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The Torah portion of Yisro provides a window into a very short period of the history of halacha: when the bechorim, the firstborn, were the priestly caste of Klal Yisrael. While the Torah gives instruction to those it calls Kohanim (Shemos 19;22), Rashi, Rashbam and Ibn Ezra maintain, as does the Talmud, that the reference is not to Aharon and his family but to the firstborn. In the aftermath of the debacle of the Golden Calf, the only remnant of the once exalted spiritual status of the firstborn is the father’s obligation of pidyon haben.

But what happens if, intentionally or not, a firstborn is not redeemed? Halachically, the father’s obligation to redeem becomes the son’s at his bar mitzvah. The Rema records a fascinating custom associated with that transition:

“Some have written that “Unredeemed,” should be inscribed on a silver pendant and hung on the child’s neck, so that he should know to redeem himself when he matures.” (Yoreh Deah 305:15)


Certainly this silver pendant is a fascinating image: a perennial reminder for the young man of his status and his responsibility to be aware and take action when he can rather than to be complacent in his unredeemed state.

I wonder, however, if the pendant is not solely for the child’s benefit. Perhaps it is intended as well as a constant, silent rebuke and reminder to the recalcitrant father who failed to address this covenantal obligation of fatherhood, a reminder that it is never too late for him to rectify his mistake.

As far as I know, even the most enterprising Judaica designer has yet to market the “Unredeemed” necklace, but in the last three months another pendant has taken the world by storm: the “Bring Them Home” dog tag. A symbol of identification with the hostages held by the murderers in Gaza, even our esteemed Senator Fetterman has been seen many times wearing his dog tag. In these dark days, I imagine the Jewish people as a whole wearing a silver dog tag engraved with the words “Unredeemed.”

A few weeks ago, I heard Rav Asher Weiss, shlit’a, express his concern that those of us who do not have family members in Gaza can easily adapt to a new normal. This idea has haunted me since my return from Israel seven weeks ago, and is only more relevant after 106 days.

Like the bechor, we need constant reminders that we are all unredeemed:

So many brave children, siblings, and parents have spent weeks and weeks in mortal danger defending the Jewish people in Gaza and in the North – and remain unredeemed.

So many of our kidnapped continue to languish in the horrors of Hamas captivity, yearning for pidyon shevuyim, the redemption of captives – and remain unredeemed.

So many live in terror for the fate of their loved ones – and remain unredeemed.

So many have been forced to leave their homes in the South and the North – and remain unredeemed.

So many widows and orphans, bereaved parents and fiancés – remain unredeemed.

We Diaspora Jews each need to cultivate the constant consciousness that we remain unredeemed, and let that continue to motivate and move us.

But just like the silver pendant of the unredeemed son, our dog tag is intended for our Father as well. This is not a case of an orphaned bechor, bereft of a father to redeem him, chas v’shalom.

We believe with every fiber of our being that od avinu chai, that our Father in Heaven lives forever, which makes the conundrum of our unredeemed reality all the more enigmatic and painful.

So we continue to display our pendant to our Father, begging him when He sees us:

O G-d, redeem Israel from all its troubles.

Bring an end to all of this darkness and suffering.

Notwithstanding the Rema, the consensus of Acharonim is that this pendant is unnecessary. Citing among other concerns the near certainty that the silver plaque will disappear long before adulthood (something certainly borne out by my misadventures in parenthood), most believe there is another solution to the plight of the unredeemed child that requires neither waiting for adulthood nor for the father to do his part. Rather, they maintain that it is the role of beis din, the communal leadership, to intervene and redeem the son in infancy.

In an interview with Mishpacha (“A Mother’s Miracle,” by Sara Bonchek, Jan. 16), a charedi woman whose soldier son was gravely wounded in Gaza recounted the following story:

When Aryeh was fighting for his life on Friday night after he was injured, the rav of our shul got up in front of the kehillah, and screamed at the top of his voice, “I’m forming a Beis Din shel Matah and I’m asking the Beis Din shel Maalah to save the life of Aryeh Menachem Moshe ben Dina Tova!

Perhaps the core of our response to an unredeemed Klal Yisrael is seeing ourselves as beis din, imbued with the power and obligation to take responsibility to make our own interventions.

In the world of tzedakah and chesed, continuing to leverage our resources to mitigate the suffering of so many, we are the beis din.

In the world of lobbying and diplomacy, continuing to call and write our elected officials and show up for rallies and vigils, we are the beis din.

In the world of public advocacy, of making the case for Israel in the media and on the internet, we are the beis din.

And in fighting on the spiritual plane, in terms of what we can accomplish with every chapter of Tehillim, every verse or mishna or page of Gemara, we are the beis din.

In a world where we remain unredeemed, we return to the ancient promise enshrined in Tehillim:

“Israel, hope to Hashem, for kindness is with Hashem and much redemption is with Him.:

“And He will redeem Israel.”


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Daniel Yolkut is the rabbi of Poale Zedeck in Pittsburgh, Penn.