Parashat Ki Tavo

Zionism And First Fruits

The speech that farmers recited when bringing their first fruits to the Temple forms a central part of the Passover retelling of the Exodus and articulates the Zionist message.

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Provided by the Bronfman Youth Fellowships in Israel, a summer seminar in Israel that aims to create a multi-denominational cadre of young Jewish leaders.

Often, people ask me about the biblical and rabbinic roots of Zionism. Questions such as, "Is it a mitzvah (commandment) to live in Israel?" or, "Haven't Jews always lived in the Diaspora, after all, the Babylonian Talmud, the textual cornerstone of Jewish life and law, was written in Babylon, wasn't it? Why is it important to live in Israel?" , "Moses never even got to Israel, the Torah was given in the desert, lots of religious Jews live and have lived outside of Israel, right?" are asked all the time.

Well, this week's parashah, Ki Tavo, opens with a section which, I believe, addresses these questions, and serves, therefore, as the foundation of religious Zionist thinking. The Jewish tradition considers these verses, and the concepts and sentiments contained within them, to be so important that it commands every Jewish farmer in Israel to read them every year during a ritual that took place in the Temple at this time of year--in the summertime, between the Pilgrimage Festivals of Shavuot and Sukkot.  This ritual is Bikkurim, the first fruits, in which every farmer in Israel is commanded to come every year to Jerusalem with the first fruits he has harvested of certain basic crops and present them as a gift to the priests in the Temple.

The central element of the ritual is the speech, contained in these verses, which the farmer is commanded to make every year at this time. In addition to the reading of these verses by the farmer when he brings his bikkurim, and, of course, the annual reading of them as part of the weekly Torah portion, the Rabbis also included them as one of the central elements of the Haggadah, which we read every year at the Passover Seder. That's how much importance the Jewish tradition attaches to these "Zionist" verses. Let's take a look at them:

"When you have entered the land the Lord your God is giving you as an inheritance and have taken possession of it and settled in it, take some of the first fruits of all that you produce from the soil of the land the Lord your God is giving you and put them in a basket. Then go to the place the Lord your God will choose as a dwelling for his Name and say to the priest in office at the time, 'I declare today to the Lord your God that I have come to the land the Lord swore to our forefathers to give us.'

"The priest shall take the basket from your hands and set it down in front of the altar of the Lord your God. Then you shall declare before the Lord your God [this is where the speech each farmer must make begins, and it is from here that the Haggadah begins quoting and discussing this text]:

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Rabbi Shimon Felix

Rabbi Shimon Felix is the Israel Director of the Bronfman Youth Fellowships in Israel. He lives with his family in Jerusalem, and has taught in a wide variety of educational frameworks in Israel and abroad.