S.A.L.T. Parashat Bo 5776

  • Rav David Silverberg

Motzaei Shabbat

            The Torah in Parashat Bo presents the laws relevant to the annual korban pesach.  Moshe is told to instruct Benei Yisrael to prepare one sheep per household for the sacrifice, adding that if there were not enough family members to partake of an entire sheep, they should get together with their neighbors and share a korban pesach

            Targum Yonatan ben Uziel on this verse offers an intriguing translation of this verse (12:4), interpreting the phrase, “And if the household is too small for a sheep” as, “If the household is fewer than ten, the quota for eating a sheep.”  Rav Menachem Kasher, in Torah Sheleima (*97), notes that Targum Yonatan appears to take the position that a minimum of ten people are required for each korban pesach.  In his view, one cannot (le-khatechila) offer the paschal sacrifice independently, or even together with several other people.  Each korban pesach requires the participation of at least ten people.

            Rav Kasher proceeds to propose that Targum Yonatan’s comments follow the view of Rabbi Yehuda, cited in the Mishna in Masekhet Pesachim (91a), that “ein shochatin et ha-pesach al ha-yachid” – the paschal sacrifice is not offered on behalf of one individual.  While at first glance this appears to mean that the sacrifice must include at least two people, Rav Kasher suggests that Targum Yonatan read Rabbi Yehuda’s statement to mean that a halakhic quorum – ten people – is required for each korban pesach.  This is in contrast to the view of Rabbi Yossi, who ruled that a korban pesach may be offered even for a single individual.

A compelling basis for this reading of Rabbi Yehuda’s view, as Rav Kasher notes, is Rabbi Yossi’s formulation in disagreeing with Rabbi Yehuda.  Rabbi Yossi maintains that Halakha does not require a minimum number of people for each korban pesach, but rather that the person or persons signed onto the korban pesach is or are capable of eating the entire sheep.  In a berayta cited by the Gemara, Rabbi Yossi says that if one person is capable of eating all the sacrificial meat, then he can offer the sacrifice alone, and if ten people are incapable of eating all the sacrificial meat, then they cannot offer the sacrifice by themselves.  It is perhaps significant that Rabbi Yossi gives specifically the example of a group of ten people.  Targum Yonatan may have understood that Rabbi Yossi mentioned this scenario because this is the minimum group size which Rabbi Yehuda allows, irrespective of the group’s ability to eat the entire sacrifice.  Rabbi Yossi thus responds by asserting that even a group of ten people may not bring a korban pesach if they cannot eat the entire sacrifice.

Rav Kasher also draws our attention to the Tosefta, cited by the Gemara (Pesachim 64b), which tells that in the times of the Beit Ha-mikdash, every paschal sacrifice included over ten people.  This might also indicate that a minimum of ten people are required for a korban pesach.

Furthermore, Rav Kasher notes how this reading of Rabbi Yehuda’s view sheds light on an ambiguous comment made by Rav Yehuda a bit later in the Gemara (91b).  Rabbi Yehuda maintained that a woman who did not offer the korban pesach on the 14th of Nissan is not required to offer a sacrifice a month later, the 14th of Iyar – Pesach Sheni – even though a man in this situation would be obligated to bring a sacrifice on Pesach Sheni.  Nevertheless, Rabbi Yehuda adds, a woman in this situation can be “tefeila la-acheirim” – meaning, she can join other people’s sacrifice.  Rav Kasher explains this to mean that if nine others wish to bring a korban pesach on Pesach Sheni, this woman can join them so they can meet the quota of ten people.  Although she is not required to offer the korban pesach, her participation can be considered for the purpose of meeting the requirement of ten people’s participation.  This Gemara, then, would serve as yet another piece of evidence that Rabbi Yehuda requires a minimum of ten people participating in each korban pesach.


