This D’var Torah is in Z’chus L’Ilui Nishmas my sister Kayla Rus Bas Bunim Tuvia A”H & my grandfather Dovid Tzvi Ben Yosef Yochanan A”H & in Z’chus L’Refuah Shileimah for:
-My father Bunim Tuvia Ben Channa Freidel
-My grandmothers Channah Freidel Bas Sarah, and Shulamis Bas Etta, and my great aunt Rivkah Bas Etta
-Miriam Liba Bas Devora
-Yechiel Baruch HaLevi Ben Liba Gittel
-Aharon Ben Fruma
-And all of the Cholei Yisrael
-It should also be a Z’chus for an Aliyah of the holy Neshamah of Dovid Avraham Ben Chiya Kehas—R’ Dovid Winiarz ZT”L as well as the Neshamos of those whose lives were taken in terror attacks (Hashem Yikom Damam), and a Z’chus for success for Tzaha”l as well as the rest of Am Yisrael, in Eretz Yisrael and in the Galus.
בֹּא ~ Bo
“Petter Chamor; Two Roads Diverge”
Parshas Bo famously features the final blows of the Ten Plagues against Egypt and all the laws related to Korban Pesach (Paschal offering). Among the less often discussed topics in the Sidrah is that which is addressed in the small sections at the end relating to the laws of the sanctification of every first issue of the womb, Petter Rechem (referring to that which “bursts the womb”) [Shemos 13:1-15].
In short, the Torah commands the B’nei Yisrael to acknowledge the Kedushah, or intrinsic sanctity, of its firstborns. The first section emphasizes not just the firstborn of every child, but even that of every domestic animal which is “ritually pure” according to the Torah law, such as a sheep or calf. Anything in this category is “holy” according to Halachah, and as such, each one is subject to strict laws. Firstborn male children must be redeemed with money, and firstborn animals are to be offered as Korbanos.
Why the firstborns have a unique status in Halachah, as per the whole story of the Exodus, certainly makes sense as Hashem targeted the firstborns of Egypt as a consequence to their oppression of Israel, His “firstborn” people. Moreover, during that final plague of Makkas Bechoros (Smiting of the Firstborns), Hashem specifically spared the firstborns of Israel. Thus, all firstborns require some kind of ransom for their souls. The idea that there is a measure of significance and value ascribed to that which is “first” is one which most can relate to as most typically hold dear that which they have experienced “first.” We appreciate new beginnings. As a response, the Torah commands us to devote that which is “first” in our lives to G-d, so that we could prioritize Him and acknowledge Him as the true “First One” in the universe. Thus, the Torah will continue to emphasize this idea many times later with such laws like that of Bikurim (first fruits), Challah (first portion of dough), and Reishis HaGeiz (first sheerings of the flock). What’s first is holy.
While the concept of Kiddush HaBechoros (Sanctification of the Firstborns) is relatively easy to understand, there is a tangential law, an asterisk to Kiddush HaBechoros, which is an enigma. That law is contained in the second of these two sections, the laws of Petter Chamor, the first issue donkey. Rashi [to 13:13] points out the anomaly of Petter Chamor, that the Chamor is the only animal which is not “ritually pure” whose first issue of the womb must be tended to by Torah law. As a result, while the firstborns of the previous section all have an intrinsic status of Kedushah, the firstborn donkey actually has no intrinsic, ritual holiness. It can’t be offered as a Korban. So, what does one do with this firstborn donkey? The Torah says that one should redeem it with a lamb, thereby transferring its “firstborn status” onto a ritually viable animal, a Mitzvah known as Pidyon Petter Chamor (Redemption of the Firstborn Donkey). But again, bear in mind that it is not holiness that is being transferred (which does happen typically in Halachah)—because, here, the animal contains no holiness—but it is merely the “firstborn status” that is being transferred.
After redeeming the donkey, one can use the donkey for his own personal means [Rashi, Ibid.], another unique quality of the Petter Chamor, as one is not permitted to derive personal benefit the other firstborn animals which are holy.
