Thursday, June 20, 2013

Talking about our departure from Egypt


The Torah mandates that the owner of a donkey redeem its first-born progeny by dedicating a lamb in its place, or by donating the lamb‘s monetary equivalent. Failure to do so means that the donkey‘s owner must instead end his donkey‘s life. Our sages wrote that the penalty of losing one‘s donkey is meant to encourage owners to fulfill the mitzvah of redeeming their donkeys.

The Torah explains that this mitzvah is meant to remind us of our own redemption from Egypt, and of the destruction of the Egyptian firstborn. Why donkeys, though? Rambam, in his Moreh haNevuchim, suggested that the Torah singled out donkeys because they are common beasts, and because their ability to carry burdens make them indispensable for all people.

Have a great day,


  1. This is the kind of thought from the Moreh that makes me inclined to agree with R' Hirsch's 18th Letter:

    The age gave birth to a man [R' Drachman's footnote: Maimonides], a mind, who, the product of uncomprehended Judaism and Arabic science, was obliged to reconcile the strife which raged in his own breast in his own manner, and who, by proclaiming it to the world, became the guide of all in whom the same conflict existed.
    This great man to whom, and to whom alone, we owe the preservation of practical Judaism to our time, is responsible because he sought to reconcile Judaism with the difficulties which confronted it from without instead of developing it creatively from within, for all the good and the evil which bless and afflict the heritage of the father.... For him, too, self-perfecting through the knowledge of truth was the highest aim, the practical he deemed subordinate. For him knowledge of God was the end, not the means; hence he devoted his intellectual powers to speculations upon the essence of Deity, and sought to bind Judaism to the results of his speculative investigations as to postulates of science or faith...

    He, the great systematic orderer of the practical results of the Talmud, gives expression in the last part of his philosophic work to opinions concerning the meaning and purpose of the commandments which, taking the very practical results codified by himself as the contents of the commandments, are utterly untenable cast no real light upon them and cannot go hand in hand with them in practice, in life, and in science.

    I'll stick with the Gra's observation that chamorim, aside from being common beasts of burden are also the most natural symbols for the chomer (physicality) in ourselves. Soul is to chomer as rider is to chamor.

    The Rambam's pragmatic explanations are too empty of religious content for me to be satisfied with them. After all, the same One Who made the law had earlier made the variety of beasts, decided which ones would be docile and trainable, which would be placed in the path of human settlement.... IOW, Hashem set it up so that donkeys would be the common beast of burden no less than He wrote the mitzvah. Explaining the mitzvah in terms of the realia stops too early.

  2. Hear hear, Rabbi Berger! I am reminded of a recent quip from R' Betzalel Rudinsky wherein he described the reason for the different ways which one might blemish an animal during birth before it exits the womb so as to preclude in from inhering kedushas b'chor.

    For a donkey the wound is usually made on the ear, as opposed to the lamb where it is made on the lip. The Rav explained that this reflects the different approaches to receiving the torah. As the gemarah records the conversation wherein the Sadducee states 'akudmaisu pumaichu l'adunaichu'. The donkey represents the other nations who first requested to hear what it stated in the torah. The Jews are represented by the sheep.

    The bottom line being the Rambam's approach stunts the sense of spirituality in the commandment. Hence no torah can be gleaned from it.