Last June, the congregants of Ohev Shalom, the National Synagogue in Washington, DC became the latest to witness a rare Pidyon Petter Chamor donkey redemption ceremony (one of the 613 mitzvot in the Torah -- number 277 in the list compiled by Chabad and codified in Exodus 13:13.)
In the ceremony, led by the congregation's Rabbi Shmuel Herzfeld, the first male offspring of a donkey pregnant for the first time was traded for a sheep as the rabbi and members of the congregation recited prayers and sang and danced their way around the Capital Retreat Center in Pennsylvania.
While the ceremony is rare, it's been performed before, in Melbourne, Australia, in New York's Catskill mountains, and in other locations around the world.
The rationale for the ceremony and a description of the logistics involved in carrying it out were published in the synagogue's bulletin:
What is a Petter Chamor ceremony?(A SPECIAL NOTE FOR NEW EMAIL SUBSCRIBERS: THE VIDEO MAY NOT BE VIEWABLE DIRECTLY FROM THE EMAIL THAT YOU GET EACH DAY ON SOME COMPUTERS AND TABLETS. YOU MUST CLICK ON THE TITLE AT THE TOP OF THE EMAIL TO REACH THE JEWISH HUMOR CENTRAL WEBSITE, FROM WHICH YOU CLICK ON THE PLAY BUTTON IN THE VIDEO IMAGE TO START THE VIDEO.)
The Torah commands us that if we own a donkey and the first issue of the donkey's womb is a male, then we are required to redeem the donkey by giving a sheep or a goat to a Kohen as a gift (Exodus 13:13; Numbers 18:15).
The Talmud explains that the reason for this mitzvah is because each person who left Egypt had 90 Libyan donkeys to carry their possessions. When we redeem a newborn donkey we are symbolically expressing our gratitude to the donkeys who helped us carry our possessions out of Egypt (Bechorot, 5b).
How did we come to acquire a donkey?
In February 2015, one of our members, Rochel Roth, confirmed that a donkey named Margarita, who lived outside of Baltimore, was pregnant for the very first time. We conducted an ultra-sound test and determined that the fetus was a male.?�?�
Rabbi Herzfeld then traveled with Maharat Ruth Friedman and purchased the donkey. Some members of the congregation responded to our publicity of this project and also participated in the purchase of this donkey. They are considered co-owners of the donkey and the mitzvah is partially theirs as well.
Rabbi Herzfeld and Maharat Friedman were given full funding for the project by Aaron and Ahuva Orlofsky and Ron Kleinfeldt and Barbara Zakheim. Ron has requested that the donkey be named for his father, MC Kleinfeldt, so we are calling the donkey "MC" (short for Moshe Chamor).
The ceremony itself will look a little bit like a pidyon haben ceremony, but with a donkey and a lamb. We are super excited for this project. It is very rare mitzvah to fulfill and we believe that we are the first synagogue in DC history to ever publicly partake in this mitzvah.
It is our hope that this mitzvah will teach us about the importance of expressing gratitude to others and also of the great lengths we must extend ourselves in order to fulfill a mitzvah of Hashem. It is our hope that this mitzvah will inspire us all to come closer to Hashem.
No animals were harmed in this ceremony and after the ceremony the donkey was sent to live on a farm in Baltimore.