Why is a donkey called a donkey? For Jewish Treats, a more interesting question is why is a donkey called a chamor?
According to the Midrash (Genesis Rabbah 17:4), God assigned Adam the task of naming all of the animals based on their true essence. The root of the Hebrew word chamor, chet-mem-reish, is shared with the word cho’mer, meaning clay or loam. Chamor is thus associated with materialism. Despite this, the donkey, a non-kosher beast of burden, is prominently featured in Torah life.
According to the Torah, firstborn kosher animals must be redeemed because they are sanctified to God. The firstborn donkey, which is not kosher, has no sanctity. However, the Torah commands: “Every firstling of a donkey you shall redeem with a lamb; and if you do not redeem it, then you shall break its neck...” (Exodus 13:13). (This mitzvah is known as petter chamor.)
While many commentators have offered explanations for petter chamor, the Torah itself does not provide an answer. Perhaps it is because the Messiah will ride on a donkey, as the prophet Zacharia (9:9) said “... behold, your king comes to you...riding on a donkey, even upon a colt, the foal of a donkey.”
This Messianic donkey, according to the Midrash (Yalkut, Devarim 86a), was created just before the sun set on the sixth day of creation and was owned by Abraham (who used it to bring supplies for the akeidah, the offering of Isaac) and Moses (who used it to bring his wife and sons to Egypt from Midian).* The era of the Messiah is meant to be a time of the spiritual controlling the material. The symbol of the Messiah riding on a chamor is, therefore, a way of teaching us that by controlling our materialistic drive we can attain true spiritual freedom.
* Not to be confused with the she-donkey that spoke to the wicked Balaam (Numbers 22).
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