            After conveying to Benei Yisrael God’s commands concerning the korban pesach, Moshe instructs Benei Yisrael that in the future, they are to explain to their children the meaning behind this annual observance.  When their children inquire as to why this sacrifice is offered, they are to tell them about the miracle of the Exodus, specifically, how Benei Yisrael were spared from the plague of the firstborn on the night they left Egypt (12:26-27).

            The Mekhilta, commenting on these verses, cites a debate as to whether Moshe here presented to Benei Yisrael “bad news” (“besora ra’a”) or “good news” (“besora tova”).  According to the first view, Moshe here foresees the disheartening situation of “Torah being forgotten from among Israel,” as children will need to be taught why the paschal sacrifice is offered.  According to the other view, Moshe here relays the happy tidings that the generation of the Exodus would reproduce and have children and grandchildren.

            Of course, both these views are correct.  Moshe’s instructions convey both the heartwarming news that the Israelite nation would continue and endure, and the discouraging tidings that there will be times when ignorance about Jewish tradition would be widespread.  It therefore stands to reason that as with many “debates” in Midrashic literature, these two views reflect not two mutually exclusive opinions, but rather two sides of the same coin.  As part of their preparations for the Exodus, Moshe informed Benei Yisrael that this moment would mark the nation’s emergence onto the stage of history, where they would remain for all eternity.  And this announcement was both exhilarating and daunting.  Alongside the excitement over the knowledge of our nation’s destiny, we were made aware of the enormous challenges that this destiny entails.  Every generation would have to work hard to ensure that the Torah is not forgotten.  The “good news” of eternal survival was accompanied by the “bad news” that this was contingent upon our meeting our responsibilities by ensuring the perpetuation of our heritage, a task that would very often prove to be exceedingly difficult.

            The broader message that Chazal perhaps seek to convey in this passage is that every good fortune imposes upon us a degree of responsibility and obligation. Just as the blessing of children and Jewish continuity imposes upon us the difficult challenge of education to perpetuate our tradition, all our blessings in life must be seen as a challenge, as we are to utilize them the right way and for the right purposes.  Our good fortune is granted to us to enjoy, but also to use in the pursuit of our nation’s ideals.  And thus just as we celebrate and give thanks for our blessings, we must also take upon ourselves the responsibility to use them wisely and channel them towards the advancement of our goals as God’s chosen people.


            In presenting the commands relevant to the korban pesach and the Pesach celebration, the Torah in Parashat Bo instructs, “U-shmartem et ha-matzot” – literally, “You shall guard the matzot” (12:17).  The Mekhilta comments that the word “matzot” in this verse may be read as “mitzvot,” such that the Torah here admonishes us to “guard” the mitzvot.  This means, in the Mekhilta’s words, that “just as we may not allow the matza to ferment, likewise, we must not allow a mitzva to spoil; instead, if it comes your way, perform it immediately.”  Rashi, in his commentary to Masekhet Megila (6b), cites this passage from the Mekhilta as the source for the famous halakhic principle of “ein ma’avirin al ha-mitzvot” – we may not pass over a mitzva opportunity.  If we find ourselves in a position to perform a particular mitzva, we must seize the opportunity without delay.

            A number of writers have addressed the question as to the relationship between this halakha and the rule of “zeriziin makdimin la-mitzvot,” requiring that we perform mitzvot at the earliest possible time.  This rule is established by the Gemara in Masekhet Pesachim (4a) on the basis of the story of akeidat Yitzchak, when Avraham arose early in the morning after receiving the command to sacrifice his son, in order to fulfill his obligation as quickly as possible.  Seemingly, these two halakhot are identical, as both require performing mitzvot promptly, without unnecessary delay.  Why, then, are they formulated differently and derived from two different Biblical sources?

