This week's Torah portion, Ki Tavo (Deuteronomy 26:1-29:8) commences with the practice of tithing one's first fruits (Deuteronomy 26:1-15). Based on Rashi's commentary, we know that the tithing was limited to the Seven Species (26:2), as well as the fact that they were confined to the Temple in Jerusalem during the season of rejoicing, i.e., between Shavuot and Sukkot (26:11). The first fruits from a tree that is less than three years old were sacrificed to G-d (26:2), whereas the first fruits from trees from fruit three years or older were donated to "the Levite, stranger, orphan, and widow" (26:12). What we are observing is a form of sacrifice that has not been practiced since the fall of the Second Temple. Much like with the other forms of sacrifice, that's nearly 2,000 years of what seems to be total irrelevance to Jewish practice. Do we gloss over or dismiss the passage regarding fruit tithing because there currently is no Temple and sacrifices have since then ceased, or should we analyze the text to pull out more eternal and essential messages given within the passage? This would be a pretty short blog entry if I went for the former, so let's go with the latter here, shall we?
The first thing we should ask ourselves is why this practice existed in the first place. Fruit has a special place in Judaism. Aside from the separate blessing for [many] fruits (borei pri ha'etz; and borei pri hagafen for grapes), fruits are commonplace throughout Jewish holidays (e.g., apples on Rosh Hashanah, etrog for Sukkot, the Tu BeShevat seder, charoset at the Passover seder), so I'd say that fruit has plenty of symbolism in Judaism. Furthermore, when Judaism began, Jewish society was predominantly agrarian in nature. Since many Jews were farmers, fruit was a representation of a Jew's livelihood.
When we acquire the fruit of our labors, whether that is in the form of a paycheck or in actual agricultural produce, it becomes so easy to say "I worked for it. Everything I have earned is mine. Why should I have to part with anything that I have done through drudgery and labor?" Yes, we should make sure that we have are needs provided for, because "If I'm not for myself, who will be (Pirke Avot 1:14)?" However, when life is based on greed, we create instability and volatility in our interpersonal relations and institutions. What we need here is a spiritual view of economics that is well-balanced. When we think solely about ourselves, we lull ourselves into being greedy. The problem is that we don't live in isolation from others. We have G-d, family, friends, community, and society to worry about. To go back to that wonderful Jewish saying (ibid), "if I'm only for myself, then what am I?" One of the friendly reminders that G-d gives us in this tithing practice is that everything is not ours. We are not put on Earth simply to accrue material wealth. We are meant to use that material wealth as a positive force in society, to bring about a sense of responsibility to others, not to mention righteousness in this world. That is why the first fruits [that come from trees that a three-plus years old] are to be given to those who are less fortunate (Deuteronomy 26:12-13), which also is a reminder that we are to treat individuals with dignity because they are "created in His Image." The fruits of one's labor has purpose that transcends ourselves.
Aside from teaching the importance of generosity, G-d is reminding us that what we need in life is a well-grounded sense of gratitude. The fruit tithing is a tithing of thanksgiving. The passage that is recited during the tithing (Deuteronomy 26:5-10), and one that also happens to be in the Passover Haggadah, reminds us of the tough times and how events in life can and do get better. While the Jews were reduced to a state of destitution (Abraham ben Izra, commentary on Deuteronomy 26:7) while being slaves in Egypt, they could not even acquire their own possessions (Sforno, commentary on Deuteronomy 26:6). Once out of slavery, they were free and thus able to acquire the fruits of their own labor.
What is interesting is that other sacrifices were offered in silence, but in this case, the passage in Deuteronomy 26:5-10 had to be verbalized (ibid, 26:5). Gratitude is so important that it required the externality of verbalization of the gratitude. The Talmudic rabbis bring up that happiness is being satisfied with one's lot (Pirke Avot 4:1). With that, R. Mordechai Gifter, zt"l, went as far as saying that being joyful for having one's lot is a commandment (Deuteronomy 26:11). The Israelities in the Torah, even after being slaves in Egypt and wandering in the desert for forty years, were still meant to feel gratitude and joy. We are meant to reflect on what it is to have ups and downs in life, but nevertheless ultimately be joyful for what we have (ibid), which is to say that Judaism likes to end on a positive note.
Although we no longer have a sacrificial system, we are taught a great deal from fruit tithing about how to live our lives. Give what you can and be thankful for what you have. When we act generously and show gratitude, those actions bear fruit in our lives in ways we could not imagine possible.