The festival of Shavuot, is called the Festival of the Giving of our Torah. It is also called the Festival of Harvest and the Festival of the First Fruits.
Bikkurim — The First Fruits
The ancient Land of Israel was predominantly an agricultural country and, therefore, the harvest was a happy time. But no one toils more than the farmer, and no one is less certain of the fruits of his toil than the farmer. The farmer is entirely dependent upon the elements.
Small wonder that harvest time was a time for great rejoicing in the Land of Israel. The Jewish farmer knew that he owed everything to G-d.
The harvesting season in ancient Israel began at Passover time when the barley crop was first harvested and the Omer was brought to the Beis Hamikdash as a thanksgiving offering. Soon the other crops and fruits ripened, but Bikkurim–the offering of the first ripe fruits–was not to be brought before Shavuot. All through the summer, from Shavuot to Succot, there was time to bring Bikkurim to the Holy Temple.
The first fruits were to be brought only from the seven species for which the Land of Israel is praised: wheat, barley, grapes, figs, pomegranates, olives and dates (Deut. 8:8).
The Mishnah gives a most interesting description of the entire Bikkurim ceremony:
When a man went down to his field, orchard or vineyard, and saw, for the first time, a ripe fig or a ripe cluster of grapes or a ripe pomegranate, he bound it with a reed-grass and said, “Lo, these are first fruits.” Imagine how tempted the farmer was to pluck the first ripe fig and put it into his mouth. Yet, he did not give in to his temptation, but, instead, designated it as an offering to G-d in thanks for the good harvest.
Gathering all his first fruits, and adding to them a great deal more of the choicest fruits, the farmer would go to the nearest town and from there, together with his fellow farmers, proceeded to the “maamad”–the principal town of the district. There, gathered in the marketplace under the sky, the farmers spent the night. Early in the morning the officer of the maamad roused them by calling, “Arise, ye, and let us go up to Zion, Jerusalem and to the House of our G-d.”
The farmers that lived near Jerusalem brought their fruit fresh, but those that lived far off brought dried figs and raisins, so that the fruit would not become spoiled on the way. The fruits were carried in decorated baskets. The rich carried baskets of silver and gold while the poor brought them in wicker baskets of peeled willow branches. Many carried live pigeons attached to the basket, which were intended as sacrifices.
The closer the pilgrims journeyed to Jerusalem, the greater swelled their number and their spirit of rejoicing. Leading the impressive procession was a handsome ox intended as an offering. Its horns were overlaid with gold and a wreath of olive leaves adorned its neck. The flute played before them all the way until they neared the Holy City. At the gates of Jerusalem the rulers and the prefects (the chiefs of the Priests and the chiefs of the Levites) and the officers of the Beit Hamikdash went forth to meet them. Also all the craftsmen of Jerusalem came out and bowed before them saying, “Brethren, men of such and such a place, you are welcome!”
Led by flute players, the procession continued all the way to the Temple Mount. There everyone, even the King, would take his basket on his shoulder and enter as far as the Temple Court. When the Bikkurim bearers reached the Temple, the Levites sang the song, “I will exalt You, O L-rd, for You have uplifted me, and have not allowed my enemies to triumph over me (Psalm 30).”
The pigeons tied to the baskets were then sacrificed as whole-offerings, and what the people brought in their hands they delivered to the Priests.
While the basket was yet on his shoulder each Bikkurim bearer would recite the Bikkurim declaration. This declaration contained, in a few chosen words, the early history of our people, including our slavery in Egypt and liberation. It concluded with the words: “And He has brought us into this place and has given us this land, a land that flows with milk and honey. And now behold, I have brought the first-fruits of the land which You, O L-rd, have given me.” He then left the basket by the side of the altar, bowed down and went out.
Following the great, impressive ceremony of the Bikkurim offering, Jerusalem was transformed into a city of solemn gaiety and rejoicing in accordance with the commandment, “And you shall rejoice for all the good that the L-rd Your G-d has given unto you and unto your house; you, and the Levite, and the stranger that is among you.”