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 chamor.

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, Bechoros 1:2).

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 33b-34a).

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.

VANISHING KEDUSHA!!

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 donkey?

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!

Conclusion

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!

Some Basics about Redeeming Donkeys

clip_image002Question #1: Donkey Rides

Have you ever ridden a donkey? Did you stop to wonder whether the donkey might be firstborn and that it might be prohibited to ride it?

Question #2: Pony Rides

May I ride a horse without checking first whether it is firstborn?

Question #3: Ask its mother!

How do I know whether my donkey is firstborn? I can’t go ask its mother!

Answer:

As a kohen, 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 peter chamor.

After Korach’s maligning Aaron, the Torah lists the awards Aaron and his descendants, the kohanim, receive for their service to the Jewish Nation (listed in Bamidbar 18: 8 -19). There are a total of twenty-four gifts that the Torah grants the kohanim (see Bava Kamma 110b; Rambam, Hil. Bikkurim ch. 1). One of these twenty-four grants is the mitzvah of peter chamor, redeeming the firstborn donkey, the firstborn of a non-kosher animal you shall redeem (Bamidbar 18:15). This is a grant because the kohen benefits by receiving a lamb or goat or the value of the donkey, as I will explain.

This is not the only place in the Torah that this mitzvah is mentioned. The Torah mentions the mitzvah of peter chamor in two other places also:

(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 intentionally did not translate the world “seh” since it includes both sheep and goats, and I am unaware of an English word that includes both species.

(2) The Torah mentions this mitzvah again in Parshas Ki Sissa: The first issue of a donkey you shall redeem with a “seh” (Shemos 34:20). Here the Torah refers to the first issue, from which we derive that the mitzvah applies only if the donkey was born in the normal fashion. This means that a firstborn donkey delivered through caesarean section does not have the sanctity of being firstborn and that there is therefore no mitzvah to redeem it. Sorry, kohen, better luck next time, or more accurately, on the next mother donkey. — If a donkey was delivered through caesarean section, the next naturally-born fetus also does not become sanctified.

No Sanctity to a Puppy

Although the verse in Parshas Korach the firstborn of a non-kosher animal you shall redeem, implies that it includes any species of non-kosher animals, including puppies, kittens and baby elephants, since the two verses in the book of Shemos both specifically mention donkeys, the halacha is that the mitzvah applies only to one species of non-kosher animals: donkeys. Thus, although a dog might be man’s best friend, a firstborn puppy does not have the sanctity of a firstborn donkey foal. There is no mitzvah to redeem a firstborn colt, camel, or wolf (Tosefta, Bechoros 1:2). Thus we can now answer one of our above questions:

May I ride a horse without checking first whether it is firstborn? The answer is that firstborn horse foals have no sanctity. We will soon learn why the donkey is an exception.

Is a Peter Chamor Holy?

Does a firstborn donkey have kedusha?

Prior to its being redeemed, a firstborn donkey has kedusha similar to that of a korban. It is prohibited min haTorah to ride it, use it as a beast of burden, or even use its hair. The hair that falls off it must be burnt and may not be used. Someone who uses this donkey violates a prohibition approximately equivalent to eating non-kosher (Rashi, Pesachim 47a s.v. ve’hein; Rivan, Makkos 21b s.v. ve’hein; cf., however, Tosafos, Makkos 21b s.v. HaChoresh).

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 Rama, 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 Peter Chamor is Never Redeemed?

If the firstborn donkey is unredeemed, it maintains its kedusha its entire life! If it dies in its unredeemed state, the carcass must be buried to make sure that no one ever uses it. We may not even burn the carcass because of concern that someone might use its ashes, which remain prohibited (Mishnah Temurah 33b-34a). The owner who failed to redeem the donkey missed the opportunity to fulfill a mitzvah. Thus we see the value of redemption.

May I Ride a Donkey — Maybe it is a Firstborn?

Have you ever ridden a donkey? Although it is not common to ride donkeys them in North America, in Eretz Yisroel this is a fairly common form of entertainment. Did you stop to wonder whether the donkey might be firstborn and one is prohibited to ride it?

One need not be concerned. Since most of the donkeys of the world are not firstborn, one need not 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.

How do we Effect Redemption?

