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.