A Historical View of Pidyon HaBen

From biblical to contemporary times, how Jews have practiced this ceremony of redemption of the first-born.

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Jews from some Sephardic and Syrian communities recall that a first-time mother dressed in her bridal gown; in Persian communities, she wore the veil from her wedding. The new mother formally begged the cohen to return her baby. He would refuse, and she would persist in her pleas until the cohen reluctantly consented. The happy outcome was celebrated.

In Salonika in the early 20th century, the mother pretended to yearn for the return of her baby while the father avowed that he would prefer to sleep undisturbed at night, and guests teased and joked. A wealthy father offered a valuable gold or silver bracelet instead of the five biblical shekels; a poor father offered a new item of clothing. Iraqi Jews report that when it was per­formed, the ceremony was a dramatic game between the cohen and the baby's father, using a kiddush cup instead of jewelry, and eventually ending when the father gave the cohen a symbolic sum of money.

The redemption ritual is not mentioned in ethnographic accounts of Jewish life in India, Yemen, and Aden. Often these communities had no cohen to carry out the redemption, and therefore the ritual was not performed; when it was done, there was apparently little ceremony. In Egypt, in the 19th century, the redemption was sometimes done on the 18th day (18 is the numerical equivalent of chai, the Hebrew word for life).

In the late 20th century, this ritual remains picturesque among those who practice it. Some Ashkenazi Jews still put the baby on a silver tray, surround him with sugar lumps (in the hope of good things to come) and garlic cloves (against evil spirits), and drape him with his mother's gold jewelry. Persian Jewish first-time mothers and Jewish women in Turkey still wear their bridal veil for the redemption ceremony.

Some Orthodox Jews see the redemption of a first-born son as a symbolic act of acknowledging God's supremacy and [humanity's] subservience. Others see in it acknowledgement of the great significance for parents of the arrival of their first male heir, because the ritual's blessings express the feelings expected of first-time Jewish parents: gratitude to God for the first fruit of the mother's womb. Performance of this duty implies dedication to raise the infant within the Jewish faith.

In the last 20 years, some parents have created unorthodox variations of the traditional ritual, such as a redemption ceremony for a first-born daughter or a special kiddush for the opening of the womb. Through these innovations, some Jews in the United States have sought to celebrate childbirth, to suit their spiritual needs. By modeling a new ceremony on the ancient redemption ritual, they acknowl­edge the psychological significance of a first child in a way that highlights Jewish con­tinuity and has religious meaning for them.

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Michele Klein has a PhD in Developmental Psychology from the University of London. She is the author of New Life: A Diary For Jewish Parents and A Time To Be Born.