The Redemption of the First Born Son
By Burt Kagan
One of the more pleasant occasions that we Jews have is the "pidyon ha-ben", (also called by some "pig in a ben" - un-kosher as it may sound! ) the redemption of the first born son. This is a very joyous event that is performed after the birth of the first born son.
This tradition is based on the divine command to redeem the first born. The source of this is in the Torah in Numbers 18:15, which states that "all that open the womb of the flesh that be offered to G-d, be it an animal or man, shall be yours; however, the first born of man you shall redeem and the first born of unclean beasts you shall redeem. The redemption shall be from a month old according to the valuation of five shekels of silver, according to the shekel used in the Temple, twenty gerahs of value."
It should be noted, that earlier in the Torah, in Exodus 13:2, we are told "every first born of the mother of the children of Israel and of the beast shall be mine." Originally G-d had in mind that the first born would be sanctified to serve in the Temple, but after the sin of the golden calf, the service was taken away from the first born of every tribe and given to the tribe of Levi, and to the descendants of Aaron the high priest (known as Kohains). Therefore first born sons of Kohains or Levites, or whose mothers' father is Kohain or Levite are exempt from this obligation, since the Temple work was incumbent upon them.
Therefore, the original holiness that rested upon the first born sons had to be redeemed to permit them not to work in the Temple. This was not a mere permission not to work in the Temple, but an obligation that was incumbent upon the father, to release his son from this bond.
Even though the Temple has not yet been rebuilt and the service has not yet been renewed, this redemption is still a required action on the part of the father. If the father fails to redeem his son, then when the son grows up, he must redeem himself. The mother has no obligation to redeem the son.
How does the redemption work?
The new born son must be the first born of a Jewish mother and to a Jewish father. If the mother had a daughter first, then the son born does not require redemption. If the wife had an abortion or a miscarriage, then a Rabbi must be consulted. If the mother or father is/was the daughter or son of a father who is a Kohain or Levite, then there is no need to redeem the child, (as explained above).
The custom is to gather together friends and relatives for a festive meal. This may not take place during the first thirty days after birth. The meal is made on the thirty-first day in the daytime. If the thirty-first day is Shabbat or one of the Yom Tov's, (such as Passover, Shavout, etc) when work and handling money is forbidden, the redemption, together with the meal is pushed off until the night after the festival.
A Kohain, (a descendant on the father's side from Aaron, the high priest) is invited to attend to be the recipient of the redemption. Once the father has invited one Kohain to officiate, it is considered poor taste to select a different Kohain. The Kohain need not be a Rabbi, but he must have known that his father and father's father were Kohains and that they had performed functions as Kohains.
The redemption starts in the middle of the festive meal. All begin to eat, and during the meal the baby is brought to the father and the Kohain. Some have the custom to decorate the baby with jewels and sugar cubes, (the sugar cubes are given to the children afterwards, the jewels returned to the owners), some put garlic gloves to ward off the evil eye and many have special coverings and garments made for the baby.
Some have the custom of bringing gifts for the baby. Gifts are always appreciated.
The father must bring five silver coins or objects that have the intrinsic value of five silver coins, such as a real gold watch. Paper money which has no intrinsic value, meaning that the paper itself has no worth, it worth is the promise that the government and institutions honor it as if it were real silver can not be used. The same is true of today's "silver" dollars, which are copper that are silver plated. Many Kohains have real silver money for this purpose. Since this is a very important part of the redemption, the silver money should be arranged prior to the meal. Generally, a Kohain will sell the silver coins to the father. A real sale must take place and the coins must belong to the father. Then the father can give these coins to Kohain as required.
The father then brings the baby to the Kohain and informs him that this is his first born child from his Jewish wife (not from a father who is a Kohain or Levite). Both the Kohain and the father rise.
The father says: "This is my first born son, the first born of his mother. G-d has commanded me to redeem him as it is said: 'The redemption price for each first born son at the age of one month is five silver shekels'. It is also written: 'Consecrate every first born to Me, whatever is first born in Israel, of man or beast, since it belongs to Me.'"
The Kohain then asks: "What do you prefer? To give me your first born son, the first born of his mother? Or would you rather redeem him for five shekels as required by the Torah?" (Note: the father can't tell the Kohain to keep him, he prefers to hold on to the money since the Kohain can only redeem him from the service in the soon to be built Temple, but the Kohain can not acquire the baby, sorry)
The father then replies: "I prefer to redeem my son. Here is the redemption price as require by the Torah." As the father gives the money to the Kohain, the father recites the following two blessings:
"Blessed are You, Lord, our G-d, King of the universe, who has sanctified us with His commandments, and commanded us regarding redemption of the first born."
"Blessed are You, Lord, our G-d, King of the universe, who has granted us life, and has sustained us, and permitted us to reach this time."
The Kohain, holding the money over the child says the following: "This instead of that, this in exchange for that, this forgives that, may this child grow up healthy, learning the Holy Torah and have the fear of heaven upon him. May he be brought to the marriage canopy and have a life of good deeds. Amen"
The Kohain then places his hands upon the child's head and gives him additional blessings. "May the Lord make you like Ephraim and like Manasseh." The Kohain continues with the traditional priestly blessing: "May the Lord bless you and watch you. May the Lord's countenance be with you and give you favor. May the Lord turn his face to you and give you peace." Additional blessings may be made and are most appropriate.
At this point the Kohain customarily takes a full glass of wine, and makes the blessing: "Blessed are You, Lord, our G-d, King of the universe, who has created the fruit of the vine." Then all the assembled take wine also and wish the father and mother a hearty "mazel tov". The meal then continues to its natural joyful conclusion.
Although there are many different customs that are followed, the above is the basis for the redemption ceremony.
from the January 2002 Edition of the Jewish Magazine