A son who is not himself a kohen or a Levi, firstborn to a Jewish mother who is not the daughter of a kohen or a Levi, has the status of a bechor and must be redeemed through a ceremony known as pidyon ha’ben.
The performance of the pidyon ha’ben ceremony, which should take place on the 31st day following the date of the birth of the child, is primarily the responsibility of the father. It is one of the caretaking duties a father owes his son, in addition to the responsibility to see to it that he is circumcised, to assist him in finding a spouse, and to teach him Torah and a profession. If the father has been derelict in this duty, it devolves upon the son to redeem himself as soon as he is old enough to do so.
If one considers that prior to the institution of the kehunah, the priesthood, the firstborn was charged with the responsibility of offering up sacrifices to God on the people’s behalf, it is understood that the kehunah should be compensated for redeeming the child from the bechor status and depleting, as it were, the ranks of the kehunah.
Accordingly, the pidyon ha’ben ceremony involves paying the kohen 5 shekalim (or sela’im) or chattels of equivalent value in exchange for the redemption.
The pidyon ha’ben ceremony is conducted between the father and the kohen either with or without the presence of the child to be redeemed.
After the father declares to the kohen that he has a firstborn son that requires redemption in accordance with the laws of the Torah, the kohen then asks the father the following question. “What would you prefer to give me your firstborn or to redeem him for 5 sela’im as permitted by the Torah?”
The father responds, of course, that he would prefer to redeem the child. Still holding the money in his hand, the father then articulates to himself that he is now performing the requirement of pidyon ha’ben and he then recites two blessings.
First, he recites the blessing of pidyon ha’ben and then he recites the Shehecheyanu blessing in which he thanks God for giving him this moment in his life. Immediately following the recital of these two blessings, the father hands over the redemption money to the kohen. The kohen holds the money over the head of the child and recites the following: “With this money, this child is redeemed and he should now enter into life, live it in accordance with the laws of the Torah, guided by the fear of God. Even as he has entered into the ceremony of pidyon haben, he should enter into the world of Torah, into marriage and should help create a universe of kindness.”
The kohen then places his hands over the child’s head and recited the Birchat Kohanim, the priestly blessing, and then returns the child to his father.
It is the custom to celebrate the pidyon ha’ben with a festive meal and to perform the ceremony during the course of the meal. This festive meal is considered a seudat mitzvah, with all the halachic ramifications attached to this concept.
Even though the Temple is no longer in existence and the kohanim no longer practice their priestly profession, pidyon ha’ben is a requirement for all Jewish firstborn males any place, anytime.
Although the ownership in the redemption money must be legally conveyed by the father to the kohen for the pidyon ha’ben to be effective, the kohen may, if he wishes, and generally does, return the money to the father.
As with the arba minim on Sukkot, the money can also be given as a gift with the stipulation that the gift be returned, since such a gift has the power, under Jewish property law, to convey temporary ownership.
In view of the fact that only a son who first opens his mother’s womb has the status of a bechor, neither a boy born through a C-section nor a son born in a natural way following the birth of his brother through a C-section, is a bechor and both are exempt from the requirement of pidyon ha’ben.
Unlike milah, which must take place on the 8th day of birth even if that means performing the circumcision on a Shabbat, if the 31st day following the birth is a Shabbat, the pidyon ha’ben is postponed to a Sunday.
Perhaps the rhetorical question “what would you prefer, to give me your son or to buy him back,” has a hidden message. When it comes to the lives of our children, money is no object.
Raphael Grunfeld’s book “Ner Eyal on Seder Moed” (distributed by Mesorah) is available at OU.org and your local Judaica bookstore. His new book, “Ner Eyal on Seder Nashim & Nezikin,” will be available shortly. Comments to the writer are welcome at email@example.com.