As we noted yesterday, the Shulchan Arukh (Y.D. 321:6) rules that a berakha is recited over the mitzva of pidyon peter chamor – redeeming a firstborn donkey by paying a sheep (or the value thereof) to a kohen. Although the Gemara makes no mention of such a berakha, it is noted by several Acharonim, and the Shulchan Arukh rules accordingly.
The Perisha, commenting on the Tur’s codification of this halakha, raises the question of why a berakha is recited over this mitzva but not over the similar mitzva of bekhor beheima tehora – giving one’s firstborn kosher animal to a kohen. A person is required to give his firstborn calf, sheep or goat to a kohen (as the Shulchan Arukh discusses in the previous chapters), and no berakha is recited when giving the animal to the kohen in fulfillment of the obligation. Why, the Perisha asks, does one recite a mitzva when giving a sheep to a kohen for the redemption of his firstborn donkey, but not when giving to a kohen his firstborn calf, sheep or goat?
The Perisha suggests that the distinction lies in the fact that when one gives his firstborn animal to a kohen, he keeps nothing for himself. This is in contrast to the case of peter chamor, where the owner gives the kohen a sheep and may then keep the donkey for himself. A berakha is recited only when one gives the kohen his share and then keeps the rest, and thus it is not recited in the case of a bekhor beheima tehora, when one gives the animal to a kohen and does not keep anything.
The Taz questions this approach, raising the question of why this factor should affect the requirement to recite a berakha. Why would a berakha not be warranted in the case of bekhor beheima tehora simply because the owner does not keep anything?
The Taz therefore offers a different explanation, noting that a bekhor beheima tehora is consecrated already from the time of its birth. The moment it is born, a bekhor is designated as a kohen’s sacrifice. Chazal did not enact the recitation of a berakha over the act of giving to a kohen that which already belongs to him. This act is not significant enough to warrant a berakha. This is much different than the case of peter chamor, where one must designate a sheep as the redemption for the firstborn donkey. This sheep, quite obviously, was not previously earmarked for this purpose. Its designation is done right now, when the donkey’s owner selects it as the redemption for the donkey. This act of designating the sheep is a significant mitzva act that warrants the recitation of a berakha.
In truth, the Taz’s explanation is alluded to already by the Shulchan Arukh, in its presentation of the requirement to recite a berakha. The Shulchan Arukh writes that the sheep is the kohen’s property the moment the donkey’s owner designates it for the purpose of redeeming the donkey, even before the kohen receives it. Once the designation is announced, the Shulchan Arukh writes, the newborn donkey is entirely permissible for personal use, and if the sheep dies, the owner does not owe the kohen another one. The Shulchan Arukh then writes, “Therefore, right when one designates it [the sheep], he recites the berakha…” Since the formal mitzva act is the designation of the sheep, and not giving it to the kohen, the berakha is recited prior to the designation. The mitzva is completed once the owner sets aside a sheep as the donkey’s redemption, and thus the berakha is recited over this act, not before giving the sheep to the kohen. It is thus understood that when it comes to a bekhor beheima tehora, which does not need designation, no berakha is recited.