            The explanation given is that these two halakhot address two different sets of circumstances.  Specifically, one refers to cases of mitzva obligation, and the other to cases of mitzva opportunity.  The rule of “zerizin makdimin la-mitzvot” applies in situations where one bears a specific halakhic obligation that must be fulfilled that day.  For example, the Gemara there in Pesachim speaks of berit mila, which should be performed as early as possible on the infant’s eighth day.  Similarly, the Shulchan Arukh (652:1) applies the rule of “zerizin makdimin” to require taking the arba minim in the morning during Sukkot, even though the mitzva can, technically speaking, be fulfilled the entire day.  When a halakhic obligation takes effect, “zerizin makdimin” instructs that one should endeavor to fulfill the obligation promptly, as soon as he can, rather than delaying the mitzva unnecessarily.  “Ein ma’avirin al ha-mitzvot,” by contrast, applies when a mitzva opportunity arises, and requires one to seize the opportunity.  Chazal speak here of “guarding” every mitzva opportunity, to ensure it does not get lost.  Thus, for example, the Gemara in Masekhet Yoma (33a) writes that since the kohen in the Beit Ha-mikdash first encounters the incense altar before the menorah, he should first clean the altar in the morning before cleaning the lamps of the menorah.  The moment he encounters one mitzva, he should tend to it first, before proceeding even to another mitzva.  (See Rav Chaim Leib Eisenstein’s Peninim Mi-bei Midresha, Parashat Bo, and Rav Asher Weiss’ article on the topic.)

            We might also point to another difference between these two halakhic principles.  The rule of “zerizin makdimin la-mitzvot” is formulated in reference to our character.  We are to act in a manner of zerizut, with zeal and alacrity, when it comes to mitzvot.  This rule urges us to overcome our lazy, procrastinating instincts and approach our mitzva obligations with energy and vigor.  The rule of “ein ma’avirin,” however, which stems from the command to “guard” the mitzvot, focuses not on our character and conduct, but rather on our perspective on mitzvot.  We are to regard them as objects of value, as priceless assets that must be guarded and protected.  These two principles, then, speak of the two complementary efforts that we need to make in order to be responsible, Torah-observant Jews.  We need to work to overcome our lazy instincts so we can approach mitzvot with energy and zeal, and, secondly, we must constantly remind ourselves that mitzvot are the most precious commodities we have, and we must therefore cherish and treasure every mitzva opportunity that comes our way to ensure not to lose it.


            The Torah towards the end of Parashat Bo (13:13) introduces the mitzva of pidyon peter chamor, which requires redeeming a firstborn donkey.  When a donkey delivers its first offspring, the owner must either redeem it by paying a sheep to a kohen, or kill the donkey by breaking its neck.

            The Mekhilta, commenting on this verse, notes that the Torah first presents the option of redeeming the donkey with a sheep, before allowing the option of killing the donkey.  The implication, the Mekhilta writes, is that “mitzvat pediya kodemet le-mitzvat arifa” – it is preferable to redeem the animal rather than kill it.  The Mekhilta then proceeds to present a “davar acher” – an alternative view: “If you do not redeem it, then break its neck; since you caused a loss to the kohen’s property, then you, too, shall incur a loss of property.”  A person who refuses to redeem his peter chamor by paying a sheep to a kohen is penalized by being forced to kill the donkey.  The Mekhilta adds that even after the donkey is killed, one may not derive any benefit from the carcass (such as by using the leather or feeding the meat to one’s animals), such that the owner derives absolutely no benefit at all from this animal.  The Torah enacted this provision as a punitive measure of sorts, punishing the owner for refusing to pay a sheep to the kohen, who depends on gifts from the rest of the nation for his livelihood.

            The question arises as to why the Mekhilta presents these two comments as two different views.  The term “davar acher” is generally used in reference to two opposing statements or explanations.  Here, the second remark seems to simply explain the first.  After establishing that redemption is preferable to killing the donkey, the Mekhilta should simply then explain that this is because the person denies the kohen his due payment.  Why does the Mekhilta introduce the second remark as a “davar acher”?

