The Meaning of Pidyon HaBen

Redemption of the first-born son is an act of gratitude and humility.

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Reprinted with permission from The Jewish Child: Halakhic Perspectives (Ktav Publishing).

Judaism grants a special status to the firstborn male child. In every home, the birth of the first child is a special occasion pre­ceded by preparations and a sense of excitement. The parents' attitude toward the newborn is usually one of awe mixed with doubt and hope that they are "doing the right thing." With the birth of subsequent children, the feelings are more settled, and preparations become more routine. The special excitement and wonder accompanying the birth of the firstborn male is cap­tured in Judaism in the special ceremony for the redemption of the first son, pidyon ha-ben.

coins for pidyon habenOne explanation given for this commandment is that it commemorates the great miracle that took place in Egypt when the Almighty killed all the firstborn Egyptian males and spared the Jewish sons. 

Furthermore, the firstborn male child has special rights con­cerning inheritance and a certain religious obligation to fast on the eve of Passover. This stems from the historic fact that the Almighty sanctified the firstborn males of the Jewish people while they were still in bondage in Egypt, so that they would devote their lives as priests in the Tabernacle and the Temple.

This is interpreted by Eliyahu Kitov [in his book Man and His Home] as a reward for the faith and trust in God displayed by the Jewish people, who fulfilled the com­mandment of circumcision and the Passover sacrifice while in Egypt and under the difficult conditions imposed upon them. As the entire nation proved their loyalty to God by joining the covenant, the Almighty did not isolate the entire nation for the priesthood but only their firstborn, as it is written: "Sanctify each firstborn male child to Me, among the children of Israel."

However, since the firstborn males joined the nation in their act of worshipping the golden calf in the desert, the Almighty replaced them with the Levites, ordaining: "And each firstborn male child shall be redeemed" and "And you shall take the Levites for Me, the Almighty, instead of each firstborn male child in Israel."

The sanctity of the firstborn is retained in his birthright and in the religious regulations specific to him, such as the pidyon ha-benceremony and the obligation to fast on the eve of [that is, the day before] Pass­over .

The ceremony for the redemption of the firstborn is a mitz­vah bound in religious law. The root of this mitzvah isthat by performing the determined symbolic act of redeeming his first­born male child from the Almighty, man acknowledges that all belongs to the Creator and that man has only that which God wishes to bestow upon him.

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Shoshana Matzner-Bekerman is a graduate of Bar-Ilan University and Hofstra University. She is the compiler of The International Directory of Child Development Research Centers.