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Pidyon Haben: Debt Or Mitzvah?

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This column is dedicated to the refuah sheleimah of Shlomo Eliezer ben Chaya Sarah Elka.

In this week’s parshah the Torah tells us that Hashem told Aharon to redeem every firstborn child. This is known as pidyon haben. The Rema, in Yoreh De’ah 305:10, rules in the name of the Rivash that one may not appoint a shaliach to perform pidyon haben. Many Acharonim argue with this ruling and posit that one can appoint a shaliach to perform pidyon haben.

The Vilna Gaon, in Yoreh De’ah there, states on the opinion of the Rema that not only should one be allowed to appoint a shaliach to perform pidyon haben, but one should also be able to perform pidyon haben for another person even if he wasn’t appointed. Pidyon haben should not be different than ma’aser sheini, about which the Rambam says in the fourth perek of Hilchos Ma’aser Sheini that one can redeem ma’aser sheni from another without even having been appointed to do so. The Ritva, in Pesachim 7b, says that the berachah we recite on pidyon haben is “al pidyon haben” – not “lifdos haben.” This is because others can perform it – even without the father’s knowledge.

The Vilna Gaon then says that there is even more reason by pidyon haben as to why one should be able to appoint a shaliach. This is because the mitzvah of pidyon haben is essentially repaying a debt. The Gemara, in Bechoros 48, says that a kohen may collect the money of pidyon haben from the father’s property. After all, one is surely allowed to repay another person’s debt. The Vilna Gaon concludes that the only reason why one should not use a shaliach is because it is always better for one to perform his own mitzvah than to have someone else perform it.

The Machaneh Efraim (Hilchos Zechia 7) agrees that pidyon haben is only repaying a debt. Therefore, he rules that it may be performed without the father’s knowledge.

Another proof that pidyon haben is a debt that is owed to a kohen is from Tosfos in Bechoros 49a. It says there that after the firstborn son is 30 days old the money is owed to the kohen. Even if the boy dies, rachmanah litzlan, after that but before he was redeemed, the father still owes the money. Question: if the money of pidyon haben was only a mitzvah, then what mitzvah applies when the child is no longer alive? Answer: he is being redeemed. We see from here that the mitzvah of pidyon haben creates a debt to the kohen.

The Minchas Chinuch asks the following: if pidyon haben is a debt, why can’t a kohen forgive the money? The Minchas Chinuch concludes from this that indeed there is a mitzvah to give – similar to that of terumah – which cannot be forgiven.

One could ask this: to which kohen is there a debt, that his forgiveness should obliterate the debt? Rav Elchonon Wasserman (Kovetz Shiurim 187) says that perhaps the case could be one of makerai kahunah. Makerai kahunah is when a person consistently gives all of his matanos kahunah to one kohen. This concept, which the Gemara says creates some sort of priority to that kohen, applies when we are unsure to whom the owner gave the present. The Tosfos HaRush, in Baba Metzia 49b, says that when one has a kohen to whom he always gives his matanos kahunah, and if he is planning to give him the next gift, it is considered as if the kohen already owns it. Perhaps in this situation a kohen who has makerai kahunah would be able to forgive the debt of pidyon haben. But the Minchas Chinuch says that we don’t find that any kohen can forgive a debt of pidyon haben.

The Maharsha, in Kesubos, does in fact put forward that a kohen could forgive the debt of pidyon haben. This would be in line with those who believe that pidyon haben is only a monetary debt, not a mitzvah to give the money. We can assume that the scenario to which the Maharsha is referring, that a kohen can forgive the debt of pidyon haben, is one of makerai kahunah.

The discussion of whether a kohen can forgive the debt of pidyon haben may be dependent on another point. How do we view the forgiving (mechilah) of a debt? One option is that when one says that the debtor doesn’t have to pay the debt, the debt is off. The other option is that when one says, “you don’t have to pay me,” we view it as if he has already received the money.

If forgiving a debt is only a means of removing the debt, one can argue that it should not work by pidyon haben. This is because the money is not owed to only one person, but rather to the entire sheivet of kohanim; one kohen should not be able to remove a debt that is owed to the entire sheivet. However, if forgiving a debt is considered as if he has received the money, one kohen can forgive the money. This is because it is no different than if he had actually received the money – in which case the debt is off.

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