As per the Torah (Numbers 28:26), bikkurim – or the first fruits of the “seven species” grown in Eretz Yisrael (wheat, barley, grapes, figs, pomegranates, olives, and dates) – were brought to the Beit HaMikdash in Jerusalem and offered as a sacrificial gift to Hashem on Shavuot.
The farmers bringing the bikkurim to the Temple were obligated to recite a formulaic “avowal” summarizing Jewish history from the time of Abraham through the Egyptian exile and the exodus, the 40 years in the desert and the entry into Eretz Yisrael, up to the current point in time. They would then proclaim, “And now, behold, I have brought the first of the fruit of the land, which you, Hashem, have given me” and acknowledge that the success of their crops was wholly attributable to Hashem’s blessing (see Deuteronomy 26:3-10).
As described in detail in Tractate Bikkurim, the first fruits ceremony began with a beautiful and joyous celebration featuring a grand procession of Jews from all across Eretz Yisrael entering Jerusalem bearing gold, silver, or willow baskets. They were led into the Holy City by flutists, who continued to provide a musical escort up to the Temple Mount, where the Levites would sing Psalms. The farmer, with the basket on his shoulder, would then recite the avowal before a kohen, after which he presented it to the kohen, who swung and raised it before placing it on the altar.
With the destruction of the Beit HaMikdash, both the bringing of the first fruits to Jerusalem and the poignant avowal ceremony ceased, but the Jews who worked the land of Eretz Yisrael in the early 20th century decided to revive the millennia-old celebration of the first fruits in their own manner.
Shavuot celebrations on the early kibbutzim across the land made the first fruits harvest a central theme, with the festivities including elaborate pageants showcasing the kibbutz’s agricultural triumphs, decorative floral floats and wagons heavily laden with fruits and vegetables, and parades featuring newly-acquired machinery and equipment.
Instruction manuals related to these celebrations in the archives of Israel’s National Library contain remarkably specific descriptions of decorated wagons (“A car whose sides have been removed and covered with tent cloth until it resembles a sort of a hill, on which the various grains are suitably arranged in a natural fashion”); dairy production in the land flowing with milk and honey (“A decorated cow, whose horns are coated in gold, carrying a basket in which a calf has been put”); and the work of fisheries (“A boat on a wagon. Nets and fishing equipment. The fish itself – the first produce to be presented – should be placed in the net”).
These kibbutz celebrations reflected the secular aesthetic of the overwhelmingly socialist settlers and expressed the new Zionist spirit of national renewal and agricultural revival, but nonetheless served to re-establish religious themes central to the Torah: the immutable spiritual association between the Jews and Eretz Yisrael and the requirement to give thanks for one’s crops and sustenance. Some cities also began to host such celebrations, most notably Haifa, where bikkurim street partying and merriment rivaled those of the more famous “Adloyada” Purim festivities in Tel Aviv.
The first municipal Shavuot celebration in Eretz Yisrael, which was held in Jaffa in 1912, was less a celebration of the harvest than a flower festival with homes decorated with floral wreaths and women and children wearing flowered crowns and ensembles. Exhibited here is a truly unique document, the award for the best floral decoration in the 1912 Jaffa Shavuot “Festival of Flowers.”
In the next decade, these celebrations began to merge into a joint festival held at Ein Charod, a kibbutz in northern Israel founded in 1921 near Mt. Gilboa. Exhibited here is postcard issued by the JNF in Eretz Yisrael during this period featuring the music and lyrics to an enchanting poem, “Chag Habikkurim Ba’Emek” (“The Festival of the First Fruit in the Valley”).
The verse specifically mentions Ein Charod and the kibbutzim at Nahalal, the first agricultural worker’s cooperative in Eretz Yisrael (also founded in 1921); Tel Yosef, which split off from Ein Charod in 1923; and Beit Alpha, founded in 1922 at the base of the Gilboa ridge.
It is a holiday, a holiday in the valley, that lies between the hills.
All its workers will bring today, the best of the bikkurim.
They have gone out to the vineyards, to pick grapes:
this one picks and this one gathers – grapes from Tel Yosef.
They have gone out to the vineyards, to pluck the almonds,
almonds that are extremely fine, the almonds from Ein Charod.
We have gathered in the gardens, many tomatoes,
we have gathered a full basket, the vegetables from Nahalal.
We have gone out to the fields, to harvest various wheat grains,
the grain is high, and beautiful – the grain from Beit Alpha.
In 1930, Haifa, a port city that also boasted a railway depot and had become the center of all industry in the area, hosted its first bikkurim festival, which drew participants from all across the region. Massive crowds that congregated in the Technion courtyard viewed an exhibition of products from nearby kibbutzim and from various manufacturers, after which they were treated to performances by a children’s choir and an orchestra.
The 1931 Haifa celebration began with a first fruits harvest ceremony followed by a parade of schoolchildren waving banners while marching down the streets of the Hadar HaCarmel neighborhood accompanied by a trumpet band. The event proved so successful that the Bikkurim Committee decided to invite all the smaller celebrations in northern Eretz Yisrael and the Galilee to join together in Hadar HaCarmel for the 1932 festival.