As mentioned above, the Torah commands the owner of a firstborn male donkey to redeem him by giving a kohen a seh, a word we usually translate as lamb. However, we should be aware that the word seh in the Torah does not mean only a lamb, but also includes a kid goat, as we see from the mitzvah of korban Pesach, where the Torah mentions this explicitly (Shemos 12:5; see Mishnah Bechoros 9a). Other species of animal, such as cows and deer, are not referred to as “seh” by the Torah (Mishnah, Bechoros 12a; Rambam, Hil. Bikkurim 12:8; Shulchan Aruch, Yoreh Deah 321:1).

By the way, one does not need a lamb or kid to redeem a firstborn donkey –a mature adult is perfectly fine. Furthermore, the lamb, kid, sheep or goat that may be either male or female (Mishnah Bechoros 9a).  Lamb chops enthusiasts take note — since they also may be either young or adult, and either male or female.

Saving the Owner Money

In actuality, using a sheep or goat to redeem the donkey is merely a less expensive way of fulfilling the mitzvah Hilchos Bikkurim 12:11). 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 (Gemara Bechoros 11a). Thus, someone who gives a cow or deer to the kohen would fulfill the mitzvah of peter chamor if they are worth at least as much as the donkey (Rashi, Bechoros 12a Tur, Yoreh Deah 321; Shach ad loc. #1. and Taz ad loc. #3).

However, if the owner redeems the donkey with a sheep or goat, he fulfills the mitzvah even if the sheep or goat is worth far less than the donkey (Bechoros 11a, Rambam, Hil. Bikkurim 12:11). Thus by giving a lamb or kid to the kohen, the owner saves money.

Some authorities contend that it is preferable to use a seh for the redemption, and that one should redeem the peter chamor with other items only if he has no sheep or goat with which to redeem it (Rambam as understood by Beis Yosef, Yoreh Deah 321 and Perishah ad loc. #6). Others, however, maintain that redeeming a peter chamor with other items is as acceptable as redeeming it with a sheep or goat (see Tur, Yoreh Deah 321; see also Divrei Chamudos, Bechoros 1:26).

By the way, the sheep or goat cannot be a tereifah, meaning an animal bearing a terminal defect, it must be alive at the time of redemption (Mishnah, Bechoros 12a) and it may not be a  non-viable premature fetus even if it is still alive (Minchas Chinuch 22:5).

A Blemished Record

On the other hand, the redeeming seh may be of either gender, it may be blemished; and it may be of any age (Mishnah, Bechoros 9a).

Giving the Kohen the Foal

What if the owner decides to give the firstborn donkey to the kohen instead?

What is the halacha if the owner decided to give the firstborn donkey to the kohen, instead of redeeming it with a sheep, goat, or other item? Some authorities rule that if the owner gives the firstborn donkey to a Kohen he has fulfilled the mitzvah (Teshuvos HaRadvaz, I:496; Birkei Yosef, Yoreh Deah 321:4; Maharit Algazi, Hil. Bechoros 8; Minchas Chinuch 22:16). According to this view, the Torah merely gives the owner the option (emphasize by italicizing the word option) of keeping the donkey by redeeming it and giving the instrument of redemption to a Kohen.

Others disagree, arguing that redemption is not merely an option but the only means of fulfilling  the mitzvah, and that one who gives the peter chamor to a kohen does not fulfill the mitzvah (Levush, Yoreh Deah 321:8; Chazon Ish, Bechoros 17:6; see also Terumas HaDeshen vol.II #235).

Conclusion:

Why was the donkey an exception? It is the only non-kosher species of animal whose firstborn carries kedusha!

The Gemara teaches that this is a reward for the donkey. When the Bnei Yisroel exited Egypt, the Egyptians gave us many gifts (see Shemos 11:2-3; 12:35-36). The Bnei Yisroel needed to somehow transport all these gifts out of Egypt and through the Desert unto Eretz Yisroel. The Jews could not simply call Allied Van Lines to ship their belongings through the Desert. Instead Donkey Lines performed this service for forty years without complaint or fanfare! In reward for the donkey providing the Bnei Yisroel with a very necessary shipping service, the Torah endowed the firstborn of this species with sanctity (Gemara Bechoros 5b). In essence, Hashem rewarded the donkey with its very own special mitzvah. Thus, this mitzvah teaches us the importance of acknowledging when someone else helps us, hakaras hatov, for we appreciate the species of 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 helped us!

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