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Kenneth Cohen

Redemption of First Born Donkey

There is an unusual ceremony mentioned in the Torah, known as פדיון פטר חמור. It refers to the redemption of a first born male donkey.

If someone owned a female donkey and its first offspring was a male, this first born animal is holy, and must be redeemed, if it is to be used in any way.

The ceremony, which can also be performed outside of Israel, is done with a Kohein. It is very similar to the Pidyon Haben, where a first born baby is redeemed by way of five silver coins. The donkey is redeemed by giving the Kohein a goat or a lamb, and a blessing is recited, just as it is done by Pidyon Haben. If it is not redeemed, the neck of the donkey, is broken.

This is a very strange ceremony, and difficult to understand. The traditional explanation is that all first born must acknowledge that they were miraculously saved in Egypt, during the Tenth Plague.

It is strange that only the donkey was chosen of all of the non-kosher animals. Rashi points out that donkeys were unique as beasts of burden that helped carry out the wealth of Egypt. He also said that the Egyptians behaved like donkeys with their decadent behavior.

The פטר חמור instructions are followed by the commandment to tell our children the story of the exodus. This would indicate the further emphasis that we understand the significance of how Egypt was an outward proof of the truth of the Torah and Judaism.

About the Author
Rabbi Cohen has been a Torah instructor at Machon Meir, Jerusalem, for over twenty years while also teaching a Talmud class in the Shtieblach of Old Katamon. Before coming to Israel, he was the founding rabbi of Young Israel of Century City, Los Angeles. He recently published a series of Hebrew language-learning apps, which are available at www.cafehebrew.com