Snapshot: Celebrating the Redemption of the First-born Donkey in Jerusalem

Tal Niv
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Tal Niv

The lamb on the left side of this fascinating photograph by Menahem Kahana is to be slaughtered shortly after this shot was taken. A scene full of cages, bars and chains (and even a striped shirt) enclose the young donkey and the lamb, with its soft white and brown curls.

Both animals’ ears are tilted those of the donkey thrusting sideways in amazement, those of the lamb dangling. They both stand quietly. On their backs are pieces of embroidered fabric that has adorned many animals before them. The red-gray tile floor is bare: no bed of straw and no feed cover it, no padding and no place to hide.

“And every firstling of an ass thou shalt redeem with a lamb; and if thou wilt not redeem it, then thou shalt break its neck,” it is written in Exodus 13:13. Even though there is no holiness in the firstborn of non-kosher animals, there is a holiness that is revealed in a firstborn donkey. Because the donkey is the beast of burden that made human survival possible, it is redeemed by giving a lamb to the priest in the Temple. The donkey is a bridge between the material and the holy, and is redeemed like the firstborn son, no less. If it is not redeemed, it must be killed.

The Pinsk-Karlin Hasidim are therefore gazing at the donkey on this seventh of July, and Kahana, who has photographed this ceremony more than once in his long career, gazes at them. The animals stand at the center of the frame, and one feels compassion for them. At the same time, the community exists in the photograph as a commonalty. The photographer does not judge these people; the visual information about them flows into the frame without interference. Kahana himself is sensitive to the visual contrasts between the memory of a time of animal sacrifices and a time of tiles and bars, between the colorlessness and meagerness of daily life and the decorative fabrics adorning the animals and an imagined sublimity; but he does not demand, nor look for, a similar sensitivity or self-awareness from the community.

This, then, is the documentation of a social production, to which each of the viewers reacts differently. Each individual reaction has a story to tell. The boy at the lower right of the frame has stuck his head between the mobile bars furnished by Y.M. City Events in order to see better, and his white forehead is taut with concentration. But some of the Hasidim are engrossed in conversation; two of them have turned around. And there is another camera, held by an elderly, white-bearded man who has removed his hat. What is it aimed at? Perhaps at the ceremony, or possibly at its viewers, despite the ban on graven images and all likenesses.

“Any interpretations will fail which take the Do-nots of the Old Testament in piecemeal fashion,” Mary Douglas writes in her important work, “Purity and Danger.” “The only sound approach is to forget hygiene, aesthetics, morals and instinctive revulsion, even to forget the Canaanites and the Zoroastrian Magi, and start with the texts. Since each of the injunctions is prefaced by the command to be holy, so they must be explained by that command. [...] The precepts and ceremonies alike are focused on the idea of the holiness of God which men must create in their own lives. So this is a universe in which men prosper by conforming to holiness and perish when they deviate from it.”

The universe of those who observe the injunction of redeeming the firstborn donkey has been invaded. The state is trying to demand that they encode the ceremony, shift it to its absolutely symbolic place, move from it in a direct leap to the National Induction Center, without passing Go on the way. But when we look at other photographs of the same event, which show the balcony of women and girls who are shunted to the rear, the platform draped in gilded sheets on which everything took place, the slaughterer with his shirtsleeves rolled up, the dead head of the lamb and the faces of the stunned children, who do not know whether to rejoice that the donkey was spared or be sorry that the lamb has gone when we look at those images, the impression is not just that it is impossible, but that it is simply not desirable.

It is impossible to change the army, make it holy, in order to suit it to these values. It might be useful, instead, to ponder how to make it possible for the boy who is now gazing at the black-eyed donkey to gaze at it in the future with his children but also be able to leave the closed compound where the ceremony is taking place. It is not the army that will draw him into the outside world. Something else has to do that.

Ultra-Orthodox Jews of the Hasidic Pinsk-Karlin dynasty during the ceremony of the Redemption of the First Born Donkey ‏(Pidyon Peter Hamor‏), Jerusalem, July 7. Credit: Menahem Kahana