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The Sanctification of the Firstborn

Rav Michael Hattin
The Israel Koschitzky Virtual Beit Midrash

Introduction to Parashat Hashavua
Yeshivat Har Etzion



The Sanctification of the Firstborn


By Rav Michael Hattin




            With the reading of Parashat Bo, the final plagues reach their terrifying climax.  A devastating swarm of locusts, unlike anything ever experienced in the land of Egypt before, hungrily alights upon the fields and proceeds to consume all that the preceding plague of fiery hail had not already crushed and destroyed.  Once again, Pharaoh fleetingly relents and even (for the very first time) admits culpability; Moshe entreats God and He is merciful.  Having stripped away everything that was remotely green from the pastoral landscape of the Nile delta, filling the otherwise silent and arid desert air with the busy sound of their gnawing, the massive wave of masticators is suddenly borne aloft and carried far from Egypt's borders by the western winds. 


            But there will be no respite for the obdurate Pharaoh.  Suddenly and without warning, his once-mighty kingdom is plunged into otherworldly darkness.  A palpable and oppressive gloom descends upon the proud monuments of stone that tower above the massive buildings of sun-dried mud bricks, and the vast store cities of the king are reluctantly abandoned to the whims of the swirling clouds of sand.  For three full days, the monarch whose subjects once regarded him as a direct descendent of the sun god is ironically holed up in the murky recesses of his obscured palace like a timid mouse.


            But now Moshe's tone begins to change.  He no longer states his demands neutrally and detachedly, reassuring the monarch as he had every time in the past that relief was but a brief bout of teshuva away.  In response to Pharaoh's attempts to limit participation in the desert service of God by withholding the flocks, Moshe defiantly insists that Pharaoh himself will provide sacrifices, and not a single animal will be left behind.  Pharaoh, taken aback, refuses, and threatens Moshe and Aharon with death, and in response Moshe informs the god king of the impending striking down of the firstborn.


            Abruptly, the perspective of the narratives shifts, as the rites of the Paschal Lamb are introduced.   The people of Israel are to prepare for their imminent redemption by taking a lamb, slaughtering it, and daubing with its blood the doorposts and lintels of their domiciles.  As the Destroyer stalks the streets of Egypt, the Israelites are to consume their meal calmly, fully prepared to journey forth and supremely confident that God will preserve them from harm.  This the people solemnly do, gathering as families to partake of the rites.




            Finally, the dawn of liberation, after an interminably long night of oppression and exile, rises.  With the first rays of morning, an excited tumult is heard, as the Hebrews – confined to their modest hovels during the night of terror that saw the slaying of Egypt's firstborn sons – now burst forth from their blood-streaked portals and begin to noisily congregate in tight groups outside.  A muted sound of cautious laughter is heard, as if the former slaves, conditioned to displaying only stone-faced indifference, are still uncertain about the reality of their new freedom.  But even their muffled mirth easily overpowers the grief-stricken wails of the Egyptians who are busily digging shallow graves in the shimmering distance. 


            Scarcely can the Israelites believe that their enslavement is truly over, that they shall hear the brusque and impatient shouts of the taskmasters no more.  And little can they imagine the magnitude of the journey that now lies before them, for they will eventually make their way to the banks of the surging Sea of Reeds, to the desolate wilderness of fiery Sinai, and to the hallowed red earth of the Promised Land.  But those future encounters are still far, far off, while the present is filled with eager and disorganized commotion as the huge and boisterous mass of freed slaves – heavily weighted down with their children, their flocks, and their possessions – slowly winds its way through the narrow and dusty streets of Pharaoh's fabled city of Ra'amses.


            With the climactic event of the Exodus now underway, the Torah's concerns turn towards commemoration, for even the most vivid and stunning of encounters must eventually yield to imperfect memory and to its vagaries.  How will the experience of this pivotal moment be forever preserved?  How will its message be transmitted to future generations, to the children who were not there but who will nevertheless be instructed to embrace the stirring narratives of their ancestors as well as the special mission enjoined upon them by their God? 


