Some Basics about Redeeming Donkeys
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!
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).
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!