It took almost two years, cost more than £5000 and involved two donkeys, one sheep, a case of mistaken sexual identity, several DNA tests and the unwavering faith of two ultra-Orthodox Jews in Australia.
On Sunday, more than 1500 mainly Orthodox and ultra-Orthodox Jews in Melbourne witnessed what is believed to be Australia’s first-ever Pidyon Petter Chamor — the redemption of the first-born male donkey
Berel Goldberger, a Vishnitzer, and Binyomin Friedman, a Belzer, stumbled across the tractate during their daily study session at the Adass Israel Congregation.
Similar to the Pidyon haBen ceremony of the redemption of the first-born male child, this ritual involves buying the first-born male donkey back from a cohen in exchange for a sheep rather than money. The redemption means the donkey need not be slaughtered.
Mr Goldberger said: “Even though it’s not a kosher animal, the donkey has special significance because when the Jews went out of Egypt, the donkeys carried lots of loads.”
Inspired, the pair investigated the possibility of conducting the mitzvah in Australia. “We found out it can be done halachically and practically,” Mr Goldberger said. But the only donkey breeder they could find was in Canberra, more than 600km away. There, a female donkey who had never been pregnant or miscarried was selected and mated with a male. The men waited anxiously for news from the donkey farm. Then on March 12 they received a bittersweet phone call from the breeder: the donkey had given birth … to a female. The ceremony was off. “We decided we wanted to keep going and started looking for a new maiden donkey to start the whole process over again,” Mr Goldberger said. And then came the twist. “Within a few days the breeder called back, and said, ‘I made a mistake, it’s a male’.”
Adass Chief Rabbi Avrohom Zvi Beck suggested a DNA test to double check the maternity of the baby donkey. Because its hair was too thin, the first two tests were inconclusive. But the third test was positive.“We were thrilled,” Mr Goldberger said.
The Adass community — a non-Zionist, tightly-knit cluster of about 200 families in Melbourne — threw a simchah, with guest of honour Federal MP Michael Danby. Video footage of the ceremony posted on YouTube shows the animals held firmly by black-coated handlers.
After several blessings, the sheep was handed over to the cohen.
His big moment over, the future looks bright for the donkey, newly named Petter, and his mum, Tip Top. They are living happily on a farm outside Melbourne.
Things did not go so well for the unnamed sheep. It was slaughtered on Tuesday, and its meat distributed to needy families, apart from the cheeks, one of its legs and stomach, which were given to the cohen as tradition demands.
Its unique role will never be forgotten nonetheless. A cushion is being made from its skin to be used at circumcision ceremonies in the Adass community.