Must It Be a Lamb?
When the Torah commanded Every firstborn of a donkey shall you redeem with a lamb (Shmot 13:13), was there an insistence on a lamb, and if the owner did not have a lamb would he have to behead this firstborn as is required when redemption does not take place?
This issue is raised in two places in this weeks section. There was an approach that the position of Rabbi Yehuda that it is forbidden to derive any benefit from a yet-unredeemed firstborn donkey is predicated on the fact that its sanctity can be removed only through redemption with a lamb and nothing else.
This approach was abandoned, however, when it was cited that Rabbi Nechemiah, the son of Rabbi Yosef, redeemed a firstborn donkey by providing a kohen with some cooked dish. The conclusion then is that even Rabbi Yehuda agrees that one can redeem that firstborn donkey by giving the kohen anything which is of value equal to the animal. This is based on the fact that the sanctity of this animal cannot be greater than the property of the Sanctuary, which can be redeemed with anything of equal value. When the Torah stipulated the use of a lamb for redemption, it did so to make it easier for the owner to fulfill his obligation by giving the kohen a lamb of any size, even if its value is nowhere near that of the firstborn donkey. It is only when he has no lamb to offer that he is required to give him something of equal value as in the case of redeeming Sanctuary property.
A Compromising Comparison
When the Torah awarded the firstborn of man and animal to the kohen, it stipulated But redeem shall you surely redeem the firstborn of man, and the firstborn of the impure animal shall you redeem (Bamidbar 18:15).
While the firstborn of a cow, sheep or goat was to be given to the kohen by its owner, the firstborn of man was to be redeemed by giving the kohen five shekalim, and the firstborn of a donkey by giving him a lamb.
The pairing in one passage of the redemption of human firstborn and that of donkey firstborn led Rabbi Eliezer to draw an interesting conclusion. Should a man set aside five shekalim for the redemption of his firstborn son and the money is lost, the father bears the responsibility to give other money to the kohen in order to achieve redemption. This is the ruling of the mishna (Bechorot 51a) based on the above-mentioned passage. Rabbi Eliezer extends this principle to the firstborn donkey as well, and rules that if a man has set aside a lamb for the redemption of a firstborn donkey and the lamb dies he bears the responsibility for providing a substitute lamb.
Rabbi Eliezers position is contested by the Sages who compare the redemption of a firstborn donkey to the redemption of maaser sheini (second tithe) which a man performs in order to have the right to eat that produce outside of Yerushalayim. In the case of maaser sheini the redemption is valid even if the silver coins used for redemption which were to have been spent in Yerushalayim are lost and the redeemer bears no responsibility for replacing them.
But there is another challenge to Rabbi Eliezers equation of the redemption of the firstborn donkey and the firstborn human. The Sage Abaye raised the question why it is then forbidden to have any benefit from an unredeemed firstborn donkey while one may derive such benefit from a firstborn human. The resolution for this was provided by the Sage Rava who pointed out that the wording of the passage But redeem shall you surely redeem is a signal that the comparison between firstborn donkey and man is strictly limited to the rules of redemption and to nothing else.