Redeeming a Firstborn Donkey!
As a cohen, I often participate in the mitzvah of pidyon
haben, redeeming a firstborn male child, a bechor; but I have never been
asked to participate in redeeming a firstborn donkey, in Hebrew called petter
The Torah mentions this mitzvah in three different places.
(1) In Parshas Bo, the pasuk says: Every
firstborn donkey, you shall redeem with a “seh,” and if you do not
redeem it, you should break its neck. Furthermore, the firstborn of your
children, you shall also redeem (Shemos 13:13). (I will explain later
why I did not translate the world “seh.”)
(2) The pasuk repeats the same commandment almost verbatim in Parshas Ki Sissa (Shemos 34:20).
(3) In Parshas Korach, the
Torah states: And the firstborn of a non-kosher animal you shall redeem (Bamidbar
18:15). Although this third verse does not mention specifically that
it refers to a donkey, the halacha is that it refer exclusively to donkeys.
There is no mitzvah to redeem a firstborn colt, camel, or puppy (Tosefta,
WITH WHAT DO WE REDEEM?
As mentioned above, the Torah commands the owner of a
firstborn male donkey to redeem him by giving the cohen a seh, a
word we usually translate as lamb. However, the word seh in the
Torah does not mean only a lamb, but includes a kid goat (Mishnah Bechoros 9a).
(In the mitzvah of Korban Pesach, Shemos 12:5, the Torah mentions
this explicitly.) In actuality, one fulfills this mitzvah by giving the cohen
either a sheep or a goat to redeem the donkey – whether they are young or
mature, male or female (Mishnah Bechoros 9a). Furthermore, there is an
alternative way to fulfill the mitzvah — by redeeming the donkey with anything
that is worth at least as much as the donkey (Bechoros 11a). However, if
the owner redeems the donkey with a sheep or goat, he fulfills the mitzvah,
even though the sheep or goat is worth far less than the donkey (Rambam,
Hilchos Bikkurim 12:11).
As we saw above, the Torah mentions the mitzvah of pidyon haben immediately after discussing the mitzvah of redeeming the firstborn donkey. Based on this juxtaposition of the two mitzvos, Chazal made several comparisons between them. For example, just as the mitzvah of pidyon haben applies only to a male child, so, too, the mitzvah of petter chamor applies only to a firstborn male donkey and not to a female. Similarly, just as the child of a cohen or levi is exempt from the mitzvah of pidyon haben, so, too, a donkey that is owned (or even partially owned) by a cohen or levi is exempt from the mitzvah of petter chamor (see Mishnah Bechoros 3b). And just as a newborn child whose mother is the daughter of a cohen or a levi is exempt from the mitzvah of pidyon haben, so, too, a donkey that is owned or even partially owned by the daughter of a cohen or a levi is exempt from the mitzvah of petter chamor (Shu”t HaRashba 1:366). This is true even if the bas cohen or bas levi is married to a yisroel (Rema, Yoreh Deah 321:19).
Thus, a yisroel who owns a donkey that is pregnant for the first time could avoid performing the mitzvah of petter chamor by selling a percentage of the pregnant donkey or a percentage of her fetus to a cohen,a levi,a bas cohen or a bas levi. He could even avoid the mitzvah by selling a percentage to his own wife, if she is a bas cohen or a bas levi. However, in order to perform this transaction in a halachically correct fashion, he should consult with a rav.
This is assuming that he wants to avoid the opportunity to
perform a mitzvah and save himself a few dollars. However, a Torah-observant
Jew welcomes the opportunity to observe every mitzvah he can, and certainly a
rare one. (How many people do you know who have fulfilled the mitzvah of petter
chamor? Wouldn’t you want to be the first one on your block to have done
so?) Thus, he will try to create a chiyuv of petter chamor, not
try to avoid it. However, in the case of a different, but similar, mitzvah, we
try to avoid the mitzvah for very good reason, as we will explain.
