"And you shall take from the first of the fruits of the earth" (Deut. 26:2)

Rav Hunna, commenting on the first verse in the Torah in Bereshit Rabba (1:4) says that the universe was created in consideration of three merits acquired by Israel: the merit of setting aside the challah offering from their dough, the merit of giving tithes, and the merit of bringing the First Fruits to the Temple. In fact, the reason that the word used by the Torah for describing the beginning of Creation is "bereshit" [as opposed to the word "b'hatchala", meaning "at the start"] is that the legislation of challah is described as setting aside "from the beginning [in Hebrew, 'reishit'] of your dough". (Num. 15:20) The same word is also used in connection with the tithes. (see Deut. 18:4) The expression is further used in connection with First Fruits, as we know from our Torah reading. (Deut. 26:2)

The difficulty with this Midrash is why these three commandments should be so much more important than others to justify their being reported to be the reason that G‑d created the universe.

The purpose of the Creation was the Torah….

We have other easily understandable quotes about the word "reishit" being equated with Israel and the world being created for the sake of Israel or for the sake of Torah. This special significance of the above-mentioned three commandments certainly needs elaboration. Another difficulty in the Midrash is the wording ("nothing is called 'reishit/first' except challah") which implies that the appellation "reishit" is not accorded to anything else but challah. How can the Midrash reverse itself immediately afterwards and state, "…Nothing is called 'reishit' except tithes [maaser]." The Midrash compounds this by stating, "Nothing is called 'reishit' except bikurim/First Fruits." How many things are there which qualify for the exclusive appellation "reishit"?

Another difficulty is that the verse quoted by the Midrash (Deut. 18:4) as proving that the term "reishit" applies to tithes actually speaks of priestly gifts and not of tithes? Why does the Midrash not use the customary form for quoting a verse, "shene'emar" [meaning "as it says"], but instead says "kama d'at amar" [which is in Aramaic].

G‑d…imbued our food with a degree of holiness….

Actually, the purpose of the Creation was the Torah, which would provide the means by which mankind could successfully exist on earth and which in turn mankind or Israel respectively were meant to observe. Just as the Torah consists of "body and soul" - or of visible and invisible - aspects which nonetheless form a whole, so man is composed of 248 limbs and 365 sinews corresponding to the 613 commandments in the Torah. All these 613 parts of the human body can be viewed as holy, whereas there is also a "holy of holies", an even holier part of man, i.e. the soul.

We must understand how the body can qualify for the description "holy", seeing it is mostly animal-like and depends on eating and drinking in order to stay alive. If the body is so dependent on physical, biological functions, how could it develop the affinity to Torah needed seeing that Torah is totally holy?

What did G‑d do in order to overcome this problem? He imbued our food with a degree of holiness. He sanctified the relevant first produce called "tithes", "challah" and "First Fruits". He commanded us in the Torah to sanctify these particular parts of the food we eat and thereby created the "bridge" which enables the body which is animal-like to become holy, to relate to the Torah on a spiritual wavelength. The act of dedication to His name of these parts of our food supply elevates the whole concept of physical food to a higher spiritual plateau; its technical means is the giving of the parts dedicated to G‑d's representative, the priest or the Levite respectively.

The food which man consumes is first and foremost based on grain, the "king" of all plants. This is the reason that G‑d commanded to set aside part of the grain harvest for special sanctification as a gift [teruma] contribution. Since G‑d did not consider this sanctification of food as adequate, He also imbued the tithes to be given to the Levites with a degree of special holiness. The Levite, in turn, gives some of what has been allocated to him to the priest, i.e. the terumat maaser; once the Levite has done so he has joined the ranks of the 1-10-100, or 2-20-200, described in Shaarei Ora in connection with the reason for the need to recite 100 benedictions daily.

Once the raw grain has been transformed into something of spiritual significance, the dough, it is elevated further by the setting aside of challah. Next this dough is converted into bread which has by now been thoroughly sanctified. Bread is so important that our Sages (and frequently the Torah itself) automatically referred to every meal as "bread". People are described as being invited to eat "bread", when in fact the invitation extends to a comprehensive meal.

Having dealt with these aspects of cereal-based food and the means to sanctify them we are left with the problem of the sanctification of the fruit of the trees. This is the reason for G‑d's commandment to the farmer to take from the seven kinds of produce the land of Israel is famous for (5 of which are tree grown fruit) and for every farmer to annually present the first ripe fruit of each category in the Temple. The seven categories are in their class what grain is in the class of all that grows directly in the earth, i.e. the choicest. All the tree-grown fruit becomes sanctified when the farmer observes the legislation as it applies to these seven kinds of fruit/produce.

The Midrash stated "nothing is 'reishit' except challah", which means that the mere sanctification of giving gifts or tithes from the grain in its original state was not enough to elevate it to the desired level of sanctity; the process had to be continued at the level where the grain is transformed into dough. Hence, the Torah speaks of the consecration of the first of your kneading.

The same consideration applies to tithes; that sanctification too was not adequate yet, i.e. the first tithes given to the Levite had to be followed up by the terumat maaser given by the Levite to the priest. Since terumat maaser is grain in its original state, the Midrash did not want to use the customary expression "shene'emar" [in Hebrew] to preface the quotation from the Torah. This would have been interpreted as applying to teruma gedola [great] instead of to terumat maaser, i.e. the lesson that even designating grain as teruma gedola was not yet an adequate level of sanctification.

The Midrash teaches that the word "reishit" is used to describe the first - but not necessarily final - step of sanctifying something.

The overall lesson of this whole series of legislation is that the righteous individual consumes physical food [the part permitted to him] to remain alive so as to be able to serve his G‑d and perform His commandments. G‑d regards food consumed under such circumstances as being in the class of an offering that has been presented to Him. I have explained this at greater length in my treatise Kedushat Hamaachal, under the heading of the letter kuf.

[Translated and adapted by Eliyahu Munk.]