CHERRY HILL, N.J. — The Torah is specific when it describes what a Jew should do about his first fruits, his first harvest and his first-born male children. Is it any wonder that it is equally precise about what to do about a first-born donkey?
Such was the subject of a rare mitzvah performed last Sunday, with 300 people gathering on the lawn behind the Torah Links synagogue in Cherry Hill to witness a pidyon petter chamor — literally, redemption of a donkey’s first issue — ceremony. As the crowd spilled over onto the parking lot, participants pondered the significance of a ritual that was likely practiced often thousands of years ago, but in the Western world, according to a survey of news reports, happened only a handful of times in recent memory. (One report from JTA concerned the redeeming of a donkey in Australia in 2009.)
“This is a mitzvah that I suspect 99.9 percent of the people here will witness for the first time today,” said Rabbi Yisroel Tzvi Serebrowski, founder and director of Torah Links of South Jersey.
Discussed in the Torah in three locations, the mitzvah applies to the firstborn male issue of a Jewish-owned donkey, which retains a level of holiness and is therefore forbidden to be used for work. The redemption is designed to transfer the holiness to another animal, such as a cow, goat or sheep, so that the donkey can be used for work. The other animal used in the transfer is then given to a kohen, or member of the Jewish priestly class, who typically eats it.
The ceremony is similar in its rationale to the redemption of a firstborn male child known as a pidyon ha’ben — in which a month-old baby is redeemed with five silver coins that are given to a kohen — as well as the fact that other firstborn domesticated animals were sacrificed in the First and Second Temples because of their acquired holiness. Tradition ascribes the acquiring of holiness in such cases to the fact that firstborn Egyptians and the firstborn of their flocks and herds perished during the Ten Plagues.
The donkey is the only nonkosher animal whose first-born male is holy and must be redeemed.
It was suggested by Rabbi Yerachmiel Milstein, who came from Lakewood for the event — and echoed by the dozen or more rabbis who were on hand — that the mitzvah is exciting because it is so rarely seen today.
“It carries with it the opportunity to recall our gratitude to God for everything he has done for us, all the blessings he gives us, and all that he will do for us in the future,” Milstein said.
With so few Jewish farmers living near urban areas, opportunities to participate in the ritual — let alone the knowledge of what to many is an arcane concept — are few.
“A few years ago, I purchased some goats and baby lambs, and a set of very young donkeys that were less than a year old, and bought them to live and graze on our property,” recalled Danny Bierig, a partner in Bierig Brothers, a family-owned kosher slaughterhouse in Vineland, N.J., that operates under the supervision of the Baltimore-based Star K kosher certification agency.
“Apparently, the rabbis who work as the schochtim — the ritual slaughterers who work with us — had been watching the donkeys with some amount of curiosity as to what was going to happen, especially when the female became pregnant,” Michael Bierig, Danny’s brother explained. “When she gave birth to a first-born male donkey, one of the rabbis explained that there was a mitzvah we needed to do so the baby donkey could be redeemed.”
The family decided to perform the ritual in Cherry Hill.
“This allowed us to share the mitzvah with everyone in the community,” Bierig said.
“Let’s face it,” said Sam Bierig, Danny and Michael’s father, “who knows when another opportunity like this will come along?”
Not only did the Bierigs bring along their baby male donkey for redemption, they also bought along a week-old goat to use in the redemption ceremony.
After several speeches from invited rabbis, Serebrowski invoked a moment of silence in honor of the 15th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks. The Bierig donkey and a goat were then brought in.
As the donkey brayed quietly behind 200 seated guests and in front of the standing-room only overflowing crowd, Michael Bierig and his two oldest sons, Ethan and Jonah, prepared to walk the donkey to the podium. Bierig placed a colorful serape and jewelry on the donkey’s back, and led it through the audience on a leash. Ethan carried the goat in his arms.
Jake Bierig said a blessing over the donkey, while Ethan gave the goat to Rabbi Yitzchok Kahan, director of Chabad of Medford, N.J., the ceremony’s kohen. Kahan said a blessing that roughly translates to, “You have given me this goat in place of this donkey. In this merit, may you receive many blessings.”
The donkey will remain at the Bierigs’ Vineland facility with its parents where, according to Danny Bierig, “it can graze and play to its heart’s content.” At last check, the goat was still living there too.
Lori Samlin Miller is a freelance writer for the Jewish Exponent in Philadelphia.