This article originally appeared in the Jewish Free Press, Calgary

First Fruits and Forefathers*

According to the talmudic tradition, the season for bringing the first fruit offering (bikkurim) to the Jerusalem Temple begins on Shavu'ot. The ceremony included not only the physical conveyance of the fruits in baskets to the priests, but also the recitation of an obligatory declaration of thanksgiving whose text is set down in the book of Deuteronomy (26:1-11). The declaration (which was also adopted as the basis for the standard Passover Haggadah) recounts the sufferings and wanderings of our Hebrew forebears, contrasting those unfortunate circumstances with their later happiness as a nation living on its fertile native soil. It is in appreciation of this privilege that we were commanded offer up the first fruits of each year's bounty to the Almighty.

As with other aspects of religious observance, the rabbis set precise parameters to the obligation of bringing the first fruits. Their careful reading of the relevant scriptural texts taught them that not every Jew was qualified to participate fully in the commandment. For example, when the Torah states that "the first of the first fruits of your land you shall bring into the house of the Lord your God" (Exodus 23:19), the halakhah interpreted that this excludes from the obligation individuals who are not the legal owners of the land on which the produce was grown.

The same mode of reasoning gave rise to a ruling in the Mishnah that a person who has converted to Judaism is required to bring the first-fruits, like native-born Jews, but that he may not recite the accompanying thanksgiving declaration. The reason offered for this restriction is because he is unable to honestly pronounce the required formula "...I have come into the land which the Lord swore to our fathers to give us," since the proselyte's ancestors did not take part in the original division of the Land of Israel.

Not content with this discriminatory treatment of the proselyte, the Mishnah goes on to point out that the same logic would demand that converts introduce alterations into the texts of the traditional prayers. When the standard liturgy addresses "the God of our ancestors," the proselyte should substitute the wording "God of the ancestors of Israel" when praying in private; or God of your ancestors in a setting of congregational worship.

Since these interpretations were set down in the Mishnah, the most authoritative compendium of ancient rabbinic religious law, we have good reason to expect that they would be accepted by the subsequent codifications of halakhah. Remarkably, this was not the case. In Maimonides' commentary to the Mishnah, as well as in his Mishneh Torah, in the section that enumerates who is obligated or exempted with respect to the bringing of the first-fruits, he dismisses the Mishnah's ruling. In its place, he writes that "a proselyte brings them and recites the declaration, since Abraham was told 'you shall be the father of a multitude of nations' (Genesis17:4). This means that he is the father of all those who come under the shelter of the divine presence."

In fact, Maimonides was not really the first to dissent from the Mishnah's ruling. His interpretation appears in the Jerusalem Talmud, where it is ascribed to the second-century sage Rabbi Judah bar Ilai. Rabbi Judah explained that the divine promise to Abraham about becoming the father of a multitude of nations should be read as follows: "In the past you were only the ancestor of Aram, but henceforth you shall be the father of all nations." The Talmud goes on to report that two later rabbis, Rabbi Joshua ben Levi and Rabbi Abbahu, issued rulings in support of Rabbi Judah and in opposition to the Mishnah. Maimonides undoubtedly relied on their precedents when defining his own position.

Nevertheless, several authorities viewed Maimonides' decision as very problematic, because there was a passage in the more authoritative Babylonian Talmud that appeared to support the Mishnah.

Indeed, Maimonides' involvement in this question was not restricted to the theoretical or academic planes. In one of his responsa, he was called upon to offer guidance to an actual proselyte, a certain Obadiah. Maimonides addressed Obadiah in formulas that reveal the immense respect that he had for his interlocutor: "our master, our teacher, the enlightened and insightful Obadiah."

Obadiah had asked Maimonides whether he should follow the instructions in the Mishnah and avoid the standard liturgical formulas that imply the worshipper's descent from the biblical patriarchs. Maimonides used this opportunity to make it unmistakably clear that membership in the community of Israel is not a racial or genetic phenomenon, and that our relationship to Abraham is not merely biological. Far more significant is the fact that Abraham instructed his followers in pure monotheistic belief. According to the rabbinic tradition, Abraham actively sought disciples from among all peoples, not only within his family. Therefore, concluded Maimonides, any person in any generation who is a sincere follower of Abraham's ways can legitimately be considered his descendent.

When referring to events from the Jewish historical past, Maimonides advised Obadiah that it might technically be more accurate to observe the Mishnah's instruction and employ phrases like "...who has taken Israel [instead of 'us'] out of Egypt; however, there would be no meaningful advantage to doing so. After all, once a proselyte has come under the shelter of the divine presence, he or she is entirely undistinguishable from any born Jew. Furthermore, the Hebrews who were liberated from Egypt, although they were physically descended from Abraham, were at the time so steeped in idolatrous superstition and heathen practices that they had to undergo a virtual conversion. In this sense, all Jews are ultimately the progeny of converts.

Maimonides' approach was readily accepted by most subsequent authorities insofar as it dealt with the matters of the Abrahamic heritage and participation in Jewish sacred history. There remained, however, one technical obstacle that seemed to prevent proselytes from reciting the declaration over the bringing of the first-fruits: the passage included the words "I have come into the land which the Lord swore to our fathers to give us," a claim that could not be made honestly by converts. This objection was raised by Rabbi Judah Rosanes of Constantinople in his commentary to Maimonides' Code.

A solution to Rabbi Rosanes' predicament was proposed by Rabbi Moshe Ibn Habib. He noted that the problematic verse did not refer to "the land which the Lord gave to our fathers"; rather, it speaks of the divine promise to give us the land, an assurance that extends into the future. Accordingly, even though the proselytes may not have participated in the original division of the holy land in biblical days, they will be given their full shares in the future redemption.

This, concludes Rabbi Ibn Habib, is confirmed by the words of the prophet Ezekiel (47:21-22) "So you shall divide this land among you... as an inheritance for yourselves and for the strangers who reside among you and have begotten children among you. They shall be to you as native-born sons of Israel; with you they shall be allotted an inheritance among the tribes of Israel."

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  • First Publication:
    • The Jewish Free Press, Calgary, May 25, 2006, p. 10.
  • For further reading:
    • Bamberger, Bernard Jacob. Proselytism in the Talmudic Period. Cincinnati: Hebrew Union College Press, 1939.
    • Halkin, Abraham S., and David Hartman. Crisis and Leadership: Epistles of Maimonides. Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society of America, 1985.