on today’s daf
(=page) reminds us that there is an option for someone who prefers not to exchange his firstborn donkey with a lamb. According to the Torah
(see Shmot 13:13
), if the donkey is not redeemed then it must be decapitated. The Mishnah teaches that mitzvat ha-pediyah kodemet le-mitzvat arifah
– that the commandment to redeem the donkey is given preference over the commandment to decapitate the animal.
The fact that the Mishnah chooses to refer to both redemption and decapitation as mitzvot
leads to the conclusion that decapitating the donkey is also a Biblical commandment, and that someone who chooses that option is also fulfilling a mitzvah
. This, in fact, is the position taken by the Rambam
in his Mishneh Torah (Hilkhot Bikkurim
12:1). The Ra’avad
argues that decapitating the animal cannot possibly be a mitzvah
, and that destroying the donkey, which could have been used by the kohen
, is wasteful and is certainly considered to be a transgression. He suggests that calling it mitzvat arifah
– the commandment to decapitate – should not be taken literally, and that that expression is simply used to contrast mitzvat pediyah
– the commandment to redeem – which is certainly a mitzvah
Commentaries on the Rambam point out that it is very difficult to imagine that an option clearly offered by the Torah should be considered a transgression, even if doing this is not the preferable choice when faced with this situation. To support their position, they point to the fact that the Mishnah lists a number of other situations where the Torah offers alternatives, e.g., preferring yibum – levirate marriage – over halitzah, which will free the dead brother’s wife to marry whomsoever she pleases. Yet performing halitzah is certainly a mitzvah, and, in fact, is preferred by the Mishnah in contemporary times.
It should be noted that the Radbaz teaches that from a kabbalistic perspective, decapitation of the donkey should not be seen as damaging the animal, rather it should be viewed as bringing the animal to a higher level of existence.