Redeeming First Born

August 18, 2011 | by

We have a new baby boy and I heard something about having to "buy him back from a kohen." What do I have to do – and how much is this going to cost?

The Aish Rabbi Replies

Mazal Tov!

You heard right. Pidyon Haben refers to the "redemption of the first born son," and is commanded in the Torah (Numbers 18:15). The reason we perform this mitzvah is to remind us about the Exodus from Egypt and how God killed the Egyptian first born, yet spared our first born. Also, since a person loves his first born so much, it is a fitting time to re-acknowledge the fact that everything we own in fact belongs to God. (Numbers 3:13)

The background for this mitzvah is somewhat complex, but here goes:

Originally, God intended that the first-born of each Jewish family would be a kohen – i.e. that family's representative to the Holy Temple. (Exodus 13:1-2, Exodus 24:5 Rashi)

But 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. At that point, God decreed that each family's first-born would forfeit their "kohen" status – and henceforth all the kohanim would come from the tribe of Levi. (Numbers 3:11-12)

Thus the mitzvah of Pidyon HaBen. Since the first-born child is technically a "kohen" whose potential cannot be actualized, then he has to be replaced (so to speak) by a kohen from the tribe of Levi. This is accomplished by the father of the baby offering the kohen a redemptive value of five silver coins for the boy.

There are many factors which determine when and if to perform this mitzvah. You will need to find a rabbi well-versed in Jewish law who can guide you through this procedure.

In general, Pidyon HaBen only applies to the son who "opened his mother's womb." Therefore, all the following conditions must apply:

1) The mother is Jewish, and she has never had a baby before, male or female.

2) The baby was delivered in the normal way, not via C-section.

3) The mother had no abortions or miscarriages prior to this birth.

4) The father of the baby is not a Kohen or a Levi, and the mother's father is not a Kohen or a Levi.

If the above conditions check out, then:

1) Find a kohen with a very strong tradition in his family that he is indeed a Kohen.

2) Get five silver coins. The specific kind of silver coins depends on where you are in the world. Ask your rabbi.

3) The Pidyon Haben ceremony is held after the baby is 30 days old, on the 31st day. It does not take place on Shabbos.

4) The ceremony is held in the context of a festive meal, and basically goes like this: The father attests to the fact that this is indeed his first born son. The Kohen then asks the father: "What do you want to do, give me your first born or redeem him?" (As far as I know, the father has never chosen to give up his son!) The father then makes two blessings, and gives the coins to the Kohen. Additional blessings are said; the full text is printed in the siddur.

If your baby does not meet the conditions for having a Pidyon HaBen, don't be concerned – there is no defect in his status. In fact, only about 1-of-10 families ever meet all the conditions for Pidyon HaBen.

As far as the cost of this mitzvah, don't let it worry you. The eternal reward for following God's will is much greater than five silver coins!

By the way, if someone was supposed to have a Pidyon HaBen as a child, but never did (i.e. their parents neglected to do so), then the obligation remains – and they should contact a rabbi ASAP to perform the ceremony.

May your new son grow up to be a great source of pride to your family, to the Jewish people, and to the Almighty!

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