A look at the Feast of Firstfruits

| Saturday, May 16, 2009

Today is day thirty-seven of the "Lag B'Omer" according to the Hebrew calendar. "Lag B'Omer" is Hebrew for the "counting of the sheaf." It is the time period between the Feast of First Fruits, which immediately follows Passover, to the celebration of the Feast of Weeks, forty-nine days later.

While the Jewish Temple was still standing in the city of Jerusalem, the first fruits of the barley harvest were presented at the alter on the day following Passover. It was both a ceremonial occasion, the sheafs being collected from a designated plot in the Kidron Valley at the foot of the Mount of Olives, and a family rite, with the first grain being collected from family plots and brought to Jerusalem for presentation to the priests.

Directions for the celebration of Firstfruits are given in Leviticus 23:9-14.

Little is done today, even in the Jewish community, to mark Firstfruits, since the Temple has been gone since 70 AD. The Hebrew letters of the word for "count," also designate the number 33. Jewish custom has held this to be a lucky day, and often marriages are performed on this day to acknowledge the tradition.

However, the festival captures several attitudes that are important to people who think biblically. Leviticus 23:14 reads, "You must not eat any bread, or roasted or new grain, until the very day you bring this offering to your God." This meant that nothing was to be used of the new crop until the appropriate first fruits offering was presented to God. This offering was not the tithe. It was the acknowledgment that since everything we are and have belongs to God, before we use any of it we should offer thanksgiving for his gifts.

Firstfruits was celebrated at the beginning of the harvest season with the barley harvest. The wheat harvest came later, around the time of Shavuot, or Feast of Weeks. The fruit harvest came in the Fall, and was celebrated at Sukkot, or Tabernacles. Nevertheless, the concept of offering to God the first fruits of a harvest extended to all the produce of the land. It included the seven major crops of the land of Israel: barley, wheat, grapes, figs, pomegranates, olives and dates. It included the firstborn males of all animals, and even the firstborn male of the Israelites themselves (Ex. 13:2).

The idea that, "The earth is the Lord's, and everything in it, the world and all who live in it (Ps. 24:1)." is the only really effective attitude for protecting the environment. Those who believe they owe to God all the gifts of the earth will first be thankful, and secondly take care of it, because they are trustees of the Almighty. The Feast of Firstfruits captures and accentuates this conviction.

Secular environmentalism never really works well. It usually reduces to politics. A large portion of the so-called environmental efforts in our nation are disguised plans to control what other people can do and not do through legal means. It gets nasty, and more often than not is motivated by self or group interests, not really concerned about the general well being of the planet.

Behind the Feast of Firstfruits is the conviction that the earth and its produce is not ours. It is provided to us by a gracious and loving God, who knows that if we lose that awareness we will also lose our wisdom in caring for it.

The Rev. William Scarle can be contacted e-mail .

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