            The answer, perhaps, as noted by the Maharit Algazi in his work on the Ramban’s Hilkhot Bekhorot, lies in the term “mitzvat arifa” used by the Mekhilta in the first passage.  In this comment, the Mekhilta speaks of arifa (breaking the donkey’s neck) as a mitzva.  Although it is the less preferred option, it is nevertheless considered a mitzva to break the animal’s neck.  And herein, perhaps, lies the point of contention between the two comments of the Mekhilta.  Whereas the first regards arifa as a mitzva, the second views it as a punishment.  One who refuses to pay a sheep to the kohen, according to the second view, is not credited with a mitzva for breaking the donkey’s neck; this is forced upon him as a penalty for eschewing his responsibilities to the kohen.

            The Mekhilta thus provides the background for a debate between the Rambam and the Ra’avad.  In Hilkhot Bikkurim (12:1), writes that there is a mitzvat asei to break a firstborn donkey’s neck if one refuses to redeem it with a sheep.  The Ra’avad objects to this formulation, writing that one cannot be considered to fulfill a mitzva if he withholds a kohen’s payment and instead kills his animal.  These two views may likely reflect the different perspectives expressed by the Mekhilta, as to whether arifa constitutes a mitzva or a penalty.


            Yesterday, we discussed the mitzva of peter chamor, which requires the owner of a newborn donkey to either pay a sheep to a kohen or to break the newborn donkey’s neck.  As we saw, the preferred option is to pay the sheep to the kohen, and it is only if one refuses to pay the sheep that he should then break the animal’s neck.

The Gemara in Masekhet Bekhorot (11a) establishes that one is able to fulfill his fellow’s peter chamor obligation by giving his own sheep to a kohen on his fellow’s behalf.  If, for example, one wishes to give his friend a gift, or he knows of somebody experiencing financial hardship and seeks to help, he may give one of his own sheep to a kohen as the “redemption” for his fellow’s newborn donkey.  Once this is done, the friend’s obligation has been satisfactorily dispensed, despite the fact that he – the friend who owns the newborn donkey – has done nothing and is not even aware that the sheep was given to a kohen

The obligation of peter chamor differs in this regard from most other mitzvot.  Normally, one cannot fulfill his fellow’s obligation with one’s own assets without the individual’s consent.  For example, one cannot designate his own sheep as his friend’s korban pesach, or as a different sacrifice that his friend pledged to offer.  The standard rule is that a person prefers fulfilling his mitzva obligations with his own money, and thus one cannot use his own assets to fulfill his fellow’s obligation without his fellow’s explicit consent.  The mitzva of peter chamor marks an exception to this rule, as a person may fulfill his fellow’s peter chamor obligation by voluntarily giving his own sheep to a kohen

Rav Avraham of Sochatchov, in his Avnei Neizer (Y.D. 396), suggests a possible reason for this distinction.  He writes that the peter chamor obligation may, a priori, be viewed either an ordinary mitzva, or as a financial obligation that one must meet in order to benefit from his newborn donkey.  According to the second approach, we do not necessarily need to assume that the owner prefers fulfilling this requirement with his own money.  Just as a borrower would certainly be pleased to have somebody else repay his debt for him, similarly, the owner of a newborn donkey would not mind having his fellow pay the sheep to the kohen.  It is only if we view the payment of a sheep as an actual mitzva, similar to a sacrifice, that we must assume the owner wishes to fulfill this mitzva with his own funds.  Apparently, the Avnei Neizer writes, Halakha accepts the second perspective, that pidyon peter chamor is a purely financial obligation, and not a ritual obligation, and therefore somebody else can dispense the owner’s obligation on his behalf.

