The mitzva of pidyon ha-ben, the requirement to redeem one's first-born son, presents us with a host of interesting issues at all levels. The very verses themselves that serve as the source of the law leave us with an unclear picture as to what the exact nature of the law is. As such, our inquiry this week will begin with the various verses throughout the Torah that discuss pidyon ha-ben, and from there proceed forward to follow the development of this law.

In the wake of the exodus from Egypt (Shemot 13), the Torah presents the Jews with a jumble of laws, among which are the need to wear tefillin and a reiteration of the requirement to eat matzot on Pesach. However, most prominent in this section is the idea that any firstborn that is born to a Jew, either human or animal, is considered to be consecrated to Hashem, and thus needs to either be given to Hashem or redeemed. Verse 13 states that every first born human should be redeemed. The Sefer HaChinuch (#8) explains that one of the reasons for this law is that since the Jewish firstborns were saved from the final plague in Egypt, we are required to dedicate them to Hashem as an eternal display of gratitude (an idea found explicitly in Bamidbar 3:13 and 8:17).

However, the verses in Bamidbar make the issue a little more interesting. Based on Shemot alone, we would conclude that the firstborns are consecrated to Hashem, and we are commanded to redeem them. However, the verses in Bamidbar 3 and 8 imply that the commandment to redeem the firstborns was not an eternal commandment, but rather was a one-time deal, as the firstborns were exchanged for the Levi'im, who would now perform the service in the Mishkan. The indication that this event is the same as the one referred to in Shemot is that any firstborn who did not have a Levi through which to redeem himself instead paid five sela'im, the same amount that is used for the mitzva of pidyon ha-ben.

The final mention in the Torah of pidyon ha-ben is at the end of parashat Korach, in Bamidbar 18:15-16. Here we are introduced to a number of the details of this law, such as the fact that the pidyon ha-ben takes place once the baby is a month old, and the fact that the amount of the redemption is the aforementioned five sela'im. Furthermore, this sum is linked to the concept of Erchin (Vayikra 26), which is the fixed value of a person's worth based on his age if he decides to donate such a sum to the Temple funds. However, what is most interesting is that the end of parashat Korach details the various presents given to the Kohanim. The fact that the money of the pidyon ha-ben is counted among these gifts is indicative of another aspect of this law. On the one hand, there is a requirement to redeem the firstborns as a result of what Hashem did for us in Egypt. On the other hand, this mitzva is simply another vehicle through which the masses support the priestly caste, the Kohanim. We will see how these aspects manifest themselves in some of the details of the laws of pidyon ha-ben.



The gemara in Kiddushin 29a lists several things that a father is commanded to do for his son, among them the commandment to redeem him (pidyon ha-ben). The gemara notes that the verse in Shemot 13 serves as the source for this law, while the verse in Bamidbar 18 is the source for the law that if the father fails to redeem his son, the son has to redeem himself. Furthermore, women are exempt from the requirement of redeeming their sons, since only those who have to be redeemed are commanded to redeem others, and the verse explicitly states that only firstborn sons have to be redeemed. A final crucial point made by the gemara is that if a man has several wives, and each one has a firstborn son, he has to redeem each one. The reason for this is that in this case, firstborn is defined as being the first to leave the womb (peter rechem) of its mother. This is in contrast to laws of primogeniture, where firstborn is defined as the first offspring of the father (reishit ono).

The gemara in Bechorot 4a adds in an important aspect to this law. Kohanim and Levi'im do not have to redeem their children. This is based on a kal v'chomer (a logical inference from a minor to a major premise) - if the Levi'im were able to redeem the firstborns of their consecration in the desert, then certainly they are capable of doing the same to themselves without the need for any special ceremony or procedure. As Rambam and the Shulchan Aruch point out, this applies when only the mother is a Kohenet or a Levi'ah as well, since this entire law is really dependent on the mother.

