Parshat Ki Tavo begins: “When you enter the land that the Lord your God is giving you as a heritage and you possess it and settle in it, you shall take some of every first fruit of the soil, which you harvest from the land that the Lord your God is giving you, put it in a basket, and go to the place where the Lord your God will choose to establish His name.”
Once the Israelite farmer brought his first fruits to the Temple and gave them to a priest, he was to recite: “My father was a fugitive Aramean. He went down to Egypt with meager numbers and sojourned there, but there he became a great and very populous nation…. [God] brought us to this place and gave us this land, a land flowing with milk and honey. Wherefore I now bring the first fruits of the soil which You, O Lord, have given me.”
If this seems a bit familiar, it’s because these verses are the basis for the midrash at the center of the Passover Haggada.
What is particularly interesting is that because the Torah prescribes precisely what the person bringing first fruits must say, the rabbis ruled that this is one of the relatively few things that must be recited in Hebrew exactly as written. (In most cases, if a person is unable to pray in Hebrew, that person may pray in any language he or she understands.)
The Mishna, in Bikkurim (3:7), teaches, “Originally, everyone who knew how to recite recited, and everyone who did not know how to recite, they prompted him.” At the time of the Mishna, Hebrew was no longer the spoken language of the Land of Israel; people generally spoke Aramaic. As a result, there were people who were unable to recite the first fruits declaration in Hebrew by heart, so for them the kohen would say the words and the farmer would repeat them.
But the Mishna continues: “When these people refrained from bringing their first fruits, it was ordained that both those who knew how to recite and those who did not know how to recite would be prompted.” Apparently, people who could not recite the declaration properly and required prompting were embarrassed — so much so that they actually stopped fulfilling a Torah obligation so that they would not appear ignorant or stupid in public. As a result, rather than allowing people to recite the declaration any way they could, the rabbis decided to maintain the ritual — the Hebrew recitation — but to do so in a way that made no distinction between those who were fluent and those who were not.
Something similar happened in the case of Torah reading. Originally each oleh (person called to the Torah) was expected to read his own passage from the scroll. But over time, more and more people were unable to do this, so the practice of having a ba’al koreh (a designated Torah reader) arose. Today, each oleh says the blessings, the ba’al koreh reads from the Torah, and the oleh follows along carefully and, if possible, reads along in an undertone.
In Jewish tradition, there is nothing more honored than Torah learning. According to the Gemara in Horayot, a mamzer (a child of incest or adultery who is prohibited from marrying another Jew who is not a mamzer) who is a scholar takes precedence even over a kohen gadol (high priest) who is an ignoramus.
And yet, by making these changes in the performance of central rituals, the rabbis also teach us that learning is to be used in praise of God and in service to the Jewish people — and never as a weapon to humiliate another human being.