BECHOR OF A KOSHER SPECIES
A firstborn male calf, kid, or lamb has kedusha,
sanctity, which requires treating this animal as a korban. When the Beis
HaMikdash stood, the owner gave this animal to a cohen of his
choice, who offered it as a korban and ate its meat. Today, when,
unfortunately, we have no Beis HaMikdash, this animal still has the kedusha
of a korban, but we cannot offer it. Furthermore, as opposed to the
firstborn donkey that the owner redeems, the firstborn calf, kid, or lamb
cannot be redeemed.
This presents a serious problem. Many Jews are cattle
farmers, raising beef or dairy cattle. If a Jew owns a heifer (a young, female
cow that has not yet borne a calf) that calves for the first time, the male
offspring has the sanctity of a korban. Using it in any way is
prohibited min haTorah and is therefore a serious offense. One must wait
until the animal becomes permanently injured in a way that makes it not
serviceable as a korban, and then the animal may be slaughtered and
eaten. Until the animal becomes this severely injured, anyone who benefits from
this animal in any way will violate a serious Torah prohibition. Furthermore,
it is forbidden to injure this animal in any way or to cause it to become
blemished or damaged.
Thus, possessing a male firstborn calf, goat or lamb can be
a big problem, and could easily cause someone to violate halacha, certainly
something that we want to avoid. The method of avoiding these problems is to
sell a percentage of the mother or its fetus to a non-Jew before the
calf is born. If a non-Jew owns any part of either the mother of the firstborn
or the firstborn himself, there is no sanctity on the offspring. In this
instance, we deliberately avoid creating the kedusha on the offspring in
order to avoid a situation that may lead to undesired results. Since the animal
has kedusha that could be violated, and we cannot remove its kedusha,
we want to avoid creating this situation.
DOES A PETTER CHAMOR HAVE KEDUSHA?
Prior to its being redeemed, a firstborn donkey has kedusha
similar to that of a korban. It is prohibited min haTorah to
use it: one may not ride on it, have it carry for you, or even use its hair.
The hair that falls off may not be used and must be burnt. Someone who uses
this donkey violates a prohibition approximately equivalent to wearing shatnez
or eating non-kosher (Rashi, Pesachim 47a s.v.
Ve’hein; Rivan, Makkos 21b s.v. ve’hein; cf., however,
Tosafos, Makkos 21b s.v. Hachoreish).
Until the donkey is redeemed, one
may not sell it, although some poskim permit selling it for the
difference between the value of the donkey and a sheep (Rosh,
Bechoros 1:11; Tur and Rema, Yoreh Deah 321:8). Many poskim
contend that if the donkey is sold, the money may not be used (Rambam,
Hilchos Bikkurim 12:4; Shulchan Aruch Yoreh Deah 321:8).
WHAT IF THE PETTER CHAMOR WAS NEVER REDEEMED?
If the donkey is unredeemed, it maintains its kedusha
its entire life! Thus, if it dies unredeemed, the carcass must be buried to
make sure that no one ever uses it. We may not even burn it, because of concern
that someone might use its ashes, which remain prohibited (Mishnah Temurah
Furthermore, by not redeeming it, the owner violated the
mitzvah that requires him to redeem it.
Have you ever ridden a donkey? Although it is uncommon to
ride them in North America, in Eretz Yisroel this is not an unusual form
of entertainment. Did you stop to wonder whether the donkey might be a
firstborn and riding it is prohibited?
One need not be concerned. Since most of the donkeys of the
world are not firstborn, one does not need to assume that this donkey is.
Truthfully, the likelihood of a donkey being holy is very slim for another
reason — most donkeys are owned by non-Jews, and a non-Jew’s firstborn donkey
has no sanctity, as we explained before.
Once the firstborn donkey is redeemed, both he and the lamb
used to redeem him have no kedusha at all. In this halacha, petter
chamor is an anomalous mitzvah. In all other cases when we redeem an item
that may not be used, the kedusha is transferred to the redeeming item.
Only in the mitzvah of petter chamor does the kedusha disappear,
never to return. It is almost as if the kedusha that was on the donkey
vanished into thin air!
