As a cohen, I often participate in the mitzvah of pidyon haben, redeeming a firstborn male child, a bechor; but I have never been asked to participate in redeeming a firstborn donkey, in Hebrew called petter 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 this third 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).
WITH WHAT DO WE REDEEM?
As mentioned above, the Torah commands the owner of a firstborn male donkey to redeem him by giving the cohen a seh, a word we usually translate as lamb. However, the word seh in the Torah does not mean only a lamb, but includes a kid goat (Mishnah Bechoros 9a). (In the mitzvah of Korban Pesach, Shemos 12:5, the Torah mentions this explicitly.) In actuality, one fulfills this mitzvah by giving the cohen either a sheep or a goat to redeem the donkey – whether they are young or mature, male or female (Mishnah Bechoros 9a). Furthermore, 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 (Bechoros 11a). However, if the owner redeems the donkey with a sheep or goat, he fulfills the mitzvah, even though the sheep or goat is worth far less than the donkey (Rambam, Hilchos Bikkurim 12:11).
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, too, the mitzvah of petter 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 petter 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 petter chamor (Shu”t HaRashba 1:366). This is true, even if the bas cohen or bas levi is married to a yisroel (Rema, Yoreh Deah 321:19). Thus, a yisroel who owns a donkey that is pregnant for the first time could avoid performing the mitzvah of petter chamor by selling a percentage of the pregnant donkey or a percentage of her fetus to a cohen, a levi, a bas cohen or a bas levi. He could even avoid the mitzvah by selling a percentage to his own wife, if she is a bas cohen or a bas levi. 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 and save 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 who have fulfilled the mitzvah of petter 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 petter 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.
BECHOR OF A KOSHER SPECIES
A firstborn male calf, kid, or lamb has kedusha, sanctity, which requires treating 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 still 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 (a young, female cow that has not yet borne a calf) 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 offense. One must wait until the animal becomes permanently injured in a way that makes it not serviceable as a korban, and then the animal may be slaughtered and eaten. Until the animal becomes this severely injured, anyone who benefits from this animal in any way will violate a serious Torah prohibition. Furthermore, it is forbidden to injure this animal in any way or to cause it to become blemished or damaged.
Thus, possessing a male firstborn calf, goat or lamb can be a big problem, and could easily cause someone to violate halacha, certainly something that we want to avoid. The method of avoiding these problems 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 a situation that may lead to undesired results. Since the animal has kedusha that could be violated, and we cannot remove its kedusha, we want to avoid creating this situation.
DOES A PETTER CHAMOR HAVE KEDUSHA?
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 may not be used and must be burnt. 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. Hachoreish).
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 Rema, 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).
WHAT IF THE PETTER CHAMOR WAS NEVER REDEEMED?
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 not an unusual form of entertainment. Did you stop to wonder whether the donkey might be a firstborn and riding it is prohibited?
One need not be concerned. Since most of the donkeys of the world are not firstborn, one does not need to 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, as we explained before.
Once the firstborn donkey is redeemed, both he and the lamb used to redeem him have no kedusha at all. In this halacha, petter chamor is an anomalous mitzvah. In all other cases when we redeem an item that may not be used, the kedusha is transferred to the redeeming item. Only in the mitzvah of petter chamor does the kedusha disappear, never to return. It is almost as if the kedusha that was on the donkey vanished into thin air!
REFUSES TO REDEEM
What is the halacha 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 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).
WHEN SHOULD THE OWNER PERFORM THE REDEMPTION?
In this halacha, there is a major difference between the mitzvah of pidyon haben and the mitzvah of petter 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).
PERFORMING THE MITZVAH
There are actually two stages in performing the mitzvah of petter 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, kid, or something else worth at least as much as the donkey, and states that he is redeeming the donkey in exchange for the redemption item. Prior to making this statement, the owner recites a bracha, Asher kideshanu bemitzvosav vetzivanu al pidyon petter chamor (Tosafos, Bechoros 11a; Shulchan Aruch, Yoreh Deah 321:6). 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 petter 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. The owner has the right to decide to which cohen he gives the gift (see Rambam, Hilchos Bechoros 1:15). No bracha is recited on this step of the mitzvah, and there is much discussion in poskim regarding why this is so (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.
Now, what does the cohen do with the lamb? He does not need to leave it tied to a bedpost in his apartment, nor have it graze in his backyard. He may sell it, should he choose, or can have it converted into lamb or goat chops!
Why was the donkey an exception? Why is this the only one of the non-kosher species whose firstborn carries kedusha?
The Gemara teaches that this is a reward for the donkey. When the Bnei Yisroel left Egypt, the Egyptians gave us many gifts (see Shemos 11:2-3; 12:35-36). The Bnei Yisroel needed to transport all these gifts out of Egypt and through the Desert to Eretz Yisroel. They could not simply call Allied Van Lines to ship their belongings. Instead, they used Donkey Lines, who performed this service for forty years, without complaint or fanfare! In reward for the donkeys' providing the Bnei Yisroel with a very necessary shipping service, the Torah endowed the firstborn of this species with sanctity (Bechoros 5b). Hashem rewarded the donkey with its very own special kedusha.
Thus, this mitzvah teaches us the importance of hakaras hatov, acknowledging when someone helps us. We acknowledge 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 done and do for us!