Why Is the Firstborn Donkey Holy?
On the mitzvah of peter chamor, “redeeming the firstborn donkey”
Redeeming the firstborn donkey, joyously carried out in Moshav Ahi'ezer near Lod on June 26, 2018. Photo by Yossi Zeliger/Flash90
Many are familiar with the mitzvah of pidyon haben, redeeming the firstborn son on the thirtieth day of his life.1 Additionally, there is the related mitzvah that the firstborn male offspring of any kosher domesticated mammal (cows, sheep, goats, etc.) is sacred, and is to be given to a kohen, who eats it as a sacrifice in Jerusalem.2
Nowadays, since there is no Holy Temple in which to bring sacrifices, the kohen waits until the animal develops a blemish that disqualifies it for a sacrifice, and then it may be consumed like any other kosher animal.3
And then there is the donkey.
The donkey is unique in that unlike all other non-kosher animals, there is a special mitzvah called peter chamor, redeeming the firstborn male donkey.4 Since this is one of the rarest mitzvahs to be performed nowadays (how many Jews do you know who own donkeys?), before getting to the question of why the donkey is unique, we will give a very basic overview of the mitzvah.
From its birth until it is redeemed, a firstborn donkey is considered to be holy, on a similar level as an animal designated as a Temple sacrifice. Hence, you may not ride it or have it carry something for you; it is even forbidden to use its hair.5
The obligation to redeem it lasts from its birth until its death. However, it is ideal that the mitzvah be done as soon as possible.6 The owner takes a sheep or goat (or an item worth the full value of the donkey), makes a blessing, and states that he is redeeming the donkey in exchange for the lamb, kid or other item of value.7
Afterward, the sheep or goat is given to the kohen. Once the donkey is redeemed, both it and the item it was exchanged for lose all holiness, and the respective owners can do with them as they please.8 The Torah tells us that if the owner refuses to redeem the donkey, then he is made to decapitate it.9 (This is considered negative, as preference is given in the Torah to redeeming the donkey and giving the sheep or goat to the kohen.10)
Similar to the laws of a pidyon haben, a kohen or Levite is exempt from redeeming his firstborn donkey.11
Why the Donkey?
Addressing the question of why the donkey was singled out, as opposed to horses, mules, camels or other non-kosher work animals, the Talmud12 explains that:
a) it is a gezirat hakatuv—a Divine edict with no logic or reason
provided (a chukah); and
b) the donkey was rewarded for assisting the Jewish people during
the Exodus from Egypt by carrying the riches the people had been
given by their erstwhile neighbors.
This was crucial, as it facilitated the fulfillment of G‑d’s promise to Abraham that his descendants would leave Egypt with great wealth.13
The Midrash explains that the reason for the mitzvah of peter chamor is that we should always remember the miracle that G‑d did for us during the Exodus from Egypt, when He killed all of the Egyptian firstborn—who are compared to donkeys in the Book of Ezekiel14—and saved all the Jewish firstborn.15 Some add that this is why we exchange it with a sheep, since the Jewish people are compared in Scripture to a sheep.16
Commentaries explain that this Midrash is not an independent teaching, but an explanation of the first reason brought in the Talmud.17 As mentioned, we find many mitzvahs in the Torah related to giving or sanctifying the “first,” be it a person, animal or fruit. One reason for this is that, in truth, we have nothing in the world except that which G‑d, in His kindness, apportions to us. So after we have exerted great effort and finally see the first fruits of our labor, we immediately “give it to G‑d,” showing that everything in this world comes from G‑d and is ultimately meant to be used in our Divine mission.18
The Chassidic masters explain that the Hebrew word for “donkey” chamor (חמור) is linked to the word for “material,” chomer (חומר). Thus, in redeeming the firstborn donkey, a non-kosher animal, we learn to uplift even the coarsest elements of the material world, even that which appears to be negative.19 This, the Rebbe explains, is also why the prophet Zechariah describes Moshiach as one who rides a donkey.
For Moshiach will usher in an era when the chomer or material, has become refined and transformed to the point that is a positive force in our Divine service, just as the most spiritual of creations.20
3.Shulchan Aruch, Yoreh De’ah 319:1-2.
5. See Shulchan Aruch, Yoreh De’ah 321:8; some hold that you can sell it as long as the buyer is aware of its status and will act accordingly, Rama ad loc.
6.Shulchan Aruch, Yoreh De’ah 321:1.
7.Shulchan Aruch, Yoreh De’ah 321:6.
10.See Rambam and Raavad on Hilchot Bikkurim 12:1 and commentaries ad loc.
11.Shulchan Aruch, Yoreh De’ah 321:19.
12.Talmud, Bechorot 5b.
13.See Maharsha, Chidushei Aggadot ad loc.
16.See Midrash Bereishit Rabbah 96:5.
18.See Chinuch, mitzvah 18.
19.See Torat Menachem, 5748, vol. 3, p. 90.