Invitations were sent to the agricultural settlements to present their work in “an Israeli style celebration and an expression of renewed Hebrew agriculture.” The event, which met with great success, was attended by many important dignitaries, including Shmaryahu Levin, a rabbi and author who served as director of information for Keren Hayesod, and JNF president Menachem Ussishkin.
The ambitious program included performances by the HaOhel theater company, the Orenstein Sisters dance troupe, the Haifa Workers Choir, and the HaZamir choir; other features of the event included an athletic demonstration, a procession of schoolchildren, and an exhibit dubbed “Haifa – The City of the Future.”
As part of the festival, the Technion hosted an exhibition of works by famous Eretz Yisrael artists, including Nahum Guttman, Joseph Zaritsky, and Avigdor Steimatzky, and participants took tours of Haifa and Har HaCarmel and attended various lectures on the city’s achievements.
Exhibited here is a May 24, 1932 correspondence from Zev Raban, then director of the Bezalel School of Art in Jerusalem, to the “Committee for Bikkurim” in Haifa regarding decorative Shavuot pins ordered by the Haifa municipality for everyone to wear during the festival:
With respect to our telephone chat this morning with Mr. Yehuda Shneur, we hereby forward to you four sketches for the pin which you want to order from us for Chag Habikkurim.
It is understood that you need to review these sketches not as a final product but, rather, as a foundation from which to choose the drawing and the subject, and after we review your decision regarding the drawing and subject as final and implemented, we will create a beautiful item that will touch the heart of the purchasers of the pins.
[He goes on to list prices.]
We would be pleased if you make a positive decision because time is short, and we would request that you make your decision ASAP. To prepare the template and pins will take some time. As to the terms, if it turns out that we lack funds, we will have to ask you to pay half along with the other and the other half upon receipt of the work.
Raban (1890-1970), who acquired his reputation through the designs he made for Bezalel and was undoubtedly one of the most important artists and designers in pre-State Eretz Yisrael, synthesized European techniques with authentic Jewish art based on specifically Jewish motifs. He was renowned for his original depictions of beautiful Israeli landscapes, holy places, Biblical tales, and people.
Notwithstanding the incredible success of the 1932 Bikkurim Festival, the event did not meet with universal approbation. First, significant discontent was generated regarding the dominant presence of the Histadrut’s red/socialist flags rather than the traditional blue and white Jewish flag with the Magen David.
Second, the organizing committee met with criticism from some quarters for trying to imitate the Adloyada celebrations in Tel Aviv.
Third, the Haifa rabbinate, already deeply troubled about the desecration of Shavuot, asked that the festival no longer use the “Bikkurim” appellation because that term should only be used in reference to the first fruits brought to the Beit HaMikdash – and because, in any case, Shavuot should not be associated with a vulgar secular celebration.
The organizers apparently afforded the rabbis at least some modicum of respect and, much to their credit, they scheduled the 1933 celebration for after Shavuot. That year, the event opened with a play by renowned poet Avraham Shlonsky which depicted the journey to Jerusalem and the biblical first fruits ceremony at the Beit HaMikdash.
After a parade to the Technion, where the marchers were regaled with poetry and song, the now-famous Hadar HaCarmel market was inaugurated with the actual first fruits of the year. Sailing races were held on Shabbat, and the festival ended with a fireworks display.
The Haifa Bikkurim celebration arguably attained its acme the following year when the event was attended by Jews from across Eretz Yisrael and by dignitaries from both the Zionist movement and the British Mandate, including Sir Alfred Mond and Ussishkin. The JNF, which took an important role in planning the event, documented the 1934 celebration in a film.
No Chag Habikkurim celebration was held in Haifa in 1935 because Shavuot fell on Shabbat, which engendered a bitter battle between the city’s Orthodox and secular communities. My research did not uncover any reason why, as in 1933, the celebration could not simply have taken place after Shavuot.
There was no festival held in 1936 because of the infamous Arab riots, and only sporadic celebrations were held in 1937 and 1938. Typical of such small and local celebrations was one held at the Evan Yehuda National Children’s House in Tel Aviv in 1938. Exhibited here is a ticket issued for the Mifaal HaBikkurim for that event.
By 1939 and the start of World War II, the Bikkurim celebrations ceased. After the establishment of the State of Israel in 1948, however, the JNF commenced hosting Bikkurim ceremonies at its central headquarters in Jerusalem. In addition, the kibbutzim – on whose success Israel was strongly dependent as its economy was still primarily agrarian – reinstituted Shavuot harvest celebrations with parades, pageants, carnivals, exhibits, artistic and musical performances, and floral decorations, and they continue to be held to this day.
Exhibited here is an original photograph of dancers of the Ain Hashofet settlement performing on a stage placed out in the open during Shavuot 1949. Set in the natural surroundings of the Hills of Ephraim, the festival was attended by thousands of visitors from surrounding settlements and from the villages of the Jezreel Valley and Harei Ephraim.
In a lovely contemporary tradition, farmers across Israel take turns bringing fruits and vegetables to Jerusalem, which they deliver to Israel’s president, an annual highlight for the farming community. Exhibited here is a 2014 photograph of President Shimon Peres receiving bikkurim at the presidential residence.
Wishing everybody a joyous Shavuot!