wanderers, called to imagine themselves into a future with their own fields; the farmers, called to imagine themselves into the past of ever-shifting sands—can settle, fully, comfortably, into this text. The legacy of the fugitive Aramean chases after them, no matter how loud the flutes play.

The poems below, constructed from the language of the Mishnah and other sources, both earlier and later, consider the “lived contingency” that comes to the fore when “things go wrong” or, at least, when they may not go quite right.[3] What is the vision of the Mishnah, and what space does it make for changes, for differences, for failures? These different sources raise questions that wonder at the level of social cohesion and unity, and the potential for disjunct and division, presented by Chapter 3.[4]

The first poem is stitched together from verses about people in the streets, exposed to mercy or malice, at a festival or like at a festival, from Lamentations and Mishnah Bikkurim. The mishnah describes the pilgrims sleeping safely out in the open—but what happens when the public sphere is hefkeir (ownerless), abandoned, or worse? I was led to these questions by Massekhet Sotah, which considers the many declarations in the Humash (some in Hebrew, others in any vernacular; among them, the Declaration of the First Fruits). Among these declarations is the one of the eglah arufah: when a man is found murdered between two towns, who takes responsibility? And why is it important that their absolution from guilt is made through articulation, specifically through omeir and oneh (saying and answering), the same speech tags used in the Declaration of the First Fruits (Deut. 26:9)?[5]

The second poem addresses the wording of 3:3, which would seem to indicate that the people of Jerusalem greet the pilgrims according to their “honor,” the lesser in status greeting the more common arrivals, the greater in status greeting the even more powerful. The Talmud Yerushalmi asks: could it really be that the people of Jerusalem come out to meet the pilgrims in a way that divides them by social hierarchy? It must be that  the “lesser” and “greater” refers to their numbers instead: many to greet the many, few to greet the few, the Talmud responds. In the poem, the answer is not absolute: it lies, instead, with the disposition of that generation’s leaders.

The third poem takes up Hon Ashir, who reflects on the artisans’ greeting, “batem le-shalom.” Does it constitute a blessing (“Come in peace”), an assertive “Welcome!” (as Kiddushin 33a records: “bo’akhem le-shalom”)? Or is it a question about the travelers’ welfare, their experiences on the road (“Did you come in peace?”)? How many ways to ask this question, to interpret the definitions of “peace” seen along the way, and the intentions of both the travelers and their hosts?

The fourth poem listens to a number of commentators who wonder about the implications of different baskets for different classes (3:8): Why were the baskets of the wealthy returned to them, and the poor people’s baskets kept? Why not, asks the Ikar Tosefot Yom Tov, legislate that all must bring the same baskets, to save face for the destitute? Why take the poor people’s baskets, so that the poor only get poorer, as the phrase goes in Bava Kamma? Should the priest’s keeping the baskets be considered a materialistic act of possession, a mark of their worthlessness, or the reception of a holy gift?

The last poem offers the halting words of a personal accounting: living too far away, one will carry desiccated fruits that do not spoil. If the fruits have become wholly unfit (due to neglect, rot, theft, carelessness or impurities), one must purchase other fruits and carry the basket up to Jerusalem, but he cannot recite the declaration. In the Temple court, if they are impure at the time, he may not recite the declaration. How to answer for one’s own place on the land and the fruits of one’s labor, when that basket has been so very compromised? How to move from tene dal—a poor, lacking vessel— to a state of being lifted and “raised up” (dilitani) by God, as the Levites would sing

For so many weeks we have been counting up, with great anticipation, to 50; and for many more weeks we have been counting up, with unspeakable dread and horror, into the 200s, with no end in sight. The strange thing about bikkurim is that they have an unusual relationship with time and counting. Shavuot is the Festival of First Fruits and its associated mitzvah, but one’s own ascent to the Temple comes when his first fruits ripen, even all the way up to Sukkot, and even up to Hanukkah, year after year. It is an extended invitation, one that must not be refused: to be ever-accounting for one’s ever-arriving in the land. 


A Place for the Night
Lying on the ground 
in darkness, 
in the streets of the city,
in the streets of the city. 
They do not enter the houses—
All those festival goers,
the people of some place,
the people of some place. 

מָקוֹם לָלוּן
לָאָרֶץ שֹׁכְבִים
,בִּרְחוֹבָהּ שֶׁל עִיר 
.בְּמַחֲשַׁכִּים, בַּחוּצֹות נִשְׁכָּבִים
–לֹא נִכְנָסִים לַבָּתִּים
בָּאֵי מוֹעֵד
אַנְשֵׁי הַמָּקוֹם 


By the Entrants’ Ranks They’d Exit
At the gates, waiting 
for the deputies’ cue,
they turn one to the other:
Is there a greater
or a lesser 
in Israel?

לְפִי כְבוֹד הַנִּכְנָסִים הָיוּ יוֹצְאִים
בְּעַד הַשַּׁעַר מַמְתִּינִים
לַאֲמִירָה שֶׁל הַסְּגָנִים
:זֶה לָזֶה הֵם שׁוֹאֲלִים
הֲיֵשׁ גָדוֹל
הֲיֵשׁ קָטוֹן


Come in peace
—The craftsmen
of Jerusalem.

Did they ask
or did they say?

םדְּרִישׁוֹת שָׁלוֹם
בָּאתֶם לְשָׁלוֹם
—בַּעֲלֵי אֻמָּנִיּוֹת

,אָמְרוּ לָהֶם
?אֹו שָׁאֲלוּ


The gilded bowl, 
the silver inlaid basket—
The Kohen takes
and then returns.
As for the wicker-worked 
Stripped branches bowed to hold,
gaze lowered,
to His Honor—
These are for him, 
to keep or 
to discard. 

וְהַקְּלָתוֹת בְּכֶסֶף וְזָהָב
יִקַּח הַכֹּהֵ֗ן
—וְסַלֵּי הַנְצָרִים
קְלוּפוֹת , כּוֹרְעוֹת
הֲרֵי אֵלֶּה
.אֹו יִזְרוֹק


Hollow Basket
And what
Can I return to you 
Shrunken grapes 
A lot, abandoned
From afar

טֶנֶא דָל
אָשִׁיב לָךְ
עֲנָבִים מְיֻבָּשִׁים
עֲרֵמָה אֲבוּדָה


[1] Dalia Marx, “A Torah-Prescribed Liturgy: The Declaration of the First Fruits,” TheTorah (2018).

[2] Naftali S. Cohn, “Mishnah as Utopia,” in What Is the Mishnah?: The State of the Question, edited by Shaye J. D. Cohen, (Cambridge, MA and London, England: Harvard University Press, 2023), 204-231.

[3] Cohn, 226.

[4] On historical examples from the Second Temple period, see Martin Goodman, “Forgotten Shavuot History: The 4 B.C.E Rebellion and the Therapeutae,” (2023).

[5] I was first introduced to these themes in R. Yedidya Lau’s Sotah shiur at Nishmat.

Dalia Wolfson is a graduate student in the Comparative Literature department at Harvard University, where she studies Hebrew and Yiddish literature.