Pidyon HaBen – No Father, Non-Jewish Father
I have a firstborn four-year-old son who would seem to qualify for the mitzvah of pidyon haben. He unfortunately was not redeemed as a baby since neither I nor my non-Jewish ex-husband knew anything about the obligation. There is now no father in the picture at all. How can the obligation be done?
The Aish Rabbi Replies
It’s certainly not too late to fulfill the obligation – which can be done a person’s entire life if need be. If a boy does not have a father or his father is not Jewish, the obligation devolves upon him to approach a Kohen and redeem himself. Your son will be able to do this when he reaches Bar Mitzvah and is old enough to effect the monetary transaction and perform the mitzvah.
However, rather than waiting so long and risking that the mitzvah be neglected, it’s typical in cases like yours for the local Beit Din (rabbinical court) to arrange your son’s redemption right away. You should contact the local rabbi about arranging it. If your city has a local Beit Din, they will appoint someone to do the pidyon. Very typically, a living grandfather is selected. If there is no Beit Din, the rabbi will take two other learned laymen to convene an ad hoc court – which will then charge someone with the mitzvah.
Since the silver coins are being given to the Kohen on behalf of your son, the representative, when he takes them, should acquire them on your son’s behalf – but not for your son to keep, but specifically in order that they be used to effect his redemption.
Since the redemption is being done by someone other than the father, the text of the ceremony is slightly different. The blessing is also distinct – “al pidyon habechor” – “for the redemption of the firstborn” (some say “bechor”) instead of “al pidyon haben” – “for the redemption of the son.” The court will guide the procedure and no doubt will know how it is properly done.
Even with all the above, there are opinions that a third party cannot fulfill the obligation for the boy. Thus, when your son becomes Bar Mitzvah, he should repeat the pidyon again himself. Note that since the validity of the first redemption is questionable, it should be performed without reciting the full blessing, but rather just “Baruch Ata Melech HaOlam al pidyon bechor.” (Some do say the full blessing; this will depend on your community's custom.) Likewise, when your son is older and does it himself, since perhaps the earlier redemption was effective, he too should not say the full blessing.
One other important relevant point. Normally if the mother of the firstborn is the daughter of a Kohen, there is no obligation to redeem the boy. However, when the father is not Jewish, the son loses the status of being a Kohen’s descendant and the mitzvah is binding. (Note that this exception only relates to the daughter of a Kohen, not a Levi.)
(Sources: Talmud Kiddushin 29a, Yam Shel Shlomo, Kiddushin 1:53, Rema to Y.D. 305:10, Aruch HaShulchan Y.D. 305, Chazon Ish Y.D. 185, Tzitz Eliezer IX 28:7, Igrot Moshe Y.D. I 195 & III 129:5, Shulchan Aruch Y.D. 305:18.)