About a year ago, my father decided he wanted to do the mitzvah of peter chamor
By Rivkah Small, as heard from Rikki Benedek, age 12
My family owns a therapy farm in Jackson, New Jersey. We don’t live on the farm; we live about a mile away in Lakewood, but we visit the farm a lot to see our dogs, horses, and rabbits. About a year ago, my father decided he wanted to do the mitzvah of peter chamor, a mitzvah to redeem a firstborn male donkey. Most people don’t get to do this mitzvah in their lifetime!
Peter chamor takes preparation: First, you have to get a female donkey who never had a baby before, because you can only do the mitzvah on a bechor. Then you have to wait till she has a baby — and you have to hope it’s a boy. Once it’s born, it officially belongs to a Kohein, so for the owner to get the baby donkey back, he has to give the Kohein a sheep in exchange for it. That exchange is called peter chamor.
For starters, we had trouble finding a farm that sells donkeys. Finally, my mother happened to be in a store, and she overheard a woman telling a worker there that she owns a farm — she used to keep horses but as she got older, horses became too hard to care for, so she switched over to donkeys. My mother introduced herself and took the woman’s number. She kept calling her to see if they had a young female for sale, and finally they did.
But we couldn’t just buy one, because it would be lonely if it was the only donkey on our farm, so my parents bought two. (My mother jokes that it reminded her of the way girls like to go to camp with a friend — the donkey would only come to our farm along with another girl donkey.)
We were excited when we learned that the donkey would have a baby in the summer. Finally, the big day arrived. It was a Friday morning. The donkey gave birth and — mazal tov — it was a boy! We were amazed at how the baby gets up on its feet and walks just seconds after its born, and we were all thrilled to be able to do this special mitzvah.
My mother planned a big party for the day of the peter chamor, which can be performed from when the baby is seven days old until 30 days. But we were in for a surprise.
The veterinarian came to our farm and had bad news for us — the baby donkey was sick, and it needed to get to the veterinary hospital. My father wanted to do the mitzvah before they went to the hospital in case the baby donkey didn’t make it. So the race against the clock began.
My uncle is a Kohein. He doesn’t live in Lakewood, but happened to be staying here for the summer, so my parents called him to come quickly to be the Kohein. Then my parents drove down the road to a farm that has sheep, and asked to buy one. At first, the owner wanted a lot of money for the sheep, but we explained that he’d get it back, so we paid a more reasonable price. Once they had the sheep, my parents raced back to our farm.
No time for a party. My father did the peter chamor without a brachah because the animal might have been a treifa, if it was about to die.* I got to hold the sheep before he handed it to my uncle. That’s me, Rikki, in the chair in the picture.
Then the people who manage our farm raced off to the hospital with the donkey. The donkey didn’t end up living long, which made us sad, but we were happy that we got to do such a rare mitzvah.
One of the reasons the mitzvah of peter chamor is so special is that most people today don’t have the opportunity to do the mitzvah.
In the olden days, people used donkeys a lot, to carry heavy loads. They are sure-footed in difficult terrain, such as mountains, and can survive on rough food, unlike horses. In addition, donkeys were used for guarding other livestock (and still are on some farms) because their sharp hooves can kill or wound a coyote or fox that come to steal a sheep. So, many people had donkeys. As long as you weren’t a Kohein or a Levi and you had a female donkey give birth to a boy first, you had a chance to do peter chamor.
Donkeys are special in this way because they’re the only nonkosher animal that we are podeh. How did the humble donkey get this zechus? The Sefer Hachinuch says it’s to remind us of Yetzias Mitzrayim, when Hashem killed the Mitzri bechorim, who are compared to donkeys. A different explanation is that donkeys received this mizvah as a reward for carrying the baggage as the Jews went out of Mitzrayim.
There’s a related mitzvah: In the time of the Bais Hamikdash, the bechor of a kosher animal such as a sheep or cow would be given as a korban. So what do we do with these animals now that there is no Bais Hamikdash? Mr. Benedek explains that he has this issue now, because one of the female goats on the farm will give birth soon. He prepared for this by selling a share in the goat to a goy in advance. Once a goy is part owner, the baby goat would not have to be given as a korban, and can be used just the same as any other goat.
There’s another reason that my father did the peter chamor without a brachah. Some people hold that if you bought the mother donkey from a goy, you can’t trust 100 percent that she never had a baby before.
(Originally featured in Mishpacha Jr., Issue 880)
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