The firstborn male offspring of any kosher animal (of the category known as B’HEIMA, domesticated animal, as opposed to CHAYA, “wild” animal – specifically, animals fit for the Altar) is sanctified, even without any special act on part of the owner. It must be given to a Kohen, who must eat it as a sacrifice. Today there are no sacrifices, so the Kohen must wait until the animal develops some blemish which disqualifies it for a sacrifice, and then it may be eaten like any other kosher animal. Some special customs of respect are obligatory to show that originally this animal was designated for a sacrifice (SA YD 306).
This commandment, as well as its rationale, is explicit in the Torah: “Sanctify to Me all firstborn, the opening of the womb of the children of Israel, the people and the animals, they are mine… And you shall pass all opening of the womb to HaShem; and all opening of the foaling of animals that shall be to you, the males are to HaShem. And the firstborn of an ass shall you redeem with a sheep, and if you don’t redeem it then break its neck; and all firstborn people of your sons, redeem. And it will be, when your son will ask you tomorrow saying, What is that? Say to him, with a mighty hand HaShem took us out of Egypt, from the house of bondage. And when Pharaoh refused to send us out, then HaShem killed all the firstborn in the land of Egyt, from the firstborn people to the firstborn of the beast; therefore I sacrifice to HaShem all opening of the womb of the males, and the firstborn of my sons I redeem” (Shemot 13:2, 12-15).
In other words, this observance is a commemoration and a thanksgiving for the salvation HaShem wrought at the time of the Exodus, when he smote the firstborn of the Egyptian flocks and saved those of the Jews.
We can understand the symbolism of this commandment in a profound way based on two principles which we have seen before: animals represent man’s animal nature, with kosher animals symbolizing that aspect of man’s base nature which is capable of elevation to G^d’s service; whereas the firstborn represents the original or ideal aspect of something.
The fact that many animals are kosher shows that our material nature is not inherently evil or wicked. Rather, it is a neutral power capable of being used positively or negatively. A person can eat in order to give himself strength to do HaShem’s will, or even in order to enjoy himself with the consciousness that his enjoyment is an expression of HaShem’s lovingkindness; alternatively, he can eat in order to indulge his body at the expense of his spirit.
The pagan Egyptian culture was a hedonistic one, which elevated the pleasures of the body into a kind of worship. This is one way of under- standing Rashi’s statement that the Egyptians worshipped the kosher animals that the children of Israel ate. (Bereshit 43:32, Shemot 8:22.) The firstborn kosher animals of the Egyptians represent the essence of this approach to pleasure; this was why HaShem smote the firstborn animals of Egypt, just as He smote their other gods.
Conversely, the children of Israel were devoted to elevating man’s material nature and harnessing it in G-d’s service. This principle was worthy of affirmation and the firstborn animals of the Jews were spared.
However, from that time onwards the firstborn of the flocks and herds are not only potentially holy; they are in fact sanctified from the womb. Once the Jewish people, as a united nation, accept upon themselves the yoke of HaShem’s commandments, our base nature is inherently elevated; it is automatically dedicated to holiness. The “birth of a nation” in Egypt was a critical step back to the perfection of the Garden of Eden, where animals were forbidden as food (Bereshit 1:29-30). This is symbolized by the inherent sanctity of specifically the firstborn, which may not be eaten in a normal way but rather must be offered to HaShem – Who in turn gives a portion to the Kohanim, who “eat from the Divine table” (Beitza 21a).
This reparation of our base nature is still only at the level of an ideal, represented, as we explained, by the first- born. Subsequent births, or even the firstborn itself after it develops a blemish, may be eaten by any person. But it still belongs to the Kohen and must be eaten, not used for some other purpose, to remind us of the special potential for holiness which it once bore. (Based on Likutei Halakhot, Breslav, laws of first-born kosher animals.) this insincere, purely external adherence to Judaism by adopting a purely external likeness to non-Jews while internally remaining fully devoted to our faith.
Rabbi Asher Meir is the author of the book Meaning in Mitzvot, distributed by Feldheim. The book provides insights into the inner meaning of our daily practices, following the order of the 221 chapters of the Kitzur Shulchan Aruch.
The words of this author reflect his/her own opinions and do not necessarily represent the official position of the Orthodox Union.