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The Cake-Cutting Rabbi

Aug 27, 2023

Blowing a shofar in a field (Shutterstock.com)

וְלָקַחְתָּ֞ מֵרֵאשִׁ֣ית ׀ כׇּל־פְּרִ֣י הָאֲדָמָ֗ה אֲשֶׁ֨ר תָּבִ֧יא מֵֽאַרְצְךָ֛ אֲשֶׁ֨ר יְהֹוָ֧ה אֱלֹהֶ֛יךָ נֹתֵ֥ן לָ֖ךְ וְשַׂמְתָּ֣ בַטֶּ֑נֶא וְהָֽלַכְתָּ֙ אֶל־הַמָּק֔וֹם אֲשֶׁ֤ר יִבְחַר֙ יְהֹוָ֣ה אֱלֹהֶ֔יךָ לְשַׁכֵּ֥ן שְׁמ֖וֹ שָֽׁם׃

you shall take some of every first fruit of the soil, which you harvest from the land that Hashem your God is giving you, put it in a basket and go to the place where Hashem your God will choose to establish His name.

v-la-kakh-TA may-ray-SHEET kol p'-REE ha-a-da-MAH a-SHER ta-VEE may-ar-tz'-KHA a-SHER a-do-NAY e-lo-HE-kha no-TAYN LKAH v'-sam-TA va-TE-ne v'-ha-lakh-TA el ha-ma-KOM a-SHER yiv-KHAR a-do-NAI e-lo-HE-kha l'-sha-KAYN sh'-MO SHAM

Deuteronomy 26:2

Every year on Rosh Hashanah (Jewish New Year) morning, Rabbi Yeshaya of Kerestier (Hungary, 1851 – 1925) would seclude himself in his study for about 10 minutes before the blowing of the Shofar (ram’s horn).

One year, one of his followers, who was curious to see how the Rabbi prepared himself for this awesome commandment, looked through the keyhole of the study. What he saw shocked him. The Rabbi was not reciting Psalms or reviewing the laws of the Shofar. Instead, he saw the rabbi cutting up cake so that when the long Rosh Hashanah prayers were over, the people at the synagogue would be able to have a bite to eat!

This is a sweet story, but it left me wondering: Couldn’t somebody else cut the cake? Why did the holy rabbi do this himself, and why did he have to do it right before the blowing Shofar, the most important commandment of the entire day?

At the very beginning of the Torah portion of Ki Tavo (Deuteronomy 26:1-28:8) we learn about the commandment known as Bikkurim – the bringing of the first fruits to Jerusalem every year.  When the first fruits were harvested they would be brought by all Jews, both rich and poor, to the Temple.

The sages teach us something very interesting about this commandment: “The wealthy brought their first fruits in baskets of gold and silver, while the poor brought them in reed baskets made from peeled willow branches.  And the baskets and first fruits were given to the priests.”

If you read this teaching carefully, you’ll notice something interesting; while both the rich and the poor give their baskets of fruit to the priests, the priests only keep the reed baskets given by the poor Jews.  The gold and silver trays, which held the fruit of the wealthy Jews, are returned to their owners!

Why did the priests return the gold and silver trays?  The wealthy men could have easily afforded to leave them for the Temple where they would no doubt have been put to good use, and where they would also have brought honor to their donors!  And what was to be gained by keeping the poor men’s simple straw baskets? Did they really need all those cheap baskets made of reeds?

As I thought about this strange law it struck me that there is a very big difference between the Bikkurim offering of the poor farmers and the Bikkurim offering of the wealthy farmers. To be a wealthy farmer means, first and foremost, that you own a lot of land – many, many dunams of farmland and vineyards. To work all of these fields, the wealthy farmer would hire many workers to labor on his behalf; the owner almost certainly stayed inside, doing the big picture buying and selling, leaving the hard work out in the fields to the laborers.

When the first fruits begin to sprout, Jewish law requires that a farmer tie a reed around the first fruit of each tree.  That way, months later, when the fruits are ripe and ready to be picked, the farmer knows which fruit was the first one to grow.

In the fields of the wealthy farmer, this laborious job was almost certainly done by the hired laborers, who went from tree to tree, and vine to vine, tying reeds to the first fruits.  And when the fruit was ripe, a few months later, these same laborers would pick the first fruits and gather them together, so they would be ready for their wealthy boss to bring to Jerusalem.

And when it was finally time to bring the first fruits to Jerusalem, the wealthy farmer would order a beautiful gold or silver basket from the local goldsmith or silversmith.  This was the wealthy farmer’s experience.

The poor Jew, on the other hand, had a very different Bikkurim experience.  His fields were small, and he did all of the farming himself; there was no way he could afford to hire a whole group of laborers to help him!

And so, when the first fruit began to sprout this Jew would go from tree to tree, from vine to vine, all by himself, tying a reed around each of the first fruits.  And all along, as he tied reeds onto every fruit, he was thinking about Jerusalem!  He was looking forward to the day, a few months away, when the fruit would be ripe and he and his family would dance to Jerusalem to thank God for the blessings in their lives!

When it came time to pick these fruits, it was the poor farmer who again went out into the fields and picked every fruit himself, all the while thinking of Jerusalem. And when it was time to bring the first fruits to Jerusalem, he certainly did not have the money to buy a beautiful gold basket from the goldsmith.  And so, instead, he sat down and wove his own basket, reed by reed – all the while thinking about Jerusalem.

When the people brought their first fruits to Jerusalem, the priests would only keep the baskets of the poor farmers and would give the gold and silver baskets back to their owners. Why? While both the wealthy farmers and the poor farmers fulfilled the commandment of Bikkurim, and, objectively, the rich man’s basket is more valuable and beautiful, the offering of the poor farmer, symbolized by his simple homemade basket of reeds, was uniquely beloved.

It was the poor farmer who was personally connected to Jerusalem, thinking about and yearning for the day when he could bring his offering to the holy city.  Only the poor farmer personally invested his heart and soul, his sweat and hard work, into the commandment. A gift easily bought with the swipe of a credit card can never be as beloved as a gift that requires an investment of self.

The Jewish sages teach that performing acts of loving kindness is greater than giving charity in three ways: Acts of charity involve only one’s money, while acts of kindness can involve both money and one’s personal service. Charity can be given only to the poor, while acts of kindness can be done both for the poor and the rich.  And while charity can be given only to the living, acts of kindness can be done both for the living and the dead. (Tractate Sukkah)

Charity is very powerful. Without financial generosity, no community can be sustained and people would starve!  And yet, there is something uniquely impactful, uniquely holy, in getting personally and physically involved in performing acts of kindness for others.

Even more than charity, acts of kindness are an expression of love, and that difference is felt, tangibly, by those who receive these acts of love. But just as important is the fact that the acts of kindness we do with our bodies impact our very selves; the DOER himself is changed and transformed by the act.

This is why Rabbi Yeshaya of Keresteir cut cake for others before the blowing of the Shofar.  A fundamental rule of life is that we become what we do. To truly love our fellow we must actively and physically help our fellow.  Before blowing Shofar, the most important command performed on the Jewish New Year, Rabbi Yeshaya wanted to expand his concern beyond himself. He wanted to be able to pray and to feel for his fellow man, and the best way to prepare for that, the best way to become a lover of others, is to DO things for them!

Related Names and Places: First Fruit, Shofar

Relate Bible Verses: Chapter 26

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