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Pidyon haBen

What Is a Pidyon Haben and Why Do We Do It?

    The pidyon haben or redemption of the firstborn, is the joyous ceremony in Judaism whereby the father of a firstborn son redeems that child from a kohen for five silver coins.  Where does this ceremony come from and why do we do it?  The short answer is:  it comes from the Torah and we do it because it’s a mitzvah.  For a more complete answer, we have to give a little background and review exactly how the Torah tells us to perform this mitzvah.

    The Torah tells us that all firstborn, of both man and of animals, are claimed by God and rightfully belong to Him.  When someone or something belongs to God, or is dedicated to God, it is kadosh, holy.  If it’s an animal, it is given to the Beit Hamikdash or the kohen, to be offered as a sacrifice on the altar.   If it’s a human being, the Torah tells us that it must be redeemed from God.  With respect to the firstborn son, the Torah tells us that this redemption should take place when the boy is a month old by way of a payment of five silver shekalim to the kohen.
    The Sefer Hachinuch explains the meaning behind this mitzvah. He writes that by doing a mitzvah with our first fruits it teaches us to dedicate our very first achievements to God. When we consider the tremendous emotional and financial investment that is wrapped up in the pregnancy and birth of a firstborn child, including all the yearning, prayer, sacrifice, worry and pain, it’s easy to understand how very precious and beloved that child is to us once it’s born.   The idea of the mitzvah is that this “first fruit”, so to speak, of our labor, in reality, belongs to God and is dedicated to Him.  Only after we redeem him does he become ours.  What this teaches us is the idea that, in reality, everything we have in this world comes to us through God and His kindness.

    The Sefer Hachinuch gives an additional reason for this mitzvah. He writes that when Hashem brought the plague of makat bechorot, the slaying of the firstborn, down upon the Egyptians, He spared the Jewish firstborn. In doing so He made them holy. Thus, the mitzvah of pidyon haben is a reminder of that great miracle.
    An interesting aspect of this mitzvah of pidyon haben is that there are a number of qualifying factors that limit those who can fulfill it.  Indeed, perhaps only one in ten fathers get the opportunity to do the mitzvah.  For instance, the Torah spells out that the bechor has to be the first offspring to emerge naturally from the mother’s womb.  If a woman has a late term miscarriage first, the boy born afterwards will not to be a bechor for purposes of this mitzvah. Similarly, a son delivered by caesarian section will also not be a petter rechem and will not require a pidyon. Additionally, if either the mother or the father is a kohen or a levi, the baby will not need a pidyon. The Gemara explains that originally the firstborn were supposed to serve as the kohanim in the Beit Hamikdash. After the chait haeigel, the sin of the golden calf, that right was transferred from the bechorim to the kohanim and leviem. This was done in a ceremony in which each bechor was matched to a levi and the holiness and right to serve were transferred from the bechor to the levi. The Gemara logically deduces that if a levi could relieve a bechor from his kedusha then certainly a bechor born to a kohen or levi will not have kedusha and hence not need a pidyon.
    There are many interesting minhagim that have developed over the years regarding pidyon haben. A seudat mitzvah or festive meal is served as part of the ceremony. Normally when a mitzvah such as a brit milah is performed, the mitzvah is performed and then the meal is eaten. It is very interesting that the meal of a pidyon haben is the only seudat mitzvah where the guests wash and eat bread before the mitzvah is performed. The reason for this is inherent in the historical origin of the mitzvah. As we mentioned, by performing a pidyon haben we are remembering and publicizing the miracle that God performed in sparing the Jewish bechorim. Hence, by performing the pidyon in the middle of the meal, we are performing it in the most public manner possible. Another common custom is that the baby is placed on a on a fancy silver tray surrounded by jewelry during the pidyon. This is in order beautify the mitzvah. Just as one might have a fancy menorah or etrog box to show his love for the mitzvah, so too, the baby is surrounded by jewels to show our love for the mitzvah of pidyon haben.  Some communities have the custom to give out cloves of garlic or sugar cubes at a pidyon haben. This is in keeping with the kabalistic notion that whoever eats from a pidyon haben is considered as if he completed eighty-four fasts. By distributing garlic or sugar, which has the ability to flavor or sweeten an entire meal, the hosts enable others to reap the spiritual benefits of partaking from the seudah.
    Although we never know all the reasons for any particular mitzvah, with respect to this one, at least one very special purpose seems clear.  Namely, to help impress upon us the feeling and knowledge that everything we have in this world comes from the kindness and beneficence of our Creator.  May we have the merit of participating in many pidyonim haben and may that participation continuously keep this message close to our hearts.

Rabbi Eliezer Kessler
Houston, Texas