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Pidyon ha-ben is a ceremony that recognizes the first born male child (to be specific, the first born male child that was born naturally). The ceremony arose due to the special status of the firstborn in biblical society. The firstborn received a double portion of his father's estate; the last plague in Egypt killed the firstborn--except for the firstborn of Israel. Traditionally, the firstborn of Israel were consecrated to service to G-d. The bible commands "sanctify unto Me all the first-born (Exodus 13:1). This has been interpreted to mean that a father was either to dedicate his first-born son to the service of the Holy Temple, or to redeem him by paying five schkels (approximately five dollars) to a kohen. Noet that this ceremony does not apply when either the father or the mother is of a priestly or Levite family.
The Pidyon haben ceremony takes place on the thirty-first day after birth. For the occasion, a kohen is specially invited to the house. The baby is placed on a cushion, and in the presence of assembled friends and family, placed on a table. Five silver dollars are laid beside him. In the presence of those assembled, an ancient dialoge takes place betwen the father and the kohen. Sometimes there are additional English readings, and some ceremonies include participation by the mother. The kohen usually gives the "redemption money" to tzedahkah.
What do you do if five silver dollars are not available? In the days that the Torah was given, the only significance to a coin was that someone attested that it contained a known weight of whatever metal in question. Thus, any other object of acceptable weight and purity would be acceptable (for example, solid silver utensils, such as teaspoons). A typical estimate for the weight of a shekel is 11.4 grams, the Chazon Ish (a large estimate) has 16.92 grams. You would need to consult an appropriate authority with respect to purity.
Some communities have the custom of putting gold and silver on the baby during the pidyon haben, as well as sugar cubes and garlic cloves and the like. It's a rare mitzvah, and therefore it is a custom that arose to emphasize the value of a child and of a mitzvah you can only do once in your lifetime.
Pidyon haben is observed in traditional communities, and in the Conservative community. It tends not to be observed in Reform movement.
Why must the first-born be redeemed? The first-born has a significant history in early Judaism:
After Cain was born, we're told that Eve gave birth to "Abel his brother". Why does Eve define her second child as the first one's brother and not a person in his own right? And look how well that turned out!
We then get to Isaac and Ishma'el, where history sides with the younger. Similarly, we see this with Jacob and Esau.
First-born issues then cause all that strife between Joseph and his brothers (except Benjamin).
Next comes Moses and Aaron (and to some extent Miriam), where Aaron bows out to give his younger brother the prominent role. After we're introduced to Moses and Aaron, we have the plague of the death of the firstborn. The Jewish firstborn were saved because of the Pascal offering. (Those families where it was performed.)
Why is the bechorah (first-born-ness) idea so central that the Torah continually returns to it throughout the first book and a half? Perhaps because Israel is repeatedly called "my child, my firstborn, Israel". Without first drawing a clear definition of the role of the first-born, we don't have a clear idea of our national mission.
In Galachah there are actually two kinds of firstborn. It would seem that one is a physical primacy, the other a religious one. The father's firstborn is the primary inheritor. He gets twofold the inheritance of the other brothers. Tribal affiliation, which for all the tribes but Levi is tied to the ancestral land, is also patrilineal. The mother's firstborn is the one who require's pidyon, even if the father had children from another marriage first.
Also, membership in the Jewish people is traditionally matrlineal (and is still considered so by the Orthodox and Conservative movements, and by most Reform movements outside the US). The mother's firstborn is naturally the one to reinforce the religious instruction. It was the Egyptian firstborns' failing in this role that made them fitting victims of the plague. Not to mention the punishment being in kind for the killing of G-d's "firstborn", the Jewish people.
Had there been no history, they would have been the nation's priests and (for want of a better word) levites. Just as Israel is called a "kingdom of priests" -- which explains the "firstborn" metaphor. However, after the golden calf, the majority of the nation was no longer trusted to maintain the religion on their own. Only the tribe of Levi, who did not participate, were fitting to carry that torch. So, they were not given an ancestral territory, and instead given tithes that they could live of off. This frees them up to pursue roles of religious leadership without worrying about a livelihood. Also, without a homeland, they end up more distributed among the flock. In the meantime the firstborn, the would-be priests, still maintain a vestage of that sanctity. In order to free them from that duty, we have the pidyon haben. This redeems their sanctity by giving something to their replacements, the kohanim.
The FAQ is a collection of documents that is an attempt to answer questions that are continually asked on the soc.culture.jewish family of newsgroups. It was written by cooperating laypeople from the various Judaic movements. You should not make any assumption as to accuracy and/or authoritativeness of the answers provided herein. In all cases, it is always best to consult a competent authority--your local rabbi is a good place to start.
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Daniel P. Faigin <firstname.lastname@example.org>