Yesterday, we noted the obligation of peter chamor – to “redeem” a firstborn donkey by giving a sheep to a kohen – and the law stated in the Gemara (Bekhorot 11a) that one can fulfill the requirement even by paying a kohen the value of the donkey. The Torah mentioned redeeming with a sheep, the Gemara teaches, to instruct that a sheep suffices even if the sheep’s value is far lower than the donkey’s value, but one may also use money or objects of value to redeem the donkey. As we saw, there seems to be a difference of opinion as to whether there is nevertheless a preference to use a sheep for this purpose. The Rambam, in Hilkhot Bikkurim (12:11), writes that one who does not have a sheep can redeem the donkey through other means, from which the Beit Yosef (Y.D. 321) inferred that one should preferably use a sheep. This is in contrast to the Tur, who indicated that money or other objects of value are no less preferred than a sheep as the means of redeeming a firstborn donkey.
We parenthetically added in yesterday’s discussion that an extreme version of the Rambam’s position would be to suggest that in truth, the mitzva is not fulfilled at all with anything but a sheep. One could interpret the Gemara’s ruling to mean that if one pays money or another object value to redeem the firstborn donkey, the payment is effective in divesting the donkey of its sanctity, but does not fulfill the mitzva. Using a sheep is not just preferred – but the only way of being credited with a mitzva. If one redeems the sheep with other means, he succeeds in making the donkey permissible for use, but he has forfeited the mitzva of peter chamor.
Rav Moshe Sternbuch, in his Teshuvot Ve-hanhagot (vol. 1, Y.D. 666), raises this possibility amidst an interesting discussion of whether nowadays, when most people do not own donkeys, there is value in specifically purchasing a peter chamor in order to fulfill this mitzva. At first glance, one might assume that although there is clearly no requirement to purchase a donkey, it is worthwhile and commendable to do so in order to facilitate a mitzva. Of course, as Rav Sternbuch observes, it is not customary to purchase donkeys for this purpose. He offers several different theories to explain why this might be the case, including one possibility which relates to the Rambam’s view mentioned earlier. The Mishna (Bekhorot 12a) establishes that one does not fulfill the mitzva of peter chamor by giving the kohen a sheep that is a tereifa – meaning, that has a fatal injury that renders it forbidden for consumption. As some commentators noted, it is still possible in such a case for the redemption to be effective, if the value of the sheep is equal to that of the donkey (such as because of its wool, or because of the possibility of selling its meat to gentiles). The use of a such a sheep for redeeming the donkey is no worse than using money or any object of value, such that the redemption is effective. Nevertheless, Rav Sternbuch writes, in light of the Rambam’s view, it is possible that the mitzva has not been fulfilled. Even though the redemption is effective, this does not necessarily mean that one is credited with the performance of a mitzva in such a case.
If so, Rav Sternbuch suggests, then this might be one reason why we should not go out of our way to purchase a donkey in order to fulfill the mitzva of peter chamor. If the sheep turns out to be a tereifa – which is possible even if it has no outward signs of illness – then no mitzva has been fulfilled. It would then turn out that the trouble and expense entailed in obtaining a donkey and a sheep for this mitzva had been for naught. Given this possibility, it is not expected to make an effort to obtain a peter chamor in order to perform this mitzva, an objective which in the end might not be achieved.
Rav Sternbuch also offers other theories, such as the possibility that there is no value in going out of one’s way to perform a mitzva which is solely a matir – meaning, it serves only to make something permissible. For example, there is no value in specifically obtaining produce in Eretz Yisrael so one can separate the various terumot and ma’aserot portions, if he does not want to eat fruits or vegetables. Rav Sternbuch also mentions that in the case of a peter chamor, going out of one’s way to own a firstborn donkey creates the situation of an animal that is forbidden for mundane uses until its redemption. Given the risk – however small – that it might be mistakenly used before being redeemed, it is preferable not to create such a situation, even for the otherwise lofty goal of performing a mitzva.