God spoke to Moshe saying: "Sanctify to Me all of the firstborn, those that open the womb among the Israelites, both human and beast, they are Mine."  Moshe said to the people: "You shall surely remember this day on which you went forth from Egypt from the house of bondage, for with might God brought you forth from here, and no leavened matter shall be eaten.  On this day you journey forth, in the month of the spring.  When God brings you to the land of the Canaanite, the Chittite, the Amorite, the Chivite, and the Yevusite that He swore to your ancestors to give to you – a land flowing with milk and honey – then you shall perform this service during this month.  For seven days you shall eat matzot, and on the seventh day you shall celebrate a festival to God.  Matzot shall be eaten for the seven days, and no leavened matter or yeast shall be seen in all of your borders.  You shall tell your child on that day saying: for the sake of this fulfillment God did this for me when I left Egypt.  This shall serve as a sign upon your hand and as a commemoration between your eyes, so that you shall speak of God's instruction, for with a mighty hand God brought you forth from Egypt.  You shall observe this statute in its season from year to year forever" (Shemot 13: 1-10).




            The above section contains a potent combination of hallowed acts and charged ceremonies to ensure that the events of the enslavement and of the liberation that followed it shall be remembered forever.  A week-long holiday is to be held during every month of the spring, with the flat and humble matzot of the hurried exodus taking the place of proud and leisurely-prepared leaven products.  Thus the promise of the springtime – with its warming rays and blossoming earth – is to be paired with the hopeful memory of the emancipation, as God intervened to save His hapless people from unjust oppression at the hands of cruel tyrants.  A sign is to be affixed upon the hand and upon the head – traditionally understood to be a reference to the daily donning of the tefillin – so that the memory of God's mighty deed might live on through all of our acts and all of our thoughts that are to be henceforth dedicated to His service.  And, most poignantly, the firstborn of Israel, whether of man or of beast, are to be sanctified to Him, a compelling memory of the slaying of Egypt's firstborn, even as the Israelites were spared. 


            All of these mitzvot may therefore be understood to be organic and natural commemorations, for they instinctively call to mind those ancient events with vividness.  Can someone even now, though far removed from the time and place described in Sefer Shemot, attend a Passover Seder – with its evocative combination of special foods, emotive readings and stirring songs – and not be reminded of that night over three thousand years ago when our ancestors went forth from Egypt?  Can a person perform the ritual of the "redemption of the firstborn" for his precious newborn child and not be reminded of the final plague that broke Pharaoh's steely resolve and transformed Israelite history forever?  Can a man place the tefillin upon his heart and near his mind and remain indifferent to the message inscribed upon their parchment, a message of Divine concern and involvement, expectation and decree?




            The command concerning the sanctification of the firstborn is amplified in the passage that immediately follows, and some new and surprising details emerge:


When God brings you to the land of the Canaanite that He pledged to you and to your ancestors and He gives it to you, then you shall transfer all firstborns to God, and all firstborn male animals that you shall have, to God.  All firstborn donkeys shall be redeemed with a sheep, and if you do not redeem it then you shall break its neck, but all firstborn among your sons you shall redeem.  When your child asks of you on the morrow saying: "what is this?" then you shall say to him: "with great power God brought us forth from Egypt from the house of bondage.  When Pharaoh refused to send us forth, then God slew all firstborns in the land of Egypt, firstborn men and firstborn animals, and therefore I sacrifice to God all firstborn male (animals) while I redeem my firstborn sons."  It shall serve as a sign upon your hand and as a headband between your eyes, for with great power God brought us forth from Egypt (Shemot 13:11-16).


The general outline of the passage is similar to what preceded it, with the sanctification of the firstborn, the mitzva of tefillin, and the charge to remember the Exodus and to instruct the children figuring prominently.  But now, some additional particulars come to light, for sanctification of the firstborn animals is here explained as their sacrifice to God, while sanctification of the sons is to be accomplished through their redemption with funds.  The former, of course, precludes the sanctification of animal species unfit for sacrifice, and therefore limits the provision to sheep, cattle and goats.  We do not know, of course, whether the firstborn animals of Egypt that were struck down in that final terrifying plague included all species or only these three domesticated types, but the straightforward reading of the text seems to indicate the former possibility:


Moshe said: "thus says God: at the stroke of midnight, I will go forth in the midst of Egypt.  All firstborns in Egypt shall die, from Pharaoh's firstborn who would inherit his throne, to the firstborn of the maidservant that toils at the millstones, and ALL firstborn animals…" (11:4-5).


