Yesterday, we discussed the mitzva of peter chamor, which requires the owner of a newborn donkey to either pay a sheep to a kohen or to break the newborn donkey’s neck. As we saw, the preferred option is to pay the sheep to the kohen, and it is only if one refuses to pay the sheep that he should then break the animal’s neck.
The Gemara in Masekhet Bekhorot (11a) establishes that one is able to fulfill his fellow’s peter chamor obligation by giving his own sheep to a kohen on his fellow’s behalf. If, for example, one wishes to give his friend a gift, or he knows of somebody experiencing financial hardship and seeks to help, he may give one of his own sheep to a kohen as the “redemption” for his fellow’s newborn donkey. Once this is done, the friend’s obligation has been satisfactorily dispensed, despite the fact that he – the friend who owns the newborn donkey – has done nothing and is not even aware that the sheep was given to a kohen.
The obligation of peter chamor differs in this regard from most other mitzvot. Normally, one cannot fulfill his fellow’s obligation with one’s own assets without the individual’s consent. For example, one cannot designate his own sheep as his friend’s korban pesach, or as a different sacrifice that his friend pledged to offer. The standard rule is that a person prefers fulfilling his mitzva obligations with his own money, and thus one cannot use his own assets to fulfill his fellow’s obligation without his fellow’s explicit consent. The mitzva of peter chamor marks an exception to this rule, as a person may fulfill his fellow’s peter chamor obligation by voluntarily giving his own sheep to a kohen.
Rav Avraham of Sochatchov, in his Avnei Neizer (Y.D. 396), suggests a possible reason for this distinction. He writes that the peter chamor obligation may, a priori, be viewed either an ordinary mitzva, or as a financial obligation that one must meet in order to benefit from his newborn donkey. According to the second approach, we do not necessarily need to assume that the owner prefers fulfilling this requirement with his own money. Just as a borrower would certainly be pleased to have somebody else repay his debt for him, similarly, the owner of a newborn donkey would not mind having his fellow pay the sheep to the kohen. It is only if we view the payment of a sheep as an actual mitzva, similar to a sacrifice, that we must assume the owner wishes to fulfill this mitzva with his own funds. Apparently, the Avnei Neizer writes, Halakha accepts the second perspective, that pidyon peter chamor is a purely financial obligation, and not a ritual obligation, and therefore somebody else can dispense the owner’s obligation on his behalf.
Interestingly, the Avnei Neizer claims that this issue would hinge on the debate we noted yesterday between the Rambam and the Ra’avad concerning the nature of arifa – the requirement to break the newborn donkey’s neck if one refuses to pay a sheep to the kohen. The Rambam writes in Hilkhot Bikkurim (12:1) that one fulfills a mitzvat asei if he refuses to pay a kohen and chooses to break the donkey’s neck, instead. The Ra’avad objected to this formulation, arguing that breaking the donkey’s neck is a penalty for denying the kohen what is owed to him, and thus it cannot be described as a mitzva. The Avnei Neizer contends that the rationale he developed accommodates the Ra’avad’s view, that arifa does not constitute an actual mitzva. The Ra’vad’s perspective, the Avnei Neizer writes, affects the nature of the entire peter chamor obligation, requiring us to view it as a purely financial responsibility. Since the animal’s owner has the option of arifa, which is not a mitzva, then the entire requirement of peter chamor must be viewed in this vein, according to the Ra’avad. According to the Rambam, however, peter chamor must be viewed as an ordinary, ritualistic mitzva, and not merely as a financial requirement. Since one fulfills a mitzva regardless of which option he chooses, we must view peter chamor as a mitzva like most other mitzvot, and not merely as a financial responsibility. According to the Rambam, then, some other explanation is needed for why one may pay a sheep to a kohen to redeem another person’s peter chamor without that person’s consent.