One unique feature of this law, as brought down by Rambam and others, is that it is practiced even today and even outside of the Land of Israel. Whereas all of the other gifts to Kohanim are no longer in practice, and even those that are, such as Terumah, are not actually given to the Kohanim, this one lives on in all places that Jews live. This could be due to the dual nature of the law - while it is a gift to the Kohanim, it is also a commandment that is incumbent on each individual (a chovat ha-guf, in the words of the Aruch HaShulchan), based on Shemot 13, and thus we have to redeem our firstborns under any circumstances.

Rambam, the Tur, and the Shulchan Aruch are in basic agreement over the major aspects of the laws of pidyon ha-ben. The obligation is clearly on the father, not the mother, and if the father fails to do so it falls on the son to redeem himself. The amount of the pidyon is five sela'im (what that is in today's money is the subject of intensive discussions among the poskim), and it must be performed after thirty days. If either parent is either a Kohein or a Levi there is no pidyon ha-ben, and if a child is born via C-section there is also no pidyon, since he did not emerge via the normal way and thus is not considered to have opened up his mother's womb. Furthermore, if a person's first child is born via C-section and the second child is born naturally there is no pidyon ha-ben. Taz writes that this is because even though the second baby is the first to emerge in the normal manner, it is not a firstborn for inheritance purposes, and thus it is discounted from this law as well (even though there are two different sets of criteria, we nevertheless bring the two to bear on each other). However, Rav Akiva Eiger points out that if the child born via C-section is a stillborn, then the next baby is considered to be the firstborn in terms of inheritance and thus he would receive a pidyon ha-ben according to the logic of the Taz.

There are several interesting aspects of this law that emerge in the various poskim, often based on statements in the Tur and the Shulchan Aruch. Both the Tur and the Shulchan Aruch note that the giving of the money to the Kohein has to be a complete giving, and cannot be done on the condition that it will be returned after the ceremony. If it was done in this manner, there are two possible issues. One is that if a Kohein always returns the money, then people will always use him and other Kohanim will be denied the chance to earn this gift. The second issue is that it would be considered a matana al m'nat l'hachzir (a present given on the condition that it will be returned), a designation that clearly stems from the nature of this law as being one of the gifts given to the Kohanim. In general, we rule such a gift nevertheless results in a true acquisition, and thus there should not be a problem. However, the Taz points out that while the father may intend for the money to be returned, the Kohein may not be aware of this. Thus, since they will be of two different minds at the time of the transaction, the redemption will not be valid. This analysis makes sense in light of the fact that the Shulchan Aruch rules that if the money is given on the condition that it be returned, then the redemption will be good regardless. The Pitchei Teshuva cites the responsa Teshuva MeAhava who writes that a matana al m'nat l'hachzir only works when the same item is returned. However, if the Kohein were to return different coins then the transaction would be no good. Thus, one should try to avoid this practice.

The Pitchei Teshuva also brings down a statement of the She'eilat Ya'avetz who claims that today, when virtually all of our Kohanim do not have absolute proof of their lineage, it is proper for the Kohein to return the money (lest he be taking money that is not his). Connected to this idea is the notion that a father should redeem his son from every Kohein that he can find, on the odds that at least one will be a real Kohein, and the idea that a pidyon ha-ben should be performed even for the children of Kohanot and Levi'ot, since their lineage may not be real and their sons may need to be redeemed. However, the Chatam Sofer objects to this view, and the Aruch HaShulchan rails against it, claiming that it is forbidden to return the money, since it is forbidden to call the lineage of Kohanim into question (and certainly when there is no reason to do so). The Maharsha also notes that there is no fear of any improper taking of money, since the father fully intends to give the Kohein the money.

Another major issue is the bracha made on performing this mitzva. The Shiltei HaGibborim in Kiddushin brings down a text from the Geonim which includes a bracha said by the Kohein, and the practice to recite a blessing over fragrant spices. Rosh objects to this practice, since this blessing is one that is not found anywhere in Tanach or the Talmud (although Rashba, in a responsa, claims to have found it in the commentary of Rabbeinu Channanel to the Torah), and thus we cannot simply make up our own blessings (in general, our blessings are often modeled on verses). His son, the Tur, expands on this and notes that there is no reason for the Kohein to make a bracha, since he is not doing a mitzva, but rather is simply receiving one of the various gifts due to him. Rambam and Shulchan Aruch also omit this text from the Geonim, and Maharil writes that we no longer have the custom to make a bracha on spices during the pidyon ha-ben.

