First-borns matter in Judaism. Rambam lists eight Biblical commandments that relate to first-born (animals or people), and Ramban adds another. A percent and a half of all the Biblical commandments, in other words, relate to treating first-born properly. Tracking what makes them so significant will bring us to another area of the Exodus experience meant to affect our lives more than we may realize.
Sefer haChinuch seems to take us in another direction, because—for most of these mitzvot—he focuses on the importance of acknowledging Hashem with the first results of our efforts, as a way of reminding ourselves that everything comes from Hashem. He does mention the need to remember Hashem’s having killed the Egyptians’ first-born in Egypt, but it seems to have been more of a throwaway than central to the obligation. I believe further consideration will add to the picture.
Sefer HaChinuch does focus solely on the Egypt experience when he gets to the Torah’s requirement that we either redeem our first-born donkeys with a sheep or else break the donkey’s neck. Since this is the only non-kosher animal included in the obligations regarding first-born animals, we might wonder why the Torah includes it—either require all first-borns to be redeemed, or say that only oxen and sheep are offered as sacrifice; why make a middle category of one, donkeys?
Sefer HaChinuch, Mitzvah 22, says that it’s because a verse in Yehezkel 23;20 compares the Egyptians to donkeys; by redeeming our first-born donkeys, we recall the killing of the first-born in Egypt (Sforno Shmot 13;14 gives a completely different reason, that we left Egypt with so much wealth, we had to take donkeys with us as pack animals).
I am not sure I find either of those convincing; I share them to note the role of donkeys seems to me still open, and because it reminds us that our actions with first born animals are supposed to relate back to the Exodus.
The Verses’ Stress on the Killing of the First-Born
The Torah, too, seems more focused on the Egypt aspect of the other mitzvot than Sefer HaChinuch. Shmot 13;14 tells us that when our children ask us why we dedicate our first-born animals to Hashem and redeem our first-born children, we should tell them about the Egyptians’ resisting Hashem’s command to let us go and Hashem’s killing their first-born (this is the source-verse for the תם, the plain or simple child, in the Haggadah; we put it into the context of the Seder, but that’s not how the Torah presents it).
Twice in Bamidbar, 3;13 and 8;17, Hashem bases the exchange of the first-born for the Levi’im by noting that Hashem had “acquired” the first-born on the day that all the Egyptian first-born had been killed. However we explain that, the Torah does seem to hinge our actions with our first-born back to Egypt. Why?
Adding to the Question
Three other unusual aspects of the commandments regarding first-born seem to me both to heighten our confusion and point the direction to answers. In positive commandment 79, Rambam notes that the Sifrei includes only animals born in Israel in the obligation to give first-borns to a priest. Sifrei derives this from Devarim 14;23’s incorporating tithes and first-born in one verse—just as tithes only came from Israel, so did the first-born.
That is a problem for Sefer HaChinuch’s idea that we dedicate our first-born as a way of reminding ourselves that our bounty comes from Hashem. That’s a lesson we should learn everywhere, not just in Israel.
A second attention-grabbing aspect, as Rambam notes in Prohibitions 113 and 114, is that the prohibitions against working or shearing sanctified animals are derived from Devarim 15;19’s saying so about first-born animals. Why did the Torah make them the paradigm for all kodshim, all sanctified animals (especially since they are otherwise a very different sacrifice, in that first-borns can be eaten in the whole city and for two days and a night)?
Do Kohanim Need to Learn to Fear Hashem?
The last oddity I want to note on the way to an answer is Ramban’s expression of the obligation to eat these animals in Jerusalem (the more basic message of Devarim 14;23, the verse that taught Sifrei that we only bring first-born in Israel). Rambam had recorded prohibition 144 against eating them elsewhere, but the first of the obligations Ramban thought Rambam had wrongly omitted is the obligation is to eat ma’aser sheni and first-born animals in Jerusalem. Ramban stresses the importance of this obligation, since the Torah says that part of the point of the mitzvah is that we should learn to fear Hashem.
Regarding ordinary Jews, that is fairly banal, and well-explained by Sefer HaChinuch in Mitzvah 360 (which is about a different obligation; Sefer HaChinuch expands the reason to include ma’aser sheini, the second tithe we eat in Yerushalayim in four of the years of the shemittah cycle and which, as Ramban reminded us, shares a verse with first-born animals). Sefer HaChinuch explains that Yerushalayim is the place we would be most likely to encounter Torah influences, which we could then bring back to our home towns.
Granting that the Torah would insert occasions to draw ordinary Jews to Yerushalayim, to ensure exposure to Torah and service of Hashem, why would priests need that? Aren’t they there anyway, as part of their required Temple service?
The Sanctity and Original Role of the First-Born
To me, the answer starts with Yerushalmi Megillah 1;11 (quoted by Torah Temimah to Bamidbar 8;17), that prior to the sin of the Golden Calf, the first-born functioned as the priests of the Jewish people. In that model, the functionaries of the Beit HaMikdash wouldn’t have been a separate tribe, necessarily different from “us.”
Rather, we would have gone to the Beit HaMikdash and seen our sons, brothers, cousins, neighbors’ kids, etc. Much like Sefer HaChinuch’s idea that even one family member bringing tithes to Yerushalayim would affect the whole family, staffing the Beit HaMikdash with first-born would have spread the experience and messages emanating from Yerushalayim more organically.
That might explain much about the plague of the first-born. If the Egyptians, too, took special pride in their first-born (as Sefer HaChinuch says we all do), Hashem’s striking them was a nationwide blow of greater severity than the actual loss. It would explain why that plague forced the Egyptians to kick the Jews out right away, why seeing the first-born dying led them to assume they were all dying (after all, usually when a plague hits a well-defined population, everyone else feels safe). In a sense, their society was being destroyed because they had so much invested in the first-born.
