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What & Why

What & Why

The history of the “pidyon haben” ceremony

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A pidyon haben, or “redemption of the [firstborn] son,” is a ceremony wherein the father of a firstborn male redeems his son by giving five silver coins to a kohen (a priestly descendent of Aaron), thirty days after the baby’s birth.

What is the reason for this procedure?

Originally, the Jewish firstborn were the sanctified priestly class. They were inducted into G‑d’s service when they were spared from the Plague of the Firstborn that struck Egypt. However, when the Jews—firstborn included—served the Golden Calf, the firstborn forfeited their status. The priesthood was transferred to the tribe that did not participate in the Golden Calf hoopla—the Levites, and particularly the children of Aaron.

Since G‑d is the first being, it is fitting that firstborns are consecrated to HimEver since, all male Israelite firstborn must redeem themselves from a kohen in a pidyon haben ceremony.

Chinuch1 adds that this reminds us that everything in the world belongs to G‑d. When we consecrate our very first and very best, we are reminded that everything really belongs to our Creator, and that we must “purchase” it from Him before using it.

Maharal (Rabbi Judah Loew of Prague, 1512–1609) explains that since G‑d is the first being, it is fitting that firstborns are consecrated to Him.2

Biblical Sources:

Just before the Exodus from Egypt, Moses relayed the following commandment from G‑d:

. . . Every firstborn of man among your sons, you shall redeem. And it will come to pass that if your son asks you in the future, saying, “What is this?” you shall say to him, “With a mighty hand did G‑d take us out of Egypt, out of the house of bondage. And it came to pass when Pharaoh was too stubborn to let us out, G‑d slew every firstborn in the land of Egypt . . .”3

Nachmanides (Rabbi Moses ben Nachman, 1195–1270) explains that at that point the exact procedure for the redemption of the firstborn, as well as the fact that they would be replaced as priests by the seed of Aaron, had yet to be laid out.

Only later, when most of the Jews—including the firstborn—sinned with the Golden Calf, did the firstborns forfeit their status. The priesthood was then transferred to those that did not participate in the service of the Golden Calf. At that time, G‑d commanded:

Take the Levites instead of all the firstborns among the children of Israel . . . You shall take five shekels per head, according to the holy shekel, by which the shekel is twenty gerahs.4

And the commandment to redeem the firstborn was born.

Why are only firstborn males redeemed?

Our firstborns achieved special status when, although our nation was spiritually fallen in Egypt and quite similar to our Egyptian neighbors, G‑d spared us during the Plague of the Firstborn. But while both male and female firstborns died among the native Egyptians, only firstborn males died among the foreigners. As non-native Egyptians, it is only our firstborn males who otherwise would have died and were spared.

The fact that the firstborn females were spared was not as striking, and is therefore not commemoratedIn addition, the Jewish women were never similar to their Egyptian counterparts. Our sages teach us that we were redeemed from Egypt in the merit of the righteous women. The fact that the firstborn females were spared was not as striking, and is therefore not commemorated.

Another reason why females do not need to be redeemed is that the coins are given to the kohen in exchange for the service in the Temple which the kohen performs in place of the firstborn (who would have served, were it not for the fact that the firstborns participated in the Golden Calf debacle). Since women do not serve in the Temple anyway, they do not need to be redeemed.

Footnotes
1.

Mitzvah 18.

2.

Gevurot Hashem 38.

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Rochel Chein for chabad.org September 9, 2016

Priestly gifts The Levite tribe, including the priestly family, did not receive a portion in the Land of Israel as the other tribes did. They did not engage in agriculture, but rather received the tithes and other gifts in exchange for their holy duties.

Priests are members of the priestly family, direct descendants of Aaron the Priest (brother of Moses) son after son. Reply

Daniel Flagstaff, AZ June 9, 2014

If there's only one Kohen in town, does he receive ALL the pidyon haben funds?
Wait a second, I'm going to reapply and come back as a Kohen. Reply

Davida Rosenberg tampa, florida June 24, 2012

Aaron made the Calf
Can we get down to basics please? In all due respect to Aaron, it was Aaron, the LEVITE,
who took the gold from the people and fashioned them a Calf. Nu? So, we cannot say it was only the firstborns who participated.. when it was Aaron who made the Idol. Shows you.. that all men have sinned and all mankind needs the Redeemer.! Reply

Jen in oz Melbourne, Australia October 25, 2011

pidyon ha ben ceremony What does the receiving kohen have to do during the pidyon haben? is there a particular bracha that needs to be said? what is he supposed to with the coins given to him - and will any silver coins do? or does it need to be particular ones? or a particular monetary value? Reply

Yohanon Hollywood, FL October 25, 2011

First born of the mother The pidyon - a great ceremony, by the way, applies only if a son is the woman's first born. (The father may have other children, in fact may have pereformed pidyon haben before). If the woman had a daughter or miscarried (check wih your rabbi in this event), there is no pidyon. My son was first born and the cohen was my sister-in-law's husband; the ceremony was in the home of my father-in-law (a"h) in Bet Shean. Memorable. Reply

Baruch Davidson NYC September 15, 2011

Re: unredeemed The redemption is actually a symbol of gratitude to G-d for saving the firstborns in Egypt, and you wouldn't be an ingrate, would you? Technically, as a sign of gratitude you'd have to work in the Temple, but since the firstborns lost that lot, they have to pay for it instead.

Are you the firstborn child to your mother? In the event that the pidyon haben was not arranged in its proper time, once the child has reached the age of adulthood, the mitzvah transfers to him, and he is required to redeem himself from a kohen. (A rabbi should be consulted for the exact procedure for "self-redemption.") Reply

Mark R Reston, VA September 14, 2011

im not sure i understand this custom I was never "redeemed" - so does that mean I'm obligated to serve as a priest? Probably not :) And if I'm not obligated to serve as a priest regardless, then what am I being redeemed from? Ancient logic must have been different from mine.. Reply

Anonymous -- May 30, 2011

Is money always required? In the Parashah last week, it stated that during the census, redemption of five shekels were only for those firstborn males who exceeded the number of levites, and that those before that count were redeemed by the mere existence/service of the levites. It was only when there were more firstborns than levites that money was required.

Which leads me to the question... are levites able to perform this kind of non-monetary redemption, but only once? Reply

Miria Roselle Park, NJ May 25, 2011

What about the Leviim? If the Leviim replaced the first-born sons then why don't we redeem them from Leviim rather than the Kohanim? They also served in the Temple. Reply

Richard Raff BonneyLake, United States July 1, 2009

Letting my feet do the walking I feel I'm getting a fraction of the bigger picture. I know I am not alone and things really have more meaning than I can totally understand right now.Thank you for showing me. Reply

Pidyon Haben: We are commanded to “redeem” firstborn sons after they reach 30 days of age. What is the significance of this rite, and how is it done?
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