Ki Tavo (Deuteronomy 26, 1 – 29, 8) – the declarations of the bringing of the first fruits and the tithe of the poor, and the Biblical names of the Jewish people

The Book of Deuteronomy is presented as a speech of Moses to the Israelites in the plains of Moab (to the east of the land of Israel) prior to their entering the land of Israel. In his speech to the Israelites Moses recounts their history and presents them with laws that they are to observe in the land of Israel. In the very beginning of the Torah reading of Ki Tavo there are two laws that the Israelites are to observe in the land of Israel that stand out in which the Israelites are to make a declaration in fulfilling two commandments of the Torah (the 5 Books of Moses).

 

In the first case (Deuteronomy 26, 1-11), an Israelite in living an agricultural life in the land of Israel is commanded to bring the first fruits of the field after the harvest “unto the place which the Lord your God shall choose to cause His name to dwell there” (Deuteronomy 26, 2), and to declare before a priest that the Israelite has come into and settled in the land of Israel that was promised in the Biblical account as an inheritance to the patriarchs of the Jewish people, of the Israelites (Deuteronomy 26, 3). The phrase, “unto the place which the Lord your God shall choose to cause His name to dwell there”, which is found in a number of places in the Book of Deuteronomy, evidently refers to a centralized place of worship in the land of Israel where the Tabernacle was located. The Tabernacle was the central place of Israelite ritual worship in the wilderness after the exodus from Egypt and after entering the land of Israel until superseded by the Temple of Jerusalem built by King Solomon.

 

I want to clarify two things here in relation to the law of the bringing of the first fruits. First, the patriarchs (Abraham, Isaac and Jacob) were Hebrews, and not Jews. One possible explanation of the term Hebrew among historians is that the term is not a noun referring to a specific ethnic, national or racial group but an adjective describing a type of people (wanderers or nomads who did not belong to any particular society). Second, such wanderers were shepherds raising sheep and cattle – and, they did not live an agricultural lifestyle. They were not tied to any particular land and did not work the land – rather, they wandered from area to area depending upon availability of grazing land for their herds.

 

So, the law of the bringing of the first fruits at the beginning of the Torah reading of Ki Tavo reflects an agricultural life that the Israelites are living in having entered and settled the land of Israel – in distinction to their ancestors, Hebrews, who wandered throughout the near east as nomads raising sheep and cattle. The law requires the Israelite to bring first fruits of the field in the harvest period to the Tabernacle (Deuteronomy 26, 2) and to declare before a priest that the Israelite has come into and settled in the land that was promised in the Biblical account as an inheritance to the patriarchs of the Jewish people (Deuteronomy 26, 3). Also, as a part of the declaration, the Israelite tells of the Israelite history in the main in plural form as an expression of thankfulness in belonging to the Jewish people and living in the land of Israel (Deuteronomy 26, 5-9) – “A wandering Aramean was my father, and he went down into Egypt…and he became there a nation…and the Egyptians…afflicted us…and we cried unto the Lord…And the Lord brought us forth out of Egypt…and He has brought us into this place, and hath given us this land, a land flowing with milk and honey”.

 

In the second case (Deuteronomy 26, 12 – 14), an Israelite is commanded to give a tithe of agricultural produce to the poor, and the Israelite is to declare that the commandment has indeed been fulfilled – “When you have made an end of tithing all the tithe of your increase…and have given it unto the Levite, to the stranger, to the fatherless, and to the widow…”. The Israelite is also to declare that the Israelite has done all that God has commanded and not transgressed any commandments of God (Deuteronomy 26, 13). Here the declaration is only in the singular and there is no telling of Israelite history as an expression of thankfulness.

 

The obvious question here is – what is the relationship between these two declarations? I want to suggest that the difference in nature between these two declarations reflects the difference between the two Biblical names of the Jewish people. But, before I discuss the two Biblical names of the Jewish people, I want to give background about Judaism.

 

Traditional Judaism is a religion in a very different sense than Christianity. Christianity is a religion in a theological sense of a faith commitment – not only faith in God but faith in Jesus as the messiah. What defines one as a Christian, and unites Christians, is the fundamental faith commitment in Jesus as the messiah. Christianity is a community of believers – and, one who lacks the fundamental faith commitment in Jesus as the messiah is not a true Christian even if born of Christian parents and even if believing in God. That is, in principle there can be no such thing as a secular Christian who does not believe in Jesus as the messiah.

 

By contrast, traditional Judaism is a religion not in the theological sense of a faith commitment but in a pragmatic sense of a culture and way of life of the Jewish people. What defines one as a Jew is a legal standard of being born to a Jewish mother or having converted – and, not faith in God nor any other faith commitment (and not a traditional Jewish life of law and ritual practice). Among the Jewish people there are those who define themselves as religious and those who define themselves as secular – and, what unites Jews is not a faith commitment (and not a traditional Jewish life of law and ritual practice) but being part of a people with a shared history, language (Hebrew), homeland (Israel) and culture or heritage.

