“You must redeem the firstborn of a person…when he is one month old, for the value of five silver shekels” (Numbers 18:15-16).

God sanctified the firstborn male Israelites when He protected them from the plague of the Death of the Firstborn in Egypt. Therefore, God commanded: “Sanctify for Me every firstborn, the one that first opens any womb among the children of Israel…he is Mine” (Exodus 13:1-2).

It was originally intended that the firstborn would serve as the Jewish priesthood. However, when Moses saw the Golden Calf, he smashed the Ten Commandments and called out: “Whoever is for God, [come] to me!” When only the tribe of Levi stepped forward, the firstborn lost their exalted position. Henceforth, the priesthood was transferred to the Kohanim (who are from the tribe of Levi). However, since the firstborn had already been “sanctified,” each firstborn‘s father has to “pay” a Kohain to take his child’s place in the priesthood (this is referred to as redemption of the firstborn, Pidyon Ha’ben.)

The following conditions have to be met in order to celebrate a Pidyon Ha’ben, making it a relatively uncommon ceremony:

a. It’s a boy.
b. The mother must have had a natural birth with no previous pregnancies/miscarriages*, since the Torah refers to a firstborn who “opens the womb.”
c. The father is not a Kohain or Levi, nor is the child’s maternal grandfather a Kohain or Levi.

The Pidyon Ha’ben is performed when the baby is 31 days old. The child is brought by the parents (often on a silver tray decorated with jewelry) to the Kohain who has been invited to be part of the ceremony.

As part of the ceremony, the Kohain asks: “Which do you prefer, to give me your firstborn or to redeem him?” The father replies, “To redeem him” and recites a blessing on the mitzvah of redeeming one’s son followed by the Sheh’heh’cheh’yanu blessing. He then gives five silver coins (U.S. silver dollars are often used) to the Kohain, who blesses the child.

*This does not include miscarriages earlier than 40 days post-conception.

This Treat was originally posted on June 24, 2009.

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