"I shall pass through the land of Egypt on this night, and I shall strike down ALL firstborn in the land of Egypt, whether men or beasts, and I shall execute vengeance upon all of the gods of Egypt, for I am God (12:12).


It came to pass at the middle of the night that God struck down all of the firstborn in the land of Egypt, from the firstborn of Pharaoh who would inherit his throne, to the firstborn captive that languished in prison, and ALL firstborn animals (12:29).




            Rashi, echoing an ancient Rabbinic tradition (see Mekhilta, Masekhta DePischa, Parasha 13), would seem to concur that in fact all firstborn animals of Egypt perished, for he connects their demise with the well-known Egyptian predilection for worshipping every manner of beast and bird, insect and sea-creature: "Why did the firstborn animals perish?  Because they used to worship them, and when God punishes a people then He punishes their gods as well…" (commentary to 11:5).  If so, to restrict the sanctification designation and its ritual consequences to animals fit for sacrifice must be understood as being nevertheless sufficient to drive the underlying point home: God slew all of their firstborn and I therefore sanctify some of mine, offering them as sacrifices with gratitude.


            The matter of the firstborn donkeys is, however, most puzzling.  If the sanctification is a function of fitness for sacrifice, then the non-kosher donkey ought to have been excluded along with all of the other rejected species.  And why the provision to redeem it with a sheep or else to ceremoniously break its neck?  These particular features of the mitzva appear to be peculiar to the extreme.  The commentaries, mostly silent on the passage, offer a small number of explanations for the matter, heroically attempting a rational analysis in spite of all odds.  Rashi summarizes their approaches:


The matter of the firstborn donkey is a decree of the Torah, for the firstborn Egyptians are compared to donkeys.  Also, the donkeys assisted the Israelites at the time of the Exodus, for there was not a single Israelite who did not remove with him many donkeys laden with the silver and gold of the Egyptians! (commentary to 13:13). 


Ibn Ezra, ignoring Rashi's implied pejoratives and flights of interpretive fancy, restricts the discussion to more reasonable principles:


Any firstborn animal that is unfit for sacrifice and not redeemed is subject to death.  All of the firstborn, whether man or beast, perished.  God did not deliver the Israelites from the decree of death pronounced upon the firstborn of Egypt except so that they might be dedicated to His service.  But the Israelites at the time did not possess any other types of non-kosher species except for donkeys and therefore no other firstborn types need be redeemed (commentary to 13:13).




            In other words, avers Ibn Ezra, the donkey, proverbial beast of burden from time immemorial, was selected for special treatment for only one reason: the Israelites did not possess any other kinds of non-kosher animals at the time.  While ALL firstborn Egyptian animals perished, and ALL firstborn Israelite animals should have therefore been either sanctified (if they were fit for sacrifice) or else redeemed (if they were not), there were no other species in Israelite possession except for donkeys.  This supposition is of course eminently reasonable, for lowly slaves could hardly have been expected to raise or to care for anything more unusual than this utilitarian beast.  While the Pharaoh would often hunt wild game and the temple priests would maintain a vast menagerie of exotic creatures that were thought to embody the life-force of the gods, the humble serf would restrict his animal interests to that which could best serve his basic and straightforward needs.


            While Ibn Ezra and Rashi both attempt to explain the selection of the donkey for sanctification and see its redemption with a sheep as a function of its unfitness for sacrifice, they are less successful at explaining the provision of "neck-breaking."  Why should the donkey that is not redeemed be put to death, and why by this curious and decidedly unconventional method?  Perhaps (although they neglect to so state) this provision constitutes an emphatic statement about the donkey's inherent unfitness for sacrifice, for all sacrificial land animals are dispatched by slaughter of the major blood vessels located at the neck, and never by breaking the vertebra and severing the spinal cord.  Thus, even while the Torah indicates the special status of the donkey, it wants to plainly dispel any possible confusion about its fitness for sacrifice: redeem it with a sheep that can be offered upon the altar, or else kill it in such a way that will admit of no uncertainty about its fitness.




