Redemption of the First Male Born (Pidyon Haben)
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The redemption of the first male born to a woman (Pidyon Haben) is prescribed in Jewish Law. The child might not me a first born to the father, i.e., due to second marriage but he must be first-born to a mother. Some orthodox Jews insist that redemption applies only to a first-born son whose mother had no abortions or miscarriages prior to the first-born birth. Redemption is not required if the father or mother of the first-born son is a Cohen or a Levi.
Redemption takes place 31 days after birth in exchange for a coin or something of value (i.e., gold, silver or five coins) but not real estate or paper money (Numbers 3:40; 18:15).
If the day of redemption, i.e., the 31st day coincides with a Sabbath or holiday, the ritual is delayed until dusk or the following day, because the ceremony involves an exchange of money and thus is considered trading, which is forbidden on a Sabbath.
A Cohen (priest) is invited to conduct the ritual, which consists of a festive meal. The Cohen blesses the bread. The father brings the first male born dressed in festive cloths, places him in front of the Cohen and tells him:
?This is my son, my first-born. He is the first born to his mother. Our Holy, may It be blessed commanded us to redeem him.? The father thereby attests that the boy in question is his first-born son and that he is ready and willing to redeem him. The Cohen asks the father: “Would you give me your first-born son or rather redeem him?”
The father replies by reciting a benediction which states the edict of redemption:
Blessed be God who commanded us to redeem the first bon son ( Baruc ata Adonay, Elohenu Melec ha’olam, asher kideshanu bemitzvotav, vetsivanu a?l pidyon haben). And also: Blessed be God, Who has kept us alive, sustained us, and brought us to this season (Baruc ata Adonay, Elohenu Melec ha’olam, Sheh-he hehyanu ve kiyemanu ve higia?nu la zman ha-zeh).
The father then hands coins to the Cohen, who puts them over the head of the boy and says: ?in exchange of these coins, you are hereby exchanged and forgiven. May this boy become learned and fearful of Heaven. As this boy has been redeemed may he live to become a groom and do good deeds.? The priest blesses the boy (the blessing of the priests: ?May God shines upon you and bring you peace??) and recites a blessing over a cup of wine. The boy is then handed over to the father, blessed and redeemed, i.e., exempt from fulfilling the duties of a priest.
Most prayer books (siddur) contain the proceedings of the ritual.
Moroccan Jews practice redemption rituals as described above. There is practically no difference between Moroccan Jews and Jews elsewhere.
According to legendary accounts, the redemption of the first-born son came about due to very special circumstances. For God intended the first-born of each Hebrew to be a priest (Cohen) in God?s service in order to spread Torah in the world (Exodus 13:1-2, Exodus 24:5 see Rashi?s intrpretation).
However, while Moses climbed Mount Sinai to fetch the Commandments, the Hebrews adored the Golden Calf. When Moses came down from Mount Sinai, he broke the Tablets, and appealed for the support of the Hebrews who chose God rather than the idol (Exodus 32:26). As the tribe of Levi chose God first, it was ordained to serve the priesthood. As the rest of the Hebrews were not deemed fit to be priests, God decreed that each family’s first-born son would forfeit their Cohen status through redemption (Numbers 3:11-12)
In essence, as the first-born sons from non-Levite tribes could no longer serve as priests and had to be replaced a Levite, a redemption value of five silver coins was due. In this context, it is worthwhile mentioning that ancient Hebrews had a tradition of dedicating the first-born son to the house of Shem to study and spread the word of God, i.e., righteousness in the world. Isaac, among others, attended such schools. Prophets may have been trained in such schools too, i.e., Elijah. As not every family could bear giving up its child to dedicate its life to the priesthood, redemption was used to relieve the first-born son from the prescribed duty.
Redemption may also be related to the Exodus from Egypt and the killing of the Egyptian first-born children, one of the plagues used to force Pharaoh to let the Hebrews go. As God?s messengers spared the Hebrew first-born children, redemption is due to commemorate the event. Some also claim that as it is natural for parents to love their first-born son so much, redemption represents an acknowledgement that everything we own belongs to God (Numbers 3:13)