Donkeys and Firstborn

DonkeyGenerally, The drash[1] you will hear throughout the English-speaking world will be about the word, Bo, and how it means come and not go. Do not worry, I will not bore you with that today. Instead, I would like to read you a portion of today’s Parsha that is usually ignored. It’s read, but not discussed.

When Hashem brings you into the land of the Canaanites, as he swore to you and your fathers, and shall give it to you, you shall set apart to Hashem all who first opens the womb. All the firstborn of your animals that are males shall be Hashem’s. Every firstborn of a donkey you shall redeem with a lamb, or if you will not redeem it you shall break its neck. Every firstborn of man among your sons you shall redeem. And when in time to come your son asks you, ‘What does this mean?’ you shall say to him, ‘By a strong hand Hashem brought us out of Egypt, from the house of slavery[2].’

Hashem introduces the concept of Pidyon Haben[3] in Exodus 13. This passage tells us that the firstborn were going to be redeemed and given to Hashem for his service[4]. They would not serve as Cohanim[5], but as a support network for the Cohanim. Moshe Rabbeinu’s[6] life is full of disappointment and this is one such example. This is why I call him the Purveyor of Plan Bs[7]. For instance:

Plan A: Moshe would facilitate the release of Bnei Israel[8] from captivity, and represent the people before Hashem as Cohen Gadol.

Plan B: Moshe worked very hard to convince G-d he was not the right man for the job of redeeming His people. Therefore, Moshe served as a Navi[9] and Aaron served as Cohen Gadol[10]

The mitzvah[11] of the redemption of the firstborn is given twice. Once, here, as a general rule, where it simply says the firstborn are to be redeemed. Later, in a specific rule, the value of five coins of given for the redemption[12]. Using Kelal Uferat[13], which states, when a general rule is followed by a specific rule, the specific rule limits the general rule, we know that the firstborn can only be redeemed with five shekels and not [as an example] an item or a service of equal value.

I am giving you a spoiler alert. If you don’t know how the story goes and you want to be surprised, you may want to skip the rest of the paragraph. The passage of the Pidyon Haben represents one of the Plan Bs we see in the arching Moshe storyline. Exodus 13 tells us the firstborn sons are dedicated to Hashem, for Hashem’s service, for Hashem’s Avodah[14].[15] However, the firstborn served at the foot of the Egel Hazahav[16], and this disqualified them from being able to serve in the service of the Mishkan[17] or the Temple[18]. In response, Hashem said, And you shall take the Levites for me—I am Hashem—instead of all the firstborn among the people of Israel, and the cattle of the Levites instead of all the firstborn among the cattle of the people of Israel. The original intent of Hashem was circumvented by our sin. We sacrificed and we decided to engage in debauchery at the foot of the Golden Calf, and the non-Levi firstborn lost their stature. Later in the Wilderness narrative, this becomes an issue and a source of rebellion, but that’s a story for another day.

What’s interesting about this short passage and its repetition in Exodus 34:19-20, is the specific inclusion of the donkey: Every firstborn of a donkey you shall redeem with a lamb, or if you will not redeem it, you shall break its neck. One commentary[19] says this is akin to the Evil Inclination repenting and becoming the Good inclination like in the verse, I will make him a helper to partner with him[20]. In other words, if you have merit, the evil inclination is a partner to help; if you do not merit, it is a partner who hinders[21].

Rabbi Ziring made an interesting analogy a few years ago when he compared the verse, G-d brought us out with strength[22], and relayed it back to the donkey. The Rambam, runs in a similar vein as Rabbi Ziring when he explains this mitzvah is designed to be a part of our continual commemoration of the exodus from Egypt when Hashem killed the firstborn of Egypt but redeemed our firstborn[23]. The donkey is specifically mentioned because it is the donkey that brought us into Egypt and it was the strength of the donkey that brought us and all our wealth out of Egypt. the honor awarded the donkey is revealed in the command that the firstborn donkey must be redeemed with a seh [a lamb].

When Moshe was first commissioned to lead us out to Egypt, Hashem said, “You shall say to Pharaoh, ‘Thus says Hashem, Israel is my firstborn son, and I say to you, “Let my son go so he may serve me. If you refuse to let him go, behold, I will kill your firstborn son[24].”’” B’nei Israel, as Hahem’s firstborn, was redeemed when the Egyptians gave great wealth to us shortly before the Exodus. However, when he refused to let us go to serve Hashem, Hashem cut off the firstborn of Egypt. Pharaoh had the power to redeem his firstborn son and the firstborn of all Egypt by redeeming the seh [which is Bnei Israel], but he chose the path of death instead. He sacrificed the sons of Egypt instead of sacrificing for their sons.

The redemption of the firstborn donkey remains as a reminder that we are not to sacrifice our children. We are to sacrifice for our children by raising children connected with G-d, the mitzvos, and the Jewish people.


[1] Sermon

[2] Exodus 13:11-14

[3] The redemption of the firstborn

[4] This was done because the firstborn of Israel [while still in Egypt] were not killed with the firstborn of the Egyptians.

[5] Priests

[6] Moses our teacher

[7] not Plan BS, but Plan Bs

[8] Children of Israel

[9] Prophet

[10] High Priest

[11] Commandment

[12] Numbers 18:16

[13] Hillel’s fifth middot

[14] Avodah is the Hebrew word for work, which also includes the work at the temple.

[15] These men, similar to Shmuel, who was the last shofet [judge] of Israel, would be given to the Temple, and they would serve Hashem, specializing in one of a variety of tasks.

[16] The Golden Calf; Chet haegel = sin of the [golden] calf

[17] Tabernacle

[18] Since they were dedicated to Hashem already, their kedushah before G-d did not change; their function merely changed.

[19] Z.Bo 43a

[20] Genesis 2:18

[21] Since this Midrash compares the donkey to an idiot and the land to B’nei Israel, it causes one to pause and ask whose merit is being questioned: the donkey’s or the lamb’s.

[22] Deuteronomy 26:8

[23] Moreh Nevuchim Volume III chapter 39

[24] Exodus 4:22-23


2 thoughts on “Donkeys and Firstborn

  1. Love this Slade, thank you. I’m in Dallas with Lacy and her new daughter, Max. Lacy read your writing and she really liked the last paragraph. I’m back in FL now, Riverview, so maybe we can catch up sometime. Love to you and Kay and those beautiful children. Petie

    Sent from my iPad



  2. I took the Liberty of re-posting this under the Messianic ’thing’….(always fun, humorous, annoying, complex or not so complex responses, as you know!) I liked your Take on the portion and have forwarded it to several friends. Glad you have heard from Publisher… Be well…..pat



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