Interestingly, the Avnei Neizer claims that this issue would hinge on the debate we noted yesterday between the Rambam and the Ra’avad concerning the nature of arifa – the requirement to break the newborn donkey’s neck if one refuses to pay a sheep to the kohen.  The Rambam writes in Hilkhot Bikkurim (12:1) that one fulfills a mitzvat asei if he refuses to pay a kohen and chooses to break the donkey’s neck, instead.  The Ra’avad objected to this formulation, arguing that breaking the donkey’s neck is a penalty for denying the kohen what is owed to him, and thus it cannot be described as a mitzva.  The Avnei Neizer contends that the rationale he developed accommodates the Ra’avad’s view, that arifa does not constitute an actual mitzva.  The Ra’vad’s perspective, the Avnei Neizer writes, affects the nature of the entire peter chamor obligation, requiring us to view it as a purely financial responsibility.  Since the animal’s owner has the option of arifa, which is not a mitzva, then the entire requirement of peter chamor must be viewed in this vein, according to the Ra’avad.  According to the Rambam, however, peter chamor must be viewed as an ordinary, ritualistic mitzva, and not merely as a financial requirement.  Since one fulfills a mitzva regardless of which option he chooses, we must view peter chamor as a mitzva like most other mitzvot, and not merely as a financial responsibility.  According to the Rambam, then, some other explanation is needed for why one may pay a sheep to a kohen to redeem another person’s peter chamor without that person’s consent.


            The Shulchan Arukh (Y.D. 321:6) rules that when a person performs the mitzva of pidyon peter chamor – redeeming his firstborn donkey by paying a sheep to a kohen – he recites the berakha, “Barukh Ata…asher kideshanu be-mitzvotav ve-tzivanu al pidyon peter chamor.”  Interestingly, however, the Shulchan Arukh makes no mention of the recitation of a berakha in the context of arifa – the requirement for the owner to kill the firstborn donkey if he refuses to pay a sheep for its redemption.  It appears that a berakha is recited over when one chooses the preferred option – paying a sheep to a kohen – but not if one chooses the option of arifa, killing the firstborn donkey.

            This distinction was noted by the Minchat Chinukh (23), who writes that indeed, mitzvot which are observed as a less preferred option do not warrant a berakha.  The Sages instituted berakhot before performing what the Minchat Chinukh calls “mitzvot chavivot” (“beloved” or “cherished” mitzvot), to the exclusion of mitzvot which one performs only because he chooses against the preferred mode of action.  As a precedent for this theory, the Minchat Chinukh cites sources that a man performing the mitzva of yibum – marrying his deceased brother’s widow, after the brother died without children – recites a berakha, but a berakha is not recited over chalitza – the ceremony performed if the brother refuses to marry the widow.  Since chalitza is performed only as a second option, and is not the preferred mode of action in this situation, it does not warrant a berakha.  (It should be noted that nowadays we do not perform yibum, and chalitza is done in all situations where a husband dies without children and has a brother, but in principle, yibum is the preferred option.)  By the same token, the Minchat Chinukh writes, one recites a berakha over the mitzva of redeeming a firstborn donkey, but not if he refuses to redeem the animal and chooses to kill it, instead.

            Rav Shemuel Yitzchak Hillman, in his Or Ha-yashar commentary to Masekhet Bekhorot (11a), questions the Minchat Chinukh’s reasoning, noting that once one refuses to perform the preferred mitzva, he now bears a full-fledged mitzva to perform the alternative.  The consensus among the halakhic authorities, following the view of the Rambam, is that arifa constitutes a mitzva, even if it represents the less preferable option.  Its less preferred status, seemingly, should not affect the requirement of a berakha, as once the owner has made the decision not to redeem the donkey, he bears an obligation to kill it, and this mitzva should warrant a berakha like other mitzvot.

