First Born, First Fruits, and Concluding Thoughts

Twenty-Two Nisan

First-borns matter in Judaism. Rambam lists eight Biblical commandments that relate to first-born animals or people, and Ramban adds another, meaning that a percent and a half of all Biblical commandments show us how to deal properly with first-borns. Studying the significance the Torah gives these issues, and why it sees them as so important, will remind us of another oft-forgotten life lesson of the Exodus.

Stress on the Killing of the First-Born

Shmot 13;14 tells us that when our children ask why we dedicate our first-born animals to Hashem and redeem our first-born children, we should tell them about the Egyptians’ resisting Hashem’s command and Hashem’s killing their first-born.Twice in Bamidbar, 3;13 and 8;17, Hashem bases the exchange of first-born for Levites by noting that Hashem “acquired” the first-born on the day the Egyptian first-born had been killed.

That Egypt focus is, as we’ve seen with other mitzvot, not the only way we could have justified the value of these obligations. Sefer haChinuch, for example, explains that by dedicating the first products of our endeavors—human, animal, or plant—we actively recognize that it all comes from Hashem.

Three unusual aspects of the commandments regarding first-born point the way to an explanation of the Exodus focus. In Obligation 79, Rambam notes that Sifrei includes only animals born in Israel. This is derived from Devarim 14;23’s incorporating tithes and first-born in one verse—just as tithes only came from Israel, so did the first-born.

A second issue is that the Gemara derives the prohibitions against working or shearing all קדשים, sanctified animals, from Devarim15;19’s saying so about first-born animals, as Rambam notes in Sefer haMitzvot, Prohibitions 113 and 114. It’s surprising that first-born became a paradigm for all sanctified animals, since other rules of the first-born are so different, such as in that they can be eaten in all of Jerusalem for two days and a night.

A last oddity that will take us towards an explanation is Ramban’s view that there is a positive obligation to eat first-born animals in Jerusalem (the more basic message ofDevarim 14;23). Rambam had recorded Prohibition 144 against eating them elsewhere, but Ramban thought Rambam wrongly omitted an active obligation to eat ma’aser sheni (the second tithe—after giving some produce to a priest for terumah, and a tenth of the remaining produce to a Levi, the second tithe, in years 1, 2, 4, and 5 of each shemittah cycle were supposed to be brought to Jerusalem and eaten there) and first-born animals in Jerusalem. Ramban stresses the Torah’s saying that part of the point was that we should learn to fear Hashem.

Do Kohanim Need to Learn to Fear Hashem?

Regarding ordinary Jews, that is fairly banal, and well-explained by Sefer haChinuch in Mitzvah 360 (which is about a different obligation, tithing new-born animals), that Jerusalem is where we would be most likely to encounter Torah influences, which we could then bring back to our home towns. First-born animals, though, are given to and eaten by priests. It’s less obvious why the Torah would insert occasions to draw them there.Aren’t they there anyway, as part of their required Temple service?

To me, the answer starts with Zevachim 14;4, that prior to the establishment of the Mishkan (Yerushalmi Megillah 1;11, quoted by Torah Temimah to Bamidbar 8;17, connects it to the sin of the Golden Calf), the first-born functioned as the priests. Had that continued, the functionaries of the Temple wouldn’t have been a separate tribe, different from “us.”

Rather, we would have gone to the Beit HaMikdash and seen sons, brothers, cousins, neighbors’ kids, etc. Much like Sefer HaChinuch’s idea that even one family member bringing tithes to Yerushalayim would affect the whole family, staffing the Beit HaMikdash with first-born would have spread the experience and messages emanating from Yerushalayim more organically throughout the people.

That might explain why the plague of the first-born was the breaking point. If the Egyptians, too,took special pride in their first-born, Hashem’s striking them was a blow that went beyond the actual loss. Seeing the first-born dying threatened them all because the first-born were the nation, in their minds. In a sense, their society was being destroyed because they had so much invested in the first-born.

If so, Sefer HaChinuch’s reason for redeeming first born and fruits might connect to the Egypt aspect as well. Dedicating our successful first yields to Hashem, we remember that it was also Egypt’s pride and joy. Since Torah society is Israel based (as we’ll see more sharply when we get to בכורים, first fruits), only there does first-born’s role as symbols of the whole society become relevant.

All this also shows why the Torah would use first-born to set up a paradigm for how to treat all sanctified animals. Dedicating our first-born to Hashem was a crucial part of becoming Hashem’s people, in contrast to the Egyptians’ pride in their first-born, which fortified them in remaining a corrupted people; as a first step in our service to God, it makes sense to become the standard for other acts of service of God.

First Fruits

Like with first-born animals, first fruits are given at the Beit HaMikdash, come only from the Land of Israel, and are related back to what happened in Egypt.