            Perhaps, however, this unusual provision introduces us to another possibility to understand the whole matter of the donkey.  While in our modern cultural context, a donkey is often a metaphor for persistence that borders on obduracy (though few of us have ever seen this beast's habits from up close!), it is safe to assume that this association is not a new one in human history.  The Tanakh, it must be admitted, surprisingly preserves no references to the donkey's stubbornness and restricts its mention of the beast to contexts attesting to its usefulness for bearing burdens or else for plowing the field.  But the Tanakh does speak of a related animal, the "pereh" or wild ass that is the donkey's kith and kin.  And when discussing the "pereh," the text is clear that here we are dealing with a sort of beast that recognizes NO rules of men.  As the late First Temple period prophet Yirmiyahu memorably describes, in comparing this wild beast's free-spiritedness with his own people's destructive penchant for neglecting God's laws,


How can you claim that you have not been defiled, how can you say that you have not gone after the ba'alim?  Look at your path in the valley, know what you have done!  You are like a swift young camel returning on its tracks!  (You are) like a wild ass conditioned by the wilderness, that sucks in breath with abandon, who shall refuse its wiles?  But all that seek it shall not be wearied, for they shall capture it in its time… (Yirmiyahu 2:23-24).


Could it be that the donkey is therefore singled out because of its stubbornness and obstinacy, as a fitting metaphor for the Pharaoh that could not bend his will to the God of Israel?  Could the provision of redemption with a sheep be a pointed caution to exchange stubbornness with pliancy, and unwillingness to embrace God's word with a sheep's amenable submission?  And might the unusual provision to break the unredeemed donkey's neck be an allusion to Pharaoh's own sorry fate in refusing God's reasonable demands?  The larger contextual evidence seems to point in this direction, for elsewhere in the Torah, stubbornness is often described as being "stiff-necked," or "kashe oref" (literally "hard of neck," so that one who has turned his back is incapable of turning around to answer).  Thus, for example, when God disappointingly refers to Israel after their construction of the golden calf He exclaims: "I have seen this people, and behold they are a stiff-necked people!" (Shemot 32:9).  Most tellingly of all, the provisions of dispatching the donkey are immediately followed by a reference to Pharaoh's obduracy, described in the text as his "adamance" (of neck?):


…all firstborn donkeys shall be redeemed with a sheep, and if you do not redeem it then you shall break its neck, but all firstborn among your sons you shall redeem.  When your child asks of you on the morrow saying: "what is this?" then you shall say to him: "with great power God brought us forth from Egypt from the house of bondage.  When Pharaoh refused ("hiKShaH") to send us forth, then God slew all firstborns in the land of Egypt, firstborn men and firstborn animals, and therefore I sacrifice to God all firstborn male (animals) while I redeem my firstborn sons" (13:13-15).




            The Exodus represented a turning point in Israelite and world history.  For the first time, a God had stood up against injustice and oppression and had championed the weak over the powerful and strong.  Pharaoh was bowed and broken, his empire ground into the dust, and the former slaves marched forth in freedom.  That event, singular and unique, would continue to inspire human beings whenever and wherever tyrants held sway and innocent human beings chafed under their oppressive rule.  The conclusion of Parashat Bo introduces us to a series of provisions that were calculated to preserve the memory of that event so that we might always recall its most salient features.  And while Pharaoh may have thankfully faded from human history, his legacy of obduracy and adamancy, of unwillingness to acknowledge God's moral law and stubborn insistence on self-glorification, lives on.  The end of our Parasha, however, teaches us there is only one way for Pharaoh and for his ilk to achieve the eternity that they so crave, and that is through submission to God and recognition of the inherent worth of the human being who was created in His image.


Shabbat Shalom 


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