            Rav Hillman therefore suggests explaining this halakha on the basis of a famous responsum of the Rashba (1:18) concerning the general topic of berakhot recited over mitzvot.  The Rashba addresses the question of why Chazal enacted the recitation of a berakha over certain mitzvot but not others, and amidst his discussion he establishes that a berakha is not recited over a mitzva whose completion is uncertain.  For example, we do not recite a berakha before giving charity, because the possibility exists that the recipient will refuse the donation.  Since the effect is not definite, no berakha is recited.  This rule, Rav Hillman suggests, should apply to arifa, as well, and all the more so.  Since the Torah itself prefers that the owner perform the mitzva of redeeming the animal, this option hovers over the individual up until the moment when the act of arifa is completed.  Rav Hillman reasons that if an external possibility – such as a pauper refusing a gift – suffices to negate the propriety of a berakha, then certainly this is true of a possibility which the Torah wants the individual to choose.  Since the Torah prefers redeeming the animal over killing it, the option of arifa is regarded as “indefinite” even after the owner made a firm decision not to redeem it.  (Likewise, the option of chalitza is treated as “indefinite” given the preferred option of yibum.)


            As we noted yesterday, the Shulchan Arukh (Y.D. 321:6) rules that a berakha is recited over the mitzva of pidyon peter chamor – redeeming a firstborn donkey by paying a sheep (or the value thereof) to a kohen.  Although the Gemara makes no mention of such a berakha, it is noted by several Acharonim, and the Shulchan Arukh rules accordingly.

            The Perisha, commenting on the Tur’s codification of this halakha, raises the question of why a berakha is recited over this mitzva but not over the similar mitzva of bekhor beheima tehora – giving one’s firstborn kosher animal to a kohen.  A person is required to give his firstborn calf, sheep or goat to a kohen (as the Shulchan Arukh discusses in the previous chapters), and no berakha is recited when giving the animal to the kohen in fulfillment of the obligation.  Why, the Perisha asks, does one recite a mitzva when giving a sheep to a kohen for the redemption of his firstborn donkey, but not when giving to a kohen his firstborn calf, sheep or goat?

            The Perisha suggests that the distinction lies in the fact that when one gives his firstborn animal to a kohen, he keeps nothing for himself.  This is in contrast to the case of peter chamor, where the owner gives the kohen a sheep and may then keep the donkey for himself.  A berakha is recited only when one gives the kohen his share and then keeps the rest, and thus it is not recited in the case of a bekhor beheima tehora, when one gives the animal to a kohen and does not keep anything.

            The Taz questions this approach, raising the question of why this factor should affect the requirement to recite a berakha.  Why would a berakha not be warranted in the case of bekhor beheima tehora simply because the owner does not keep anything?

            The Taz therefore offers a different explanation, noting that a bekhor beheima tehora is consecrated already from the time of its birth.  The moment it is born, a bekhor is designated as a kohen’s sacrifice.  Chazal did not enact the recitation of a berakha over the act of giving to a kohen that which already belongs to him.  This act is not significant enough to warrant a berakha.  This is much different than the case of peter chamor, where one must designate a sheep as the redemption for the firstborn donkey.  This sheep, quite obviously, was not previously earmarked for this purpose.  Its designation is done right now, when the donkey’s owner selects it as the redemption for the donkey.  This act of designating the sheep is a significant mitzva act that warrants the recitation of a berakha.

            In truth, the Taz’s explanation is alluded to already by the Shulchan Arukh, in its presentation of the requirement to recite a berakha.  The Shulchan Arukh writes that the sheep is the kohen’s property the moment the donkey’s owner designates it for the purpose of redeeming the donkey, even before the kohen receives it.  Once the designation is announced, the Shulchan Arukh writes, the newborn donkey is entirely permissible for personal use, and if the sheep dies, the owner does not owe the kohen another one.  The Shulchan Arukh then writes, “Therefore, right when one designates it [the sheep], he recites the berakha…”  Since the formal mitzva act is the designation of the sheep, and not giving it to the kohen, the berakha is recited prior to the designation.  The mitzva is completed once the owner sets aside a sheep as the donkey’s redemption, and thus the berakha is recited over this act, not before giving the sheep to the kohen.  It is thus understood that when it comes to a bekhor beheima tehora, which does not need designation, no berakha is recited.