Why does the Torah need to specify הכהן אשר יהיה שם בימים ההם? Who else are you going to give them to?
This is important to note because for most מתנות כהונה, the owner can pick the cohen to give it to. This is called טובת הנאה:
קרבנות are different. Even though the cohen may get part of it, it is really a gift to ה׳ and the cohen is only אוכל משולחן גבוה. For this, there was a set schedule:
Thus the Torah is telling us that bikurim is fundamentally not a gift to the cohen in exchange for his religious service, but an offering to ה׳, an expression of gratitude for the land.
But there’s a problem with understanding אשר יהיה בימים ההם this way: that’s not what the words mean. It doesn’t say אשר יהיה בזמן ההוא, ”at that time“, but “in those days”, which refers to an era or a generation:
So Rashi, based on the Sifrei, interprets it differently:
The reference is to the previous uses of the term, אשר יהיה בימים ההם:
We are not supposed to pine for the “good old days”, when there were real judges and cohanim, not like the losers we have to deal with now:
If I wanted to bring contemporary politics into this (which I don’t) I would mention how each generation gets the leaders they deserve.
But Ramban points out that this doesn’t make sense for bikurim:
It’s not as though the cohen is acting as a religious שליח; he has no role beyond putting the basket down. The ritual is only recited by the farmer. This is why Ramban brings the explanation that he does.
The later commentators all come to Rashi’s defense. The Kli Yakar takes us to an interesting story in תנ״ך:
What is Elisha doing eating bikurim?
The Talmud explains:
The Kli Yakar connects this use of the term bikurim to our question:
This is “cute” but seems farfetched to use a later extension of the term בכורים to the original law.
Others see a moral lesson here:
Bringing bikurim is a way of acknowleging our debt to ה׳. We don’t say כחי ועוצם ידי עשה לי החיל הזה. But there’s another danger: when we attribute our success to ה׳, we assume we deserve it. It’s a reward for our good behavior. And then we look at the כהן אשר יהיה בימים ההם and think, “I’m frummer than this guy”; I can put my own bikurim לפני מזבח ה׳. It’s not so much that we are comparing the cohen to the cohanim of previous generations; it’s that we’re comparing him to us. And that sort of arrogance defeats the purpose of bringing the bikurim.