Finally, perhaps the strangest aspect of Petter Chamor is what happens in the event that one chooses not to redeem it. If one does not redeem his firstborn donkey, the Torah says that the neck of the donkey must be broken (causing a financial loss as in such a case, he can no longer derive any benefit from it).
So, the question is: What exactly is the meaning underlying this paradoxical Mitzvah of Petter Chamor? If it’s ritually impure and contains no holiness, why must one redeem it? Moreover, as we mentioned above, it is the only animal that is ritually impure yet still has to be “acted upon” in the laws of firstborns. So, why is the donkey singled out altogether?
Rashi addresses the issue of Petter Chamor with two comments. His first comment is a strange one, that the Egyptian firstborns are compared to donkeys. Now, this comment is based on verses found in the Navi, Yechezkeil [Yechezkeil 23:19-20] (Mizrachi) which do explicitly indicate the comparison. Now, the question is: Why are the Egyptians compared to donkeys? Some might say that this comparison seems kind of harsh and insensitive at first glance—not to say that slavery, oppression, and infanticide are not insensitive. But more importantly, how does this comparison answer any of our questions? Is the fact that the Navi compares the Egyptian firstborn to donkeys a real reason why we should pay any extra attention to the firstborn donkey?
So, the Sefer HaChinuch [Mitzvah 22] actually cites these verses in Yechezkeil and explains that indeed, one idea behind the Mitzvah of Petter Chamor is for one to remember the miracle that G-d did by smiting all of the firstborns of Egypt, and undoubtedly, the concept of any laws pertaining to firstborns in our Sidrah are going to be tied back to the scene of Makkas Bechoros.
That makes sense, but if we’re trying to commemorate the deaths of the Egyptian firstborns, why would redeem and essentially spare the donkey? Shouldn’t we just break the donkey’s neck and kill it as the Egyptian firstborns were killed? The Arifah, or the neck-breaking of the donkey, seems to be a mere alternative to the commandment of Pidyon, redeeming the donkey. So while the commemorating of the Egyptian deaths can explain the breaking of the donkey’s neck in the event that the donkey is not redeemed, it doesn’t seem to explain why we should redeem the donkey in the first place.
So, looking at his second comment, Rashi cites the Gemara in Bechoros [5B] which suggests that not a single Israelite left Egypt without being accompanied by many donkeys laden with gold and silver. This comment seems to imply that because of the donkeys’ role in the Exodus, despite their lack of holiness, their firstborns have to be redeemed.
With this second answer, we could suggest that each of Rashi’s comments are two sides of the same coin, that we redeem the firstborn donkeys to commemorate their assistance to us on our way out of Egypt, but we break the neck of the firstborn donkey, as the alternative, to commemorate the deaths of the Egyptian firstborns.
Now, that also makes sense, but if that’s the case, then the order of Rashi’s comments should have been reversed! Why does Rashi specify the deaths of the Egyptian firstborns first if the breaking of the donkey’s neck is the less ideal alternative commandment to that of redeeming the donkey? If we’re really supposed to redeem the firstborn donkey, then Rashi’s first comment should have been about the donkeys carrying our riches! So, if our theory to explain Rashi’s comments is accurate, why would Rashi seemingly switch the order? Why reference the death of the donkey if the redemption is the ideal?
So, perhaps this question, as well as our larger question about these laws, can be answered by the paradoxical nature of Petter Chamor. We keep on commenting on how the firstborn donkey has a somewhat demanding “firstborn status,” yet, no ritual sanctity. One cannot offer it as a Korban—that would be an abomination—yet, one cannot simply use the donkey as he pleases until he has “transferred” its essence onto something else.
