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The practice of consecrating first-fruits to the Deity is not a distinctly Jewish one (cf. Iliad, IX, 529; Aristophanes, "Ran.", 1272; Ovid, "Metam.", VIII, 273; X, 431; Pliny, "Hist. Nat.", IV, 26; etc.). It seems to have sprung up naturally among agricultural peoples from the belief that the first - hence the best - yield of the earth is due to God as an acknowledgment of His gifts. "God served first", then the whole crop becomes lawful food. The offering of the first-fruits was, in Israel, regulated by laws enshrined in different parts of the Mosaic books. These laws were, in the course of ages, supplemented by customs preserved later on in the Talmud. Three entire treatises of the latter, "Bíkkûrîm", "Terû-môth", and "Hállah", besides numerous other passages of both the Mishna and Gemarah, are devoted to the explanation of these customs.
First-fruit offerings are designated in the Law by a threefold name: Bíkkûrîm, Reshîth, and Terûmôth. There remains much uncertainty about the exact import of these words, as they seem to have been taken indiscriminately at different epochs. If, however, one considers the texts attentively, he may gather from them a fairly adequate idea of the subject. There was a first-fruit offering connected with the beginning of the harvest. Leviticus, xxiii, 10-14, enacted that a sheaf of ears should be brought to the priest, who, the next day after the Sabbath, was to lift it up before the Lord. A holocaust, a meal-offering, and a libation accompanied the ceremony; and until it was performed no "bread, or parched corn, or frumenty of the harvest" should be eaten. Seven weeks later two loaves, made from the new harvest, were to be brought to the sanctuary for a new offering. The Bíkkûrîm consisted, it seems, of the first ripened raw fruits; they were taken from wheat, barley, grapes, figs, pomogranates, olives, and honey. The fruits offered were supposed to be the choicest, and were to be fresh, except in the case of grapes and figs, which might be offered dried by Israelites living far from Jerusalem. No indication is given in Scripture as to how much should be thus brought to the sanctuary. But the custom was gradually introduced of consecrating no less than one-sixtieth and no more than one-fortieth of the crop (Bíkk., ii, 2, 3, 4). Occasionally, of course, there were extraordinary offerings, like that of the fruit of a tree the fourth year after it bad been planted (Lev., xix, 23-25); one might also, for instance, set apart as a free offering the harvest of a whole field.
No time was, at first, specially set apart for the offering; in later ages, however, the feast of Dedication (25 Casleu) was assigned as the limit (Bíkk., i, 6; Hállah, iv, 10). In the Book of Deuteronomy, xxvi, 1-11, directions are laid down as to the manner in which these offerings should be made. The first-fruits were brought in a basket to the sanctuary and presented to the priest, with an expression of thanksgiving for the deliverance of Israel from Egypt and the possession of the fertile land of Palestine. A feast, shared by the Levite and the stranger, followed. Whether the fruits offered were consumed in that meal is not certain; Numbers, xviii, 13, seems to intimate that they henceforth belonged to the priest, and Philo and Josephus suppose the same.
Other offerings were made of the prepared fruits, especially oil, wine, and dough (Deut., xviii, 4; Num., xv, 20-21; Lev., ii, 12, 14-15; cf. Ex., xxii, 29, in the Greek), and "the first of the fleece". As in the case of the raw fruits, no quantity was determined; Ezechiel affirms that it was one-sixtieth of the harvest for wheat and barley and one-one hundredth for oil. They were presented to the sanctuary with ceremonies analogous to those alluded to above, although, unlike the Bíkkûrîm, they were not offered at the altar, but brought into the store-rooms of the temple. They may he looked upon, therefore, not so much as sacrificial matter as a tax for the support of the priests. (See ANNATES.)
SMITH, The Religion of the Semites (2d ed., London, 1907): WELLHAUSEN, Prolegomena to the History of Israel, tr. BLACK AND MENZIEB (Edinburgh, 1885), 157-58; PHILO, De festo cophini; ID., De proemiis sacerdotum; JOSEPHUS, Ant. Jud., IV, viii, 22; RELAND, Antiquitates sacrœ; SCHÜRER, Geschichte des jüd. Volkes im Zeit. J. C. (Leipzig, 1898), II, 237-50.
CHARLES L. SOUVAY