Thursday, May 28, 2009
Tonight is the fiftieth day of the Omer and as such, we celebrate Shavuot. Shavuot is known by many names, including: Z'man Matan Torateinu (The Time of the Giving of our Torah), Atzeret (Assembly), Chag HaKatzir (Festival of the Harvest) and Chag HaShavuot (Festival of the Weeks). I have even heard Shavuot referred to by the colloquial "חג עוגת-גבינה," (Cheese-cake Fesival!)
There is one other name for Shavuot, too - Chag Habikurim, the Festival of the First Fruit. This particular name derives from the times of the Bet Hamikdash and the mitzvah of bringing the first fruit in the fields of Israel to ripen to the Kohanim as an offering.
The basic concept behind Bikurim is this; farmers in Israel who grow any of the seven kinds of fruit or grain have an obligation to keep an eye out for any freshly ripened fruits in their fields. When the very first fruit in the field is ripe, the farmer ties a red ribbon around it and makes a declaration confirming that it this particular fruit is Bikurim. He then takes this fruit (and more fruit with it, if he wishes) to the Bet Hamikdash, makes a declaration there and turns it over to the Kohanim.
Three years ago while staying up all night learning Torah for Tikkun Leil on Shavuot night, I read a lovely D'var Torah by the Sfat Emet on this particular topic. The Sfat Emet teaches that the concept of Bikurim allows to understand the purpose of Tefillin more. Up until this point, I had never really felt much connection with the mitzvah of putting on Tefillin - what kind of sense is there in wrapping leather strips and boxes to one's arm and head? And what kind of spiritual function is there in this? It all seemed rather ritualistic to me. In this context, you might understand that the Sfat Emet's teaching was really welcome. He explains that upon examining the mitzvah of Bikurim we may gain insight as to how Tefillin functions. So let's do that!
There are a few specific aspects to the mitzvah of Bikurim - first of all, it can only be performed with the very first fruits in the field to ripen. Second of all, we mark it by tying a red ribbon around it. Thirdly, we make a statement to declare it's status as Bikurim. As a whole, it is obvious that the idea behind Bikurim is taking something that we would otherwise be proud of and claim to be attributed to our own "hard work," subduing our own ego and correctly accredit it's true source.
Now let's look at the procodure for the Tefillin. Firstly, Tefillin is a mitzvah that was given exclusively to the Jews - the first nation to accept God and all His laws. Second, we use black leather straps to mark ourselves off as belonging to God. Third we make a statement called "V'eirastich."
Now for the fun but - let's draw the parallels between Bikurim and Tefillin. The concepts of the Bikurim and Tefillin are remarkably similar - both mark off something as belonging to Hashem. More than this, in each case we take something and tie it around the item being marked off. Significantly, when we wrap Tefillin around our arms and head, we are instructed to take care that the straps are completely black. Similarly, the mitzvah of Bikurim must be performed with a red ribbon. In both cases, we use visually strong colours to mark off God's property.
The action of tying the ribbon around the fruit and over wrapping the tefillin around head and arm is also significant - in Jewish spiritualism, the concept of a circle is very powerful and is often connected to bonding and marriage. In fact, when men put on tefillin, they read the verse:
"וארסתיך לי לעולם וארסתיך לי בצדק ובמשפט ובחסד וברחמים וארסתיך לי באמונה וידעת את ה - And I will betroth you unto Me forever, and I will betroth you unto me with righteousness, justice, lovingkindness and compassion, and I will betroth you to me with faith and knowledge of God."
Maybe know we can understand the underlying concept of the Tefillin by marking ourselves as Hashem's property, in much the same way as Bikurim. To complete the picture, we should also bear in mind the fact that Chag HaBikurim takes place at Shavuot, which is also called Zman Matan Torateinu - the time that when our Torah was given to us. Just as the Bnei Yisrael stood around Mount Sinai in a circle, so too a bride encircles her husband at their Chupa seven times. And maybe now we can understand the significance of tying the Tefillin Shel yad around the arm in seven circles.
Hope you enjoyed that as much as I did, wishing you a Chag Sameach!