REFUSES TO REDEEM
What is the halacha if the owner refuses to redeem his
As we know from the Torah, there is another option. If the
owner chooses not to redeem his firstborn donkey, he could instead perform the arifah,
in which he kills the firstborn donkey in a specific prescribed way. The Torah
does not want the owner to follow this approach — he is supposed to redeem the
donkey, rather than kill it (Mishnah Bechoros 13a). The Rishonim
dispute whether performing the arifah fulfills a mitzvah or, instead, is
considered an aveirah (see dispute between Rambam and Raavad in
Hilchos Bikkurim 12:1).
WHEN SHOULD THE OWNER PERFORM THE REDEMPTION?
In this halacha, there is a major difference between the
mitzvah of pidyon haben and the mitzvah of petter chamor. The father
of a newborn bechor does not perform the mitzvah of pidyon haben
until his son is at least thirty days old. However, the owner of the firstborn
donkey should redeem
him within the first 30 days of its birth, and should preferably perform the
mitzvah as soon as possible (Rambam, Hilchos Bikkurim 12:6; Shulchan
Aruch, Yoreh Deah 321:1).
PERFORMING THE MITZVAH
There are actually two stages in performing the mitzvah of petter
chamor, although the two can be performed simultaneously. For our purposes,
we will call the two steps, (a) the redeeming and (b) the giving. In the
redeeming step, the owner takes a lamb, kid, or something else worth at least
as much as the donkey, and states that he is redeeming the donkey in exchange
for the redemption item. Prior to making this statement, the owner recites a bracha,
Asher kideshanu bemitzvosav vetzivanu al pidyon petter chamor (Tosafos,
Bechoros 11a; Shulchan Aruch, Yoreh Deah 321:6). He then states that he is exchanging
the lamb or other item for the kedusha of the donkey. As soon as he
performs this exchange, the sanctity is removed from the petter chamor and
one may use the donkey (Mishnah Bechoros 12b).
In the giving step, the owner gives the lamb (or the item
exchanged for the donkey) to the cohen as a gift. The owner has the right to decide to which cohen he
gives the gift (see Rambam, Hilchos Bechoros 1:15). No bracha
is recited on this step of the mitzvah, and there is much discussion in poskim
regarding why this is so (Taz, Yoreh Deah 321:7).
Although there are two different parts of this mitzvah —
redeeming the kedusha from the firstborn and giving the gift to the cohen
— both parts of this mitzvah can be performed simultaneously, by giving the
lamb (or items of value) to the cohen and telling him that this is
redemption for the donkey. When redeeming the donkey this way, the owner does
recite a bracha.
Now, what does the cohen do with the lamb? He does
not need to leave it tied to a bedpost in his apartment, nor have it graze in
his backyard. He may sell it, should he choose, or can have it converted into
lamb or goat chops!
Why was the donkey an exception? Why is this the only one of
the non-kosher species whose firstborn carries kedusha?
The Gemara teaches that this is a reward for the donkey.
When the Bnei Yisroel left Egypt, the Egyptians gave us many gifts (see Shemos
11:2-3; 12:35-36). The Bnei Yisroel needed to transport all these
gifts out of Egypt and through the Desert to Eretz Yisroel. They could
not simply call Allied Van Lines to ship their belongings. Instead, they used
Donkey Lines, who performed this service for forty years, without complaint or
fanfare! In reward for the donkeys’ providing the Bnei Yisroel with a
very necessary shipping service, the Torah endowed the firstborn of this
species with sanctity (Bechoros 5b). Hashem rewarded the donkey with its
very own special kedusha.
Thus, this mitzvah teaches us the importance of hakaras
hatov, acknowledging when someone helps us. We acknowledge donkeys, because
their ancestors performed kindness for us. If we are required to appreciate the
help given to our ancestors thousands of years ago, how much more do we need to
exhibit hakaras hatov to our parents, teachers, and spouses for all that
they have done and do for us!