In commemoration of the smiting of the Egyptian firstborns, which was the final catalyst for the Exodus from Egypt, the Torah1 instructs that a firstborn animal shall belong to the L‑rd. In practice, this means that in Temple times the firstborn animal would be given to the Kohanim, the priestly family.

This applies only to kosher animals, with one unique exception: a firstborn donkey.2 The firstborn donkey is not given to the kohen, but instead is exchanged for a lamb, which is given to the kohen, and the donkey is kept by its owner.

(For more on this, read: Why Is the Firstborn Donkey Holy?)

Now, if the owner refuses to redeem the firstborn foal with a lamb, the Torah instructs, “you shall decapitate it.”3

Rashi explains:

He decapitates it with a cleaver from behind and kills it. He caused the kohen to lose his money [by neglecting to give him the redemption lamb]. Therefore, he must destroy his own money [by decapitating his donkey].4

Pay close attention to Rashi’s words and it becomes apparent that this segment addresses two entirely separate issues. The first sentence defines the unusual Hebrew word va’arafto, which Rashi explains to mean decapitation from behind. The second sentence explains why this is the appropriate response for refusing to redeem the firstborn donkey.

Why does Rashi combine these two points, as if they are related?

The plot thickens when we consider that Rashi rarely provides reasons for Torah laws.5 Rashi considers his commentary an aid to understanding the meaning of the text, and not intended to offer novel reasonings for commandments that the Torah itself sees fit not to explain. Why, then, does Rashi depart from his norm and offer a reason for the decapitation?

Meaningless Meanness

The Rebbe draws a surprising conclusion from these problems: Rashi’s comment is not intended to explain the reason for the decapitation, but to answer a burning question that even a young child would ask: Killing the foal seems so pointless. What possible good could come of it?

If the owner has lost the right to his animal, surely it can be taken from him and put to some better use. Killing the animal seems so unnecessary, such gratuitous destruction.

Moreover, the method of killing – decapitation – seems particularly bloody. Even if there is no other option but slaughtering the foal, can this not be achieved in a more dignified manner? After all, the Torah is very clear about the prohibition of cruelty to animals,6 a sentiment that is expressed in a good number of Biblical commandments. Why, then, are we suddenly ending a donkey’s life in such an unusual way? Is it not out of step with so many of the Torah’s teachings, for as the Psalmist said: “His mercy is over all His creations.”7

Driving Home the Lesson

It is highly unlikely that this treatment was ever meted out to a baby donkey in history, for the owner would sooner redeem it for a lamb.

Thus, the Rebbe explains that Rashi simply provides the student of the Torah a response to this impossible-to-ignore conundrum, of why the Torah legislates such an unusual punishment.

His explanation: Indeed such a death is gratuitously unpleasant, but that reflects exactly the mentality of the person who refuses to redeem the foal. The treatment of the donkey was intended to match the misdeed.

Think about it: Why on earth would the foal’s owner refuse to redeem it with a lamb? Unless redeemed, the foal is forbidden for any use whatsoever.8 Refusing to redeem it only means that now no one can use it – not him, nor the kohen. So, the owner’s refusal represents a truly extreme form of selfishness. He prefers to lose his property, just so that someone else won’t benefit.

It gets worse. The foal’s value is many times greater than the lamb. By redeeming the donkey, the owner only has to forego a small portion of the value and gets to keep the rest. Should he be forced to destroy the foal, he loses everything. The owner would have to be pretty mean and twisted to insist on destroying a valuable foal just so he does not have to share with others.

The Antidote

The Torah sets out this especially dramatic treatment of the foal—which would require a level of such absurdity by the owner, that it’s hard to imagine it ever actually happened—as an expression of its deep disgust at such profound narcissism. If the owner is so selfish that he refuses to share his property with others at all costs, let him be ordered to destroy his own property and take full cognizance of what a cruel person he is.

Let us not sugarcoat his decision as if it is simply about him deciding how to use his property, but rather force him to face up to the full extent of his own nastiness.

In all likelihood, for the vast majority of people, just knowing that this recourse was on the books was likely to provide the necessary reminder to redeem the donkey with the lamb, rather than go down the selfish (and pointless) route of refusal.

Herein lies an important lesson. Generosity is an important virtue in Judaism. Kindness is much praised, while charity is strongly promoted. But whether or not a person reaches the heights of generosity or charity, vindictiveness and extreme selfishness are simply intolerable.

From Judaism’s perspective, it is simply unconscionable that a person would be so mean-spirited that they would rather lose out just so someone else won’t gain.

The Talmud9 says that if one person can gain while the other has nothing to lose, we insist that they share. The reason: why ever not? If another can benefit at no cost to oneself, nothing other than spite could be behind the refusal to do so. And spite is awful; it is a reprehensible character trait.

The Torah shows its horror at such an attitude in the way that it responds to someone who is determined never to be generous. In so doing, it sends out a clear signal to us all that vindictiveness has absolutely no place in civilization. Such an ugly mentality is to be utterly repudiated.

Adapted from Likutei Sichot, vol. 36, Parshat Bo III.