No one knows exactly when Rebecca is due to give birth, but there are lots of people who are really hoping that it’s a boy.
That’s because Rebecca, a young female donkey who lives on Cabinwood Farm in Middlefield, Ohio, and who was “purchased” by the Pittsburgh Kollel, is expecting her first foal, and if it is a male, the Pittsburgh Jewish community will be able to participate in a rare mitzvah known as pidyon petter chamor.
While many have heard of the mitzvah of pidyon ha’ben (the redemption of firstborn sons), not so many are familiar with the similar mitzvah of redeeming a firstborn male donkey. The mitzvah is seldom practiced because, well, most people nowadays do not own donkeys.
The mitzvah is performed “to show our appreciation of Hashem” for sparing the Jewish firstborn when He killed all the Egyptian firstborn, according to Rabbi Avrohom Weisswasser, a Kollel scholar who initiated the project by arranging to purchase three pregnant donkeys, hoping that one foal might be a male. Two of the donkeys recently delivered their foals, but both were girls.
Now it’s all up to Rebecca.
The mitzvah of pidyon petter chamor is mentioned three times in the Torah, including in Exodus 13:13: “And every firstborn donkey you shall redeem with a lamb.” The kohen, or priest, is charged with performing the redemption and receives a lamb or the donkey’s value in exchange.
Donkeys are celebrated, Weisswasser explained, because they helped the Israelites during the exodus by transporting the gold and silver being taken out of Egypt. Each of the 600,000 Israelite males who fled Egypt had several donkeys, all loaded with precious metals.
Several requisites must be met to fulfill the mitzvah. A Jew must own the mother donkey, she must never before have given birth, and the foal must be a male.
“The mitzvah has been done the past few years in other communities,” Weisswasser said, including Toronto, Los Angeles, Chicago, Detroit and Cleveland. “My uncle was involved in some of the other cities, and he called me up to see if we wanted to do it in Pittsburgh.”
The Kollel is hoping to get a large number of community members involved by allowing them to purchase a “share” of the pregnant donkey. The money raised will go to support the Pittsburgh Kollel and to pay for the expenses of bringing the newborn foal and its mother to Pittsburgh for the ceremony. A share of the donkey is $36 and provides the purchaser with a fractional ownership in the animal and the obligation to fulfill the mitzvah.
So far, the Kollel has about 50 donkey shareholders, according to Weisswasser.
“To make it a fundraiser was an afterthought,” he said. “The main reason was to show people the excitement of the mitzvah.”
Rebecca is currently the ward of Lori Wargo, the owner of Cabinwood Farm. Wargo raises pedigree donkeys for sale to breeders and to individuals as pets. This is the second time the Kollel has contracted with Cabinwood to acquire a jennet; an attempt two years ago did not result in a male foal.
The “sale” of the donkeys is halachically valid, but nominal; the Kollel purchased each jennet for $1, and it states in the contract that they will remain on the farm and that Cabinwood will buy them back after they give birth and the mitzvah is completed.
Gestation time for a donkey is typically about a year, but can vary from 11 to 13 months. Rebecca is due sometime in the next month or two.
“If it’s a boy, Lori will bring the donkeys [mother and son] to where we hold the event,” Weisswasser said. “To redeem it, we transfer the holiness of the donkey to a sheep and then give the sheep to a kohen.”
Wargo, who is not Jewish, is establishing a reputation for herself as the “Jewish donkey lady,” she said. She makes no money from the enterprise and has offered her services to a couple other communities as well.
“The road has not been easy for any of us,” said Wargo, recalling her experiences trying for a male foal for Cleveland. “The first year, we had a horrible year. A sickness went through the farm, and it was a hot and wet summer. We had babies that died.”
Finally, a jennet delivered little Abraham, and Wargo traveled to Cleveland with him and his mother for the ceremony, which attracted 1,500 onlookers.
Unfortunately, Abraham “made it through the ceremony, but then died afterward,” she said. “Little Abraham was a champ.”
“It was a wonderful experience,” Wargo recalled. “We really felt like we had done something.”
After Cleveland, word began to spread about Cabinwood Farm in the Orthodox community.
“It was like a ball rolling down a hill,” Wargo said. “People talked to other people, and we were contacted by a rabbi in Detroit, and we gave it a whirl. We had a baby boy, but a week later he was dead in the barn. It was hard to lose that baby after we were all so excited. That call to the rabbi is probably one of the hardest calls I’ve had to make.”
Wargo contacted a friend who was a breeder in Michigan who decided to give it a try and was successful in producing a male foal who met the criteria to fulfill the mitzvah. More than 2,500 people turned out for the ceremony in Detroit, Wargo said. That breeder was also successful in delivering a foal for the Jewish community in Chicago.
“It came back to us for Pittsburgh,” said Wargo. “But we’ve had a real tough time getting a boy. We’re trying again. We already missed twice; the first two jennets had girls.”
If Rebecca also delivers a girl, though, there is still hope, Wargo said.
“We’ll have two girls next year that are ready should we not be successful,” she said. “We’ll be able to try again.”
Toby Tabachnick can be reached at email@example.com.