22-5767: Mitzvah 55-56

Talmidav Shel Aharon
22-5767: Mitzvah 55-56
May 13, 2007

Mitzvah 55 – It is a positive commandment to redeem a firstling male donkey for a lamb.
Hafetz Hayim: As Scripture says: “And the firstling of a donkey thou shall redeem with a lamb” (Ex. 34:20) and he gives the lamb to the Kohen, since Scripture says, “Everything that opens the womb … shall be yours” (Num. 18:15) Kohanim and Levites are free of this obligation. If one has no lamb with which to redeem it, he may redeem it for its monetary value, giving its price to the Kohen. If the firstling donkey was worth ten “selaiim”, he may redeem it with a lamb worth a dinar. Kohanim and Levites are free of this obligation as well. It is in effect everywhere and every time. It applies to both men and women.

Mitzvah 56 –It is a positive commandment to break the neck of a firstling male donkey if it has not been redeemed
Hafetz Hayim: as Scripture states, “and if you will not redeem it, then you hsall break its neck” (Ex. 34:20) Breaking its neck means striking it with a butcher’s hatchet at the back of its neck until it dies. It must be with a butcher’s hatchet and nothing else and not by any other form of death. Any benefit from it is forbidden even after the neck is broken and it requires burial, its ash is also forbidden. It is in effect everywhere in every time for both men and women but Kohanim and Levites are free of the obligation.

I admit that these seem weird, ancient and bizarre, but there is a lesson underneath all of this. So first, let me defend the poor donkey. Since it would be absurd to kill a young donkey and not redeem it by giving the lamb or the value of a lamb to a Kohen, it is unlikely that anyone will have to destroy a baby donkey.
That being said, what is the purpose of laws such as these? We assume that G-d loves all the creatures of the world equally and that there should be little reason to treat the donkey in this way. The commentators note that the donkey was the only domesticated animal that was unfit for sacrifice. Judaism reminds us that all we own, the most valuable of possessions as well as the least of what we have, all, in an ultimate way, belong to G-d. As a reminder of this, we are to dedicate the first of all things in nature, back to G-d. It is the “tax” we pay to the one who gives breath to all life. If the fruit, vegetable or animal is fit to be offered directly to G-d, than that is how it is to be handled. If for any reason it cannot be offered to G-d, the value of the offering is given to a Kohen or a Levite. Since we no longer have a Temple to sacrifice to G-d, all offerings are therefore, redeemed by giving money to a Kohen.
Since a Kohen or Levite dedicate their own lives to G-d, everything they own is already dedicated to G-d and can not be redeemed. Once something is declared “holy” it belongs to G-d and we mortals can not use it in any way nor derive any benefit from it. That is why, if we fail to redeem it, we can’t use it in any way at all, even after it is dead. We can’t use the meat, bones, hide or even the ashes. It all belongs to G-d. The unusual method of killing the donkey was specified lest someone think that the animal was being sacrificed.
What are we to make of these kinds of laws, tied to sacrifices that we no longer offer and to animals that no longer are a part of our possessions? I think that this should remind us that all we have, all that we make or grow, we have because of the love and care of our Creator. We should use these laws to remind ourselves that we need to take a part of all we make, and all we grow, perhaps we can even extend it to beginning a new job or opening a new store. Some of the first profits from that enterprise should be directed to G-d. It can be given to a Kohen if one would like, but even if it is given to charity as a way or extending our thanks to G-d for the opportunities with which we have been blessed.
In a world where everyone seems to be saying “It’s all MINE!” We need to pause and remember that all we are and all we have are just blessing. Blessing shared with us by the merciful G-d.

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