This paradox, perhaps, is the underlying mindset of Rashi’s review of this Mitzvah. Rashi’s comments both focus on commemorating the Exodus, which is the focus and underlying basis for many laws in the Torah, however, each of his comments also imply that really, we should have and would have ignored the firstborn donkeys. They have no holiness at all. If anything at all, perhaps the default is that the donkey should be killed—that was the default for anyone, during the Exodus story, who did not earn redemption by smearing blood on their doors during Makkas Bechoros. As we said above, it was either because of the Egyptians’ firstborns’ deaths or the donkeys’ carrying riches for us that the Torah has chosen to give laws addressing the firstborn donkey. It is because of the presumed death that there is this ideal is to redeem the donkey. The redemption is not required due to holiness, but out of ransom that is obligated of the firstborn. It is due to this obligation that there is an almost equal alternative to redeeming this donkey—breaking its neck. There is no such alternative to consecrating the holy firstborn animals.
What that tells us is that this donkey has two equally acceptable options. Sure, perhaps for financial reasons, the redemption is more ideal. Indeed, it is the financial aspect of the donkeys that we commemorate by redeeming them—as they carried our wealth. But as long as we choose not to, the breaking of the neck is apparently just as exceptional an option. Since there is no holiness being profaned here, two equal roads essentially diverge for the firstborn donkey, one to redemption and one to its death.
Thus, we might suggest that the order of Rashi’s comments are alluding to the idea that, really, there is no automatically presumed redemption for the Petter Chamor, but in fact, there is an equal obligation to kill this donkey as an alternative to redemption; in fact, the fate to death is the reason why redemption is obligated. Thus, Rashi first mentions the connection to Makkas Bechoros—the presumed death of the donkey, and then afterwards, their connection to the actual Exodus—the alternative redemption.
With this understanding of the paradoxical nature of Petter Chamor, one might view Petter Chamor as poignant model for our material lives, and similarly, everything we might hold dear which contains no intrinsic holiness.
As we alluded to earlier, it was not only the Egyptian homes that were targeted by Makkas Bechoros, but every firstborn needed an act of redemption. We weren’t necessarily worthy, for we had profaned our holiness by adopting the idolatrous Egyptian culture. That profanity of Egypt, symbolized by the donkey, is subject to some kind of reckoning. For that reason, a Korban had to be offered and its blood had to be smeared on the homes of the B’nei Yisrael. Only then would their “necks” not be “broken.” Only then would they be redeemed.
This reality was not only true then, but it exists today as well. Much of life is filled with things which are Chol, intrinsically mundane. They’re not necessarily toxic to our spiritual lives, but they have no inherent worth either. Certainly, a portion of the mundane things in our lives are important for our physical survival, but what that means is that only that of the mundane which can be redeemed will be spared. On the contrary, any meaningless surplus will be “broken” because it is actually damaging. No less than our bodies maintain the nutrients while eliminating everything that is extra, our spirit, whether we like it or not, will eliminate everything that is not connected to holiness. It is because that which is extra is toxic refuse. Similarly, no less than paper money must be backed up by something of real value to be worth anything, the mundane aspects of life are only worth as much as we back them up with spiritual meaning.
In the end, Petter Chamor teaches us that our mundane lives have to be in service of our spiritual lives. It means that the mundane aspects have to be put to use for the purposes of our service to Hashem. Like the firstborn donkey, we have transfer the “status” of our mundane lives onto something viable for ritual service. The Torah description of Petter Chamor points first to the ideal option, or perhaps the option that’s in our best interest. Rashi’s explanation alludes first to the unfortunate but necessary alternative. The choice is ultimately ours though. Material life necessarily ends—it is presumed to be “broken.” But if we so choose to back up our physical, material lives by devoting them to our spiritual service Hashem, we merit the ideal of redemption.
May we all be Zocheh to truly justify and back up our mundane assets and material lives by using them each for the purposes of Avodas Hashem and thereby bring redemption for ourselves and all of Klal Yisrael with the coming of Moshiach, Bimheirah Biyomeinu! Have a Great Shabbos!
-Josh, Yehoshua Shmuel Eisenberg 🙂