If so, when Hashem tells us to redeem our human first-born, and offer the kosher animal first-born to Hashem we might be combining Sefer HaChinuch’s reasons—we are dedicating our first successful yield to Hashem, remembering that that was also Egypt’s pride and joy, which was why Hashem struck their first-born.
This would also explain the Israel aspect—since Torah society is Israel based (as we’ll see even more sharply when we get to bikkurim, first fruits), it is only there that the issue of first-born as the symbols of the society as a whole becomes relevant.
So, too, since our dedicating our first-born to Hashem was a crucial part of becoming Hashem’s people—in contrast to the Egyptians’ pride in their first-born allowing them to remain a corrupted people–it makes sense that our treatment of those first-born would also set up a paradigm for how to treat all sanctified animals.
The obligation to give bikkurim, first fruits, to a kohen bears some similarities to our obligations with first-born animals, but more differences. It is similar in that we bring the first fruits to the Beit HaMikdash, that they only come from the Land of Israel, and that we relate this back to what happened in Egypt.
Except that we go further, in each category. We don’t just bring the first-fruits to the Temple, we make a parade of it (see Mishnah Bikkurim 3;2-6). Bikkurim don’t just come from Israel, they come only from species the Torah identifies as special to the Land of Israel. We don’t just relate this back to what happened in Egypt, we use the bringing of bikkurim as an opportunity to recapitulate the Egypt story, so well that it is this version of the story we use Seder night as the backbone of the Seder.
There is more going on here than meets the eye.
Remembering the Bad in Good Times, Out Loud
Rambam in Moreh Nevuchim III; 39 wonders why we would mention the troubles of Egypt in the context of thanking Hashem for the bounty we received in Egypt. He notes that wealth—and we feel wealthy at harvest-time– carries the danger of feeding our arrogance and complacency, our sense that all is well, that we need not change in any way, and that we don’t need help from anyone (including Hashem).
The way to combat that, he says, is to remember when we didn’t have it so good. That will reduce our complacency—if we always remember how bad we had it once, we’ll be more likely that it can go that way again. In addition, if we make sure to remind ourselves that the good came from Hashem, it will hinder our falling into the trap of thinking we developed this wealth ourselves.
Sefer HaChinuch adds the important note that what we say out loud affects us differently than what we merely think. By articulating our awareness that all we have in this world comes from Hashem, has its roots in Hashem’s having taken us out of Egypt and brought us to Israel, we help our chances to keep the right focus.
When You Don’t Have Bikkurim, It’s Not as Easy
History suggests that this didn’t work, that the Jews found ways to be complacent in their wealth, arrogant about how they achieved it, and ignore Hashem’s role in it, even if and as they said out loud that it came from Hashem. When I notice that, I find it impossible not to note how we seem to be repeating some of those errors today.
Seventy-odd years removed from the Holocaust, when many of us have built lives of remarkable comfort and wealth, we still see people making that same mistake, attributing their wealth solely to their skill and effort, and forgetting the role Hashem always plays in such wealth, and the obligations that come with such wealth.
That’s true in the sense of an obligation to give charity to causes Hashem would most approve, and it’s also true in the sense of feeling a need to go back to the Land. If bikkurim came from the Land (from the species for which the Land is praised), as did first-born, part of the message is that Jewish society is only properly found in the Land, by those who live in the Land, and produce which the Land is best suited to produce.
That we today have come to feel secure in countries outside of Israel (as did the Jews of Spain in the 14th and 15th centuries, the Jews of Poland in the 16th and 17th centuries—before and after the Cossacks came—and the Jews of Germany in the 19th and 20th centuries), so secure that we feel no need to go back even when the doors are wide open, is to me an indication that we have lost sight of what the declaration of bikkurim told us.
Living the Dream
Because all that we have seen so far doesn’t quite explain why we had to reach back to Ya’akov Avinu and Egypt. What would have been so bad if we had thanked Hashem for bikkurim, without the Egypt story? Was that really the only way to instill humility?
I suggest that there’s another element, shown by two verses we don’t say on Seder night. First, when we first give the basket of bikkurim to the priest, we say “I declare today to Hashem that I have come to the Land that He promised to our forefathers.” Why declare that now, and why every year?
The same issue arises with the Egypt story we tell. Seder night we omit the continuation, in which we say that Hashem brought us to this Land, flowing in milk and honey. Why say that as part of this ceremony?
The answer is that bikkurim is the proof it’s all come true, that Hashem fulfilled all the promises to the Patriarchs—yes, we went down to Egypt, yes, we had the slavery, but Hashem took us out, as promised, brought us to the Land, as promised, and here we are, living the dream, doing that which Hashem set up as the model and the ideal. Each year, as we live the dream, we remind ourselves that that’s what we’re doing, we’re in the right place, doing the right things, and how wonderful that is.
A Brief Coda
We’ve spent several weeks looking at the mitzvot Hashem connects to the Exodus, and these two are appropriate ones with which to conclude, because they remind us that the ultimate goal of the Exodus was expressed in our lives in the Land of Israel. They also show, I hope, how ubiquitous (as R. Rosensweig recently phrased it) the Exodus was supposed to be in our everyday lives.
Not just Pesach, or even all the three major holidays, or even that and Shabbat, or even that and a twice-daily reminder of the events. Over and over, throughout our ordinary Jewish lives, the memory of the Exodus and its ramifications are supposed to bubble up in our consciousness, reminding us of the overall direction of any Jewish life. I hope that our study together has helped all of us better focus on that which was meant to underlie all else that we do in our service of Hashem.