This is certainly not the first time that a “Rebecca” has begat a “Jacob,” but it was the first time that such begetting has enabled the Pittsburgh Jewish community to perform the obscure mitzvah known as pidyon petter chamor.
Well more than 100 turned out Sept. 27 at Hillel Academy of Pittsburgh’s basketball court to greet Jacob, a 3-week-old male donkey, who lives on Cabinwood Farm in Middlefield, Ohio, and was “purchased” by the Pittsburgh Kollel Jewish Learning Center as part of a fundraising effort.
“He’s doing pretty good,” said Lori Wargo, the owner of Cabinwood Farm, of her ward Jacob. “He likes the kids.”
And he was surrounded by dozens of them, pushing their way through the crowd to pet little Jacob on his back or rub his head, a real-life “pin-the-tail” game, without the pinning.
“He’s very cute,” said Gedalyahu Henteleff, a young Hillel Academy student.
While many Jews have heard of the mitzvah of pidyon ha’ben (the redemption of firstborn sons), the similar mitzvah of redeeming a firstborn male donkey is seldom practiced because of the scarcity of donkey owners in the modern Jewish community.
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.
Wargo raises pedigree donkeys for sale to breeders and to individuals as pets. This is the second time the Kollel has contracted with her farm, Cabinwood, to acquire a jennet; an attempt two years ago did not result in a male foal.
The “sale” of the donkey is halachically valid, but nominal; the Kollel purchased Rebecca for $1, and it states in the contract that she will remain on the farm and that Cabinwood will buy her back after she gives birth and the mitzvah is completed.
The Kollel sold 150 shares of the donkey for $36 each, providing each purchaser with a fractional ownership in the animal and the obligation to fulfill the mitzvah, 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. The two other donkeys recently delivered their foals, but both were girls.
“For a city-dweller, this is a once in a lifetime chance,” said Rabbi Shimon Silver of Young Israel. “Now, I’ll be able to say I did it. You don’t have to do it if you don’t have a donkey, but if you have a chance to do it, why not?”
The mitzvah is mentioned every day after the laying of tefillin, Silver said, noting that it is connected to the exodus from Egypt and the fact that donkeys aided the Jews by transporting their belongings as they were leaving.
Rabbi Daniel Yolkut, spiritual leader of Poale Zedeck, is not obligated to perform the mitzvah, even if he did own a donkey, because he is a levi. He therefore did not buy a donkey share from Kollel, but nonetheless came to observe. This was the second time Yolkut had seen this mitzvah performed, the first being 16 years ago in Jerusalem.
The mitzvah is meaningful, he said, because “it reminds us of the eternal Torah, that it is still a mitzvah that people can do today, even though it is obscure.”
Several local rabbis took the podium to offer words of inspiration prior to the redeeming of Jacob, inclduing Rabbis Yisroel Rosenfeld, dean of Yeshiva Schools of Greater Pittsburgh, and Daniel Wasserman, spiritual leader of Shaare Torah Congregation, which occurred through a kohen receiving a lamb in exchange for the donkey.
“Little Jacob has real holiness,” Weisswasser told the crowd. “The donkey is the only nonkosher animal we have this mitzvah for.”
The kohen who redeemed Jacob, Marc Itskowitz, said he was “privileged to be involved” in what was his first time to be called upon to participate in a pidyon petter chamor.
Weisswasser asked for “special blessings” for Wargo, who has “been extremely helpful and generous. She took very good care of our donkeys.”
Wargo said she was “very happy we could finally be successful. I know how important this is.”
The mitzvah has been performed in the last few years in other communities, including Toronto, Los Angeles, Chicago, Detroit and Cleveland.
“It was pretty inspiring to be in a crowd of people performing a mitzvah that most of us had never heard of, let alone observed,” said Nina Butler. “It was a once-in-a-lifetime experience.” pjc
Toby Tabachnick can be reached at