The Bikkurim Festival at Agricultural Settlements in the Early Zionist Period
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On the "bikkurim" festivities in the early Zionist period in kibbutzim and moshavim. When the farmers called fruit "bikkurim," did this confer to the fruit a holy status? On the response of the rabbis of the time to these festivals.
In 5684 (1924), the kibbutzim in the Jezreel Valley celebrated what they called the Bikkurim Festival. They placed a different, new emphasis on Shavuot—in place of the traditional holiday celebrated throughout the generations with a focus on the giving of the Torah, Torah learning throughout the night, and, of course, eating dairy foods and cheesecake. The farmers saw their agricultural work in the Land of Israel as imbued with deep historical significance, viewing it as a renewal of the bond between the Jewish people and their land following the long years of exile. This ceremony was very symbolic, focusing on the values of the agricultural settlements of the time—values that greatly differed and even flew in the face of traditional Jewish values. Over the years, many additional kibbutzim and moshavim joined in the celebration of this festival.
Such festivals took place on Shavuot itself or on the Shabbat preceding Shavuot (their day off) and received the enthusiastic support of national institutions, the Zionist Administrations, and JNF-KKL. Rabbis began to relate to these festivities in 5687 (1927), the third year of their existence, due to their public nature and the advertisements of the festivities. The main focus of these rabbis was the desecration of Shabbat and Shavuot in the Jewish people's national homeland, sanctioned by its national institutions. Chief Rabbis Yaakov Meir and Avraham Yitzchak Kook, as well as other rabbis, tried to persuade the celebrants to hold their festivities on weekdays preceding or following Shavuot, with partial success.
Additional halachic problems with the ceremony
Besides the desecration of Shabbat and Shavuot, related questions arose with respect to the content of the ceremony, namely the consecration of the bikkurim, the first fruits. If the festival is specifically called the Bikkurim Festival" and involves placing fruits from the seven species in baskets and calling the fruit bikkurim," does this constitute consecrating the fruit as bikkurim (is this a prohibition when not performed correctly)? Furthermore, once designated as bikkurim, are these fruits now forbidden for eating and benefit, as were bikkurim in Temple times? In 5687, Rabbi Kook wrote a detailed responsum on this topic (Mishpat Kohen 57). More next week.
Consecrating bikkurim today
The Mishnah (Shekalim 8:4) states that the mitzvah of bikkurim applies only during the time of the Beit Hamikdash; first fruits cannot be brought after its destruction. However, what happens if someone specifically designates their first fruits as bikkurim when the Beit Hamikdash is not standing?
The Mishnah goes on to say that whoever designates shekalim and bikkurim has officially consecrated them (according to tanna kamma, the first opinion mentioned in the Mishnah anonymously), while Rabbi Shimon maintains that even if one does so, the bikkurim are not consecrated.
The commentaries of the Mishnah differ as to the exact explanation of this Tannaitic disagreement and on the final, practical halachic ruling.
Contemporary posekim on bikkurim today
Ra'avan (§50) rules similarly to the tanna kamma, writing that one who designates fruit as bikkurim, even today, has effectively conferred to the fruit a holy status. Since today there is no mizbe’ach, and we cannot place the basket in front of it, the fruit may not be used and must be left to rot.
In contrast, others (Rabbi Ovadia of Bartenura in his gloss on the Mishnah, Korban Ha'eidah by Rabbi David Frankel in the 18th century, Rabbi Yisrael of Shklov in his commentary Taklin Chadatin, and others) follow Rabbi Shimon's ruling. They maintain that these fruits are not sacred even if specifically designated as bikkurim and are not considered as such.
Rabbi Yosef Ba'avad (Minchat Chinuch §§91, 105, 449) deliberates on the matter; it seems that he does maintain that the fruit become consecrated and are therefore forbidden to eat.
Rambam's opinion is unclear (gloss on the Mishnah, ibid.; Arachin 6:16). Rambam explains the disagreement between the tanna kamma and Rabbi Shimon as revolving around one who consecrates bikkurim for beddek habayit (donations to the Beit Hamikdash for improvements) in Temple times and rules like Rabbi Shimon. However, he does not relate to the consecration of bikkurim after the Temple's destruction. Many Acharonim believe that Rambam maintains that one cannot consecrate fruit as bikkurim after the Temple's destruction (Mishpat Kohen 57; Rabbi Yehuda Zoldan, "Bikkurim festival after the Temple's destruction," in Bikkurei Ha'aretz, published by Torah VeHa'aretz Institute).
In conclusion, most commenters hold that today one cannot assign a holy status to fruit by calling them bikkurim since they can only be consecrated as such when it is possible to offer them next to the mizbe'ach. Note that this is different than ma'aser sheni, neta revay, and the sanctity of firstborn kosher mammals, all of which have holy status even though they cannot be eaten.
Rabbi Kook and Rabbi Uziel on the bikkurim festivals
Rabbi Kook writes that bedia'avad, in the case of the kibbutzim, where the intent of the celebrants is clearly not to bring their first fruits to the Beit Hamikdash but rather to celebrate the agricultural revival in the Land of Israel, the fruits do not become forbidden to eat. However, certainly lechatchilah one should avoid designating fruit today as bikkurim and there is a concern that the public will think that it is actually bikkurim. Rabbi Kook, in a letter to the residents of Nehalel in 5693 (1933), suggesting that they call the festival "Zecher Labikkurim," a commemoration of the bikkurim, as opposed to just bikkurim. He also praises them for their desire to celebrate the event near Shavuot.
Rabbi Uziel (Mishpatei Uziel Tanina YD 100) was asked in 5704 (1944) by members of Kibbutz Tirat Tzvi about similar festivals. He also told them to call it Zecher Labikkurim and added that it has a positive element of remembering the Beit Hamikdash. He also encouraged holding such events that included "thanksgiving for the past and prayers for the future, in the hope that our eyes will witness Your return to Zion as in former days. This is proper and obligates us to remember the destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple at the forefront of our joy so that we will merit to rejoice in its rebuilding."
In conclusion: while most posekim maintain that it is not possible to consecrate bikkurim today, lechatchilah this should be avoided. However, ceremonies held in remembrance of the bikkurim are both educationally and halachically positive events.