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Redeeming a Firstborn Donkey!

The Mitzvah of redeeming the first born Donkey - a long lost Halacha or a practical law for Donkey owners and riders in today's times ??


Rabbi Yirmiyohu Kaganoff

I am absolutely certain that I was never before asked to participate in the redemption of 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 before been asked to participate in redeeming a firstborn donkey, in Hebrew called peter 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 the last 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).
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 they contacted Donkey Lines who 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!

As mentioned above, the Torah commands the owner of a firstborn male donkey to redeem him by giving a cohen 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 (Mishnah Bechoros 9a). (See mitzvas Korban Pesach, Shemos 12:5, where the Torah mentions this explicitly.) In actuality, the halacha is that one fulfills this mitzvah by giving the cohen either a sheep or a goat to redeem the donkey. The redemption seh does not need to be a lamb or kid - it may also be a mature adult and it may be either male or female (Mishnah Bechoros 9a). Furthermore, using a sheep or goat to redeem the donkey is merely a less expensive way of fulfilling the mitzvah since one may redeem an expensive donkey with an inexpensive lamb or kid (Rambam, 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). 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. Thus by giving a lamb or kid to the cohen, the owner saves money.
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 to the mitzvah of peter 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 peter 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 peter chamor (Teshuvos HaRashba 1:366). This is true even if the bas cohen or bas levi is married to a yisroel (Rama, Yoreh Deah 321:19). Thus, a yisroel who owns a donkey that is pregnant for the first time could avoid performing the mitzvah of peter chamor by selling a percentage of the pregnant donkey or a percentage of her fetus to a cohen or a levi or even to a bas cohen or a bas levi. He could even avoid the mitzvah by selling a percentage to his own wife. 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 by saving 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 have fulfilled the mitzvah of peter 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 peter 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.

A firstborn male calf, kid, or lamb has kedusha, sanctity, that requires that we treat 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 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 (an adult female that has not yet calved) 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 offence. One must wait until the animal becomes so severely damaged that it will never be serviceable as a korban, and then the animal may be slaughtered and eaten. Until the animal becomes this severely damaged, anyone who benefits from this animal in any way will violate a serious Torah prohibition. Furthermore, one may not attempt to damage this animal in any way or to cause it to become blemished or damaged.
The solution to this problem 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 creating a situation that likely will lead to bad results. Since the animal has kedusha that can be violated, and we cannot remove its kedusha, we want to avoid creating this situation.

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 it must be burnt and may not be used. 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. 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)).

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 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 at all as we explained before.
However, once the firstborn donkey is redeemed, both he and the lamb used to redeem him have no kedusha at all. In this halacha, peter chamor is an anomalous mitzvah. In all other cases when we redeem an item that one may not use, the kedusha that prohibits its use transfers onto the redeeming item. Only in the mitzvah of peter chamor does the kedusha disappear, never to return. It is almost as if the kedusha that was on the donkey vanished into thin air! It is the only case in which something has sanctity before redemption and after redemption the sanctity completely disappears and does not transfer onto the redeeming item.
What happens 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 very 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).
In this halacha, there is a major difference in halacha between the mitzvah of pidyon haben and the mitzvah of peter 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).
There are actually two stages in performing the mitzvah of peter 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 or kid (or other item worth as much as the donkey) and states that he is redeeming the donkey in exchange for the lamb, kid, or other item of value. Prior to making this statement, the owner recites a bracha, Asher kidishanu bimitzvosav vitzivanu al pidyon peter chamor (Tosafos, Bechoros 11a; Shulchan Aruch, Yoreh Deah 321:6). The owner has the right to decide which cohen he gives the gift to (see Rambam, Hil. Bechoros 1:15).
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 peter 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. No bracha is recited on this step of the mitzvah, and there is much discussion in poskim regarding why (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, for although the cohen could theoretically refuse the gift, he cannot prevent the removal of the kedusha from the peter chamor.
Now everyone wants to know what I did with the lamb! No, I did not leave it tied to a bedpost in my apartment, nor is it grazing in my backyard. But the lamb chops were really delicious!
Boy, am I glad that he decided to redeem it with a sheep rather than a goat!

This Shiur is published also at Rabbi Kaganof's site
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