Inferior Class of Jews?

September 13, 2011 | by

My wife and I were married by a rabbi who also performed our son's Bris. Our son is now six years old – and I believe he meets all the criteria for Pidyon Ha’Ben.

When I contacted our rabbi regarding a Pidyon Ha’Ben, he informed me that his movement of Judaism does not do this anymore. The rabbi said it's ludicrous to redeem your son simply because his last name is not Levi. He explained that most rabbis are not from the tribe of Levi, and that a child with the last name Smith is no less important in God's eyes.

After speaking with the rabbi, I got the sense that performing a Pidyon Ha’Ben would be acknowledging that my son is an inferior class of Jew. Is this correct? I want to do right by God and my son.

The Aish Rabbi Replies

It is very impressive that you are pursuing clarity on this issue, particularly with all the dissuasion you've had until now.

Let's start from square one: Pidyon Ha’Ben refers to the "redemption of the first born son," and is commanded in the Torah (Numbers 18:15-16).

The reason behind this mitzvah is to remind us how during the Exodus from Egypt, God killed the first-born Egyptians, yet miraculously spared the first-born Jews. And since one's first child brings so much happiness, it's a fitting time to acknowledge that everything we have belongs to God. (Numbers 3:13)

But what does the tribe of Levi have to do with all this? The background is a bit complex, so here goes:

Originally, God intended that the first-born of each Jewish family would be a Kohen – i.e. would serve as that family's representative to the Holy Temple. (Exodus 13:2, Exodus 24:5)

Then came the incident of the Golden Calf. When Moses came down from Mount Sinai and smashed the tablets, he issued everyone an ultimatum: "Make your choice – either God or the idol." Only the tribe of Levi came to the side of God. (Exodus 32:26)

At that point, God decreed that each family's first-born had forfeited their "Kohen" status – and henceforth all the Kohanim would come from the tribe of Levi. (More specifically, the descendants of Aaron became the Kohanim, with the rest of the tribe of Levi taking on other responsibilities in the Temple.)

This created a situation where all Jewish first-borns are "potential" Kohanim, while the descendents of Aaron are the "actual" Kohanim.

Therefore, God gave us the commandment to redeem the first-born from a Kohen, who essentially is serving in place of the first-born.

Now for your question: Isn't all this discriminatory? Just by virtue of birth is a Kohen inherently "better" than a non-Kohen?

The answer is yes and no.

We all accept the idea that "status" can be passed down genealogically. Imagine someone born into the family of Rockefeller. He would automatically have vast financial resources and social status. Is this fair? After all, his only claim to fame is that some distant ancestor excelled!

So, too, a Kohen is a Kohen today by virtue of an exceedingly great act that his ancestor did in refusing to worship the Golden Calf.

Whether fair or not, it's a genealogical reality that applies to many aspects of life. Some people are born smarter, some prettier, and some more athletic. However this does not make one human being better than another. It just means that we all have different limitations, and a different potential to be fulfilled. (In fact, the tribe of Levi "lost out" in one regard, in that they were not assigned a tribal portion in the Land of Israel.)

Actually, the greater a person's potential, the greater degree of responsibility. One of the reasons why Esav (Esau) sold the birthright to Jacob is because Esav thought he would suffer grave consequences as a result of performing the Temple service improperly. Indeed, if a Rockefeller would squander his wealth and abuse his social status, he would be held culpable – much more than if a non-Rockefeller did so!

But in truth, we've missed a basic point. In Judaism there is a much higher value than one's status as a Kohen – the "Crown of Torah."

Torah learning is regarded as the most important of all mitzvot, because it opens the door for observance of the other mitzvot. As the Talmud says (Shabbat 127a): "The study of Torah is equal to the sum total of all other mitzvot."

The Talmud asks who deserves more honor: A non-learned Kohen Gadol (High Priest), or a Torah scholar with badly-tainted lineage (for example the product of an incestuous relationship)? The answer is that Torah scholarship supersedes simple Kohanic lineage.

So when we speak about fulfilling one's Jewish potential, there are no restrictions, no special classes of Jews. Torah is not the exclusive domain of some priestly class. Rather, it is open and available to all. And we are required at all times to involve ourselves personally in its study and practice.

Furthermore, while everyone may not be cut out to be a scholar, everyone can share in that merit by supporting Torah scholarship. The classic example of this is a partnership made between the two Jewish tribes of Yissachar and Zevulun. The people of Yissachar were professional scholars, while the people of Zevulun excelled in business and trade. The two group made a 50-50 partnership: Zevulun supplied Yissachar with funds, and in return Yissachar agreed to split the merit of their Torah learning. Indeed, this provision is used even today as the model for many similar, private arrangements.

Yet when all is said and done, aren't Kohanim still regarded as "special?"

The definition of peace is not that everyone is equal or that everyone has exactly the same needs as everyone else, but rather that everyone knows their place, knows what they're capable of, knows what their contribution is, and is accepting of themselves and that others' contributions as equally important and valuable. Everyone has a vital role to play, regardless of occupation or skill, and we are only expected to excel with the tools we have.

The story is told of the great Rabbi Shlomo Zalman Auerbach (20th century Jerusalem), who asked his congregation to delay beginning the evening prayers until the street sweeper arrived. Said Rabbi Auerbach: "This man is devoted and committed to his work, and takes pride in the contribution he makes to Jewish life. I wish that I would have such pure intentions in my own work!"

It is interesting that the Priestly Blessing set forth in the Torah (Numbers 6:22-27) is essentially a blessing for peace. The Kohanim are the prime example in Jewish life where we could be setting ourselves up for jealousy – "my position versus your position." Yet the Torah assigns them the specific role as messengers of peace!

And who was the quintessential master of peace? Moses' brother – Aaron the High Priest – who occupied the second-highest position in Jewish communal life. Yet Aaron was known as the master of peace. Despite his "special" status, Aaron brought harmony by teaching that no one's "package" is inherently better than another’s. And that's the key to true peace – never treating others as less important.

One last point mentioned in your question: A person's last name does not determine whether or not they come from the tribe of Levi. While it is true that many families named Levi are Levites, this is far from an absolute rule. Imagine an Eskimo who converts to Judaism and legally changes his last name to Levi. That doesn't make him a Levite!

Nor are all Kohen's named Kohen. Many Kohanim are named Katz, which is an acronym for Kohen-Tzedek – "righteous Kohen." And the family today with the most verified lineage of Kohanic ancestry is named "Rappaport!"

The only valid method of being a Levite (or Kohen) is to have an unbroken tradition, passed from generation to generation, stretching back to the time of Moses. In many Jewish communities, meticulous records were kept throughout the generations to ensure that ancestral lines remain clear.

Finally, while a Pidyon Ha’Ben is usually done one month after birth, even if the opportunity was missed, the obligation still remains. My best advice is to contact a local rabbi with solid knowledge of the Talmud and Code of Jewish Law. There are many technical details regarding Pidyon Ha’Ben, and not all first-borns are obligated in the mitzvah.

I wish you the best success in raising your son in the Jewish tradition. With your honest approach in your relationship to God, he's got an excellent role model already.

Read more about Pidyon Ha’Ben at


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