 

There is no term Judaism (and no labels of religious and secular) in the Hebrew Bible (as the foundation of Judaism), or in the Talmudic literature (as the foundation of the Jewish rabbinic tradition). In the Talmudic literature the term for Judaism is Torah, which is the central concept of the Jewish rabbinic tradition. The term Torah is a term that appears in the Bible, and is from a Hebrew root meaning instruction or guidance. In the rabbinic tradition, there are several different usages based upon the literal meaning. The term Torah refers in a strict sense to the 5 Books of Moses, which constitute a legal constitution of the Jewish people (even though also including much moral, spiritual and philosophic guidance). In a broader sense, the term Torah refers to Judaism – the Jewish rabbinic tradition based upon the Bible.

 

The main Biblical name of the Jewish people, and the name given in the Bible by God to the Jewish people, is the name Israel. The name Israel, according to the Torah, means to wrestle with God (Genesis 32, 29), and is the name given to Jacob, the patriarch (Genesis 32, 29 & 35, 10). The name Israel (ישראל) in Hebrew contains the terms meaning righteous (ישר) and God (אל), and therefore if divided in the middle literally means righteous of God (ישר אל). The name Jacob literally means to deceive, as Esau says, after Jacob takes the birthright and blessing from him – “He is rightly named Jacob for he has deceived me these two times” (Genesis 27, 36). Isaac also says to Esau that Jacob deceived him – “your brother came in deception and has taken away your blessing” (Genesis 27, 35). The story of Jacob is one of Jacob transforming himself (Genesis 32, 28-31) in wrestling with God (which I understand in a metaphoric sense that he wrestled with his own moral conscience, constituting the Divine image of the human being) – transforming himself from Jacob, one who deceives (not only his brother but his father as well), into Israel, one is who righteous before God.

 

The Jewish people then are the children of Israel, the children and descendants of Jacob, who are to be devoted to righteousness. Likewise regarding Abraham, the father of the Jewish people, God declares – “for I know him that he will command his children and his household after him, and they will keep the way of the Lord to do righteousness and justice” (Genesis 18, 19). The Jewish religion and culture is characterized above all by a preoccupation with such moral values as righteousness and justice as well as love, compassion, equality, freedom and peace, which are the ultimate values of the Hebrew Bible and Jewish tradition – especially in distinction to the ancient, Greek culture that was characterized above all by the development of reason and intellect. The Divine image of the human being (the human being created in the image of God) in the Hebrew Bible and Jewish tradition includes reason and intellect, but also, and even more importantly, moral conscience.

 

Although the Jewish people are known as the people of the Book, and although intellectual study is a central feature of a traditional, Jewish life; nevertheless, the Book (the Hebrew Bible) that is the foundation of the Jewish tradition is not a work of systematic philosophy or science celebrating the development of the human intellect but a collection of books that are devoted to moral and spiritual values, and the Jewish people are above all else to be a people devoted to righteousness, morality and right living – as implied in its name Israel (righteous of God). Righteousness rather than faith in God is the essence of religion in the Biblical conception as reflected in the verse (Deuteronomy 6, 18) “you shall do that which is righteous and good in the eyes of the Lord” – and, the word righteous here in the verse (ישר) is actually in Hebrew the very same word righteousness that is part of the name Israel. A true Jew then as reflected in the name Israel is not just one who is born of a Jewish mother or has converted, but is a person who lives a life of righteousness and morality.

 

The term Jew does appear in the Bible (in distinction to the term Judaism). The term Jew, developed from the name Judah, one of the ancient tribes of Israel, and may have begun to be used following the split of the ancient Jewish kingdom of David and Solomon into a northern kingdom of Ephraim and a southern kingdom of Judah and following the destruction of the northern kingdom in the 8th century BCE, with only the kingdom of Judah then remaining. The name Judah, from which the terms Jews and Judaism are derived comes from a root meaning thankfulness. A positive and optimistic psychological attitude of appreciation and thankfulness (rather than complaint and despair) is an essential element of a religious life in the Hebrew Bible and Jewish tradition. A true Jew then as reflected in the term Jew is not just one who is born of a Jewish mother or has converted, but is one who views life as a cup half full and is optimistic, thankful and appreciative rather than pessimistic, overly critical and complaining.

 

If we return now to the two declarations at the beginning of the Torah reading of Ki Tavo, I want to suggest that the difference in nature between the declarations reflects the difference in meaning of the two Biblical names of the Jewish people. The first declaration in bringing the first fruits is an expression of thankfulness as reflected in the name Jew. As an expression of thankfulness in being part of the Jewish people in living in the land of Israel the Israelite is telling of Israelite history – and, because the emphasis is upon being part of the Jewish people living in the land of Israel the telling of Israelite history is in the main in the plural form. The second declaration in giving the tithe of the poor is an expression of obedience to the moral will and command of God, as part of living a life of righteousness as reflected in the name Israel – and, the declaration is that the Israelite has been obedient to all that God has commanded, and not transgressed the commandments of God, as an expression of obedience to the moral will of God.

Jeffrey Radon

Author of orthopraxjudaism.com

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