Except that each of those is intensified. We don’t just bring first-fruits, we make a parade of it (see Mishnah Bikkurim 3;2-6). These fruits comes only species the Torah identifies as the pride of the Land of Israel, and as we offer them, we recite a Torah-prescribed summary of the Egypt/ Exodus story, a recapitulation that captures the events so well, we used that version (Arami Oved Avi) Seder night as the backbone of our elaboration of the story.

There is more going on here than a casual look reveals.

Rambam in Guide for the Perplexed III; 39 wonders why we would mention the troubles of Egypt in the context of thanking Hashem for the bounty we received in Israel. He notes that wealth can foster arrogance and complacency, a sense that all is well, that we need not change in any way, nor need help from anyone (including Hashem).

The Torah helps us combat that by having us remind ourselves of when we didn’t have it so good. That will reduce our complacency—if we keep in mind how bad we once had it, we’ll be more likely to remember that it can go that way again. In addition, instilling in ourselves the firm memory that the good came from Hashem will hinder our falling into the trap of thinking we developed it ourselves.

Living the Dream

True as it is, that does not yet explain why we had to reach back to Ya’akov Avinu and Egypt. What would have been lacking had we thanked Hashem and acknowledged aloud that all our wealth comes from Hashem, without the Egypt story? Is that the only way to instill humility?

I think there’s another element, shown in two verses we don’t include on Seder night. When we first give the basket of first fruits to the priest, Devarim 26;3 tells us to say “I declare today to Hashem that I have come to the Land that He promised to our forefathers.” Why declare that then, and why every year?

The Egypt story we tell also continues one verse beyond what we say Seder night. That extra verse has us say that Hashem brought us to this Land, flowing in milk and honey. Why make that part of the first-fruit ceremony?

First fruits, the Torah seems to indicate,are the proof it’s all come true, that Hashem fulfilled all the promises to the Patriarchs—yes, we went down to Egypt, yes, we had the slavery, but Hashem took us out, as promised, brought us to the Land, as promised, and here we are, living the dream, doing that which Hashem set up as the model and the ideal.

Each year, as we live the dream, we remind ourselves that that’s what we’re doing, we’re in the right place, doing the right things, and how wonderful that is.

First-born, first-fruits, firsts in general can endanger or enrich us spiritually. They can lure us into feeling overly comfortable, overly certain that the future will go as well as the recent past. Or, as the Torah helps us see, remembering the Egyptians’ misuse of their first-born, and that the produce of Israel is the proof of Hashem’s involvement, can let us react to our first-born in a way that improves our relationship with Hashem, instead of damaging it.

Taking Transformation Forward

As Pesach (or the day after Pesach, if you’re in Israel) winds down, let’s pause to reflect, to see the forest I hope we’ve built out of our daily trees.

The central lesson I hope this project has produced is the awareness that the Torah and halachah codified many of our reactions to the Exodus more explicitly and specifically than we sometimes stop to realize. Many Jews put sincere and strenuous effort into their observance, even their Pesach observance, while seeming to miss much of what I believe we have seen are clear and explicit messages and lessons of our having left Egypt.

We started with the story as told in Shmot, since the brief treatments in the Haggadah itself can lead us to forget the texture and richness of the events. We sought a path towards a fuller Seder, particularly in fulfilling one halachic requirement of Seder night, seeing ourselves as if we left Egypt. To capture that moment, we tried to put ourselves back in that moment, by reviewing some of the choice-points of the main characters in the story.

Watching them fail and succeed helped us, I hope, see ourselves doing the same or different, bringing alive some of what it would have been to go through it, how it would have felt to be eating that first Paschal sacrifice, loins girded for an imminent journey back to a land we had only heard about from our fathers and grandfathers, had never ourselves seen.

A successful Seder is a worthy goal, but we then saw that it does not stop there. The numerous commandments that referred to Egypt where it wasn’t obviously necessary showed us, singly and collectively, how ubiquitously those events are supposed to be in our hearts and on our lips, reminding us of fundamental propositions about how we are supposed to see the world.

We are the people who left Egypt, not because social, cultural, or political forces came to a head, but because the Creator and Master of the Universe בכבודו ובעצמו, in all His glory, as it were, came to take us out. And did so to make points we should confidently for all of time: that the world is created, not the happenstance result of laws of Nature; that its Creator is and always has been involved in events in this world; that the Creator is omnipotent, able to shape human events however and whenever He so chooses; and, that this Creator has chosen and commanded the Jewish people to represent these truths throughout human history.

Our observance of Pesach, of Seder night, of telling the Exodus story are not complete unless and until we allow these truth-statements to permeate our entire lives, as the Torah and halachah modeled for us. Daily recitations, periodic observances, but even more so our daily conduct teach us to be that people, to have our thoughts, words, and actions reflect this awareness, shape who we are, in all ways.

I hope the twenty two days we’ve spent together have been of service in that regard, have helped each of us come closer to living that reality, to converting belief statements into truth statements, accurate summaries of how we understand how the worldworks. And to live our lives in more and better service of our Creator, the God Who took us out of Egypt.

תם ונשלם שבח לא-ל בורא עולם