There is also a question as to whether or not one should say the bracha of "she-ha-simcha bim'ono" at the feast that traditionally accompanies the pidyon ha-ben. The Kol-Bo and Mahari Weil favor doing so, but the Abudraham was opposed, and the Beit Yoseif and Ramo note that the practice was not to do so. Shach points out that this is one reason why there is no problem of having a pidyon ha-ben on Chol HaMoed. Despite the fact that there is the potential for mixing two happy occasions together (me'arvin simcha b'simcha), the fact that this bracha is omitted indicates that a pidyon ha-ben does not qualify as a "simcha" for the purpose of this law (there is also a view that the only time it is forbidden to mix happy occasions is when one has a wedding on a holiday).

The basic bracha issues are fairly straightforward. A father who redeems his son makes the bracha of "al pidyon ha-ben," while one who redeems himself makes the bracha of "lifdot et ha-bechor." Ramo argues on this last point and claims that one who redeems himself does not make a bracha. The general consensus is that one also says the bracha of "shehecheyanu," although this is not done if one has a messenger perform the pidyon ha-ben in his stead.

Bach brings down a discussion as to the exact timing of the pidyon ha-ben. While we generally speak about 30 days being a month, a true lunar month is actually 29 days, 12 hours, and 793 chalakim (1/1080th of an hour). Bach himself holds that one can do the pidyon ha-ben once this amount of time has passed, while the Semak says that one has to wait until day 31 so as to avoid any situation of doubt as to whether or not the month is over. The Terumat HaDeshen has a third approach, claiming that one should wait until day 32. This is because a baby born on Friday will have to wait an extra day (since we cannot do this on Shabbat as it constitutes as business transaction), and thus will have his pidyon ha-ben on day 32. Thus, to make it even for everyone, he suggests that everyone wait until day 32. Bach, based on the Yere'im, opposes this view and claims that babies born on Friday are special cases and do not alter the course of the normative law.

A related side issue is a case of a baby who is born sick and cannot receive a brit mila right away. Shach writes that if the baby is healed on the day he is to receive his pidyon ha-ben then the mila should come first. The rationale for this is that without mila he is not considered to be part of the Jewish people, and thus there is no reason to redeem him. However, Maharsha notes that if the baby is still sick at the time he is due to be redeemed, then the pidyon ha-ben should take place, and the mila will happen once he is healthy.

Rav Akiva Eiger rules that one can redeem his son even from a Kohein who is still a minor. However, the Aruch HaShulchan objects on the grounds that pidyon ha-ben is considered to be a gift to the Kohein, and such gifts are generally not given to Kohanim while they are still minors.

We have already mentioned that the son becomes obligated to redeem himself if the father fails to do so. The Pitchei Teshuva cites the Zichron Yoseif, who rules that this kicks in once the child reaches the age of thirteen (although there is some discussion among poskim if he can do it before he reaches this age). However, the Sefer HaChinuch (#392) and the Minchat Chinuch point out that the father is always obligated to redeem his son, even once the son reaches an age where he can do it himself.

The final issue that we will touch on is whether or not one is allowed to use a messenger to perform this commandment in his stead. Ramo writes that one cannot appoint someone else to serve in his place, while the Derisha argues on this point (Shach claims that even the grandfather can perform a pidyon ha-ben). Rav Akiva Eiger makes a distinction between different aspects of pidyon ha-ben. He claims that the monetary transaction can be done through someone else, but the actual ceremony has to be done by the father himself, since it is his obligation. The Aruch HaShulchan also feels that a messenger can be used. However, he finds two rationales for the view of Ramo. One is that one may not use a messenger to perform a mitzva that the Torah specifically tells you to perform (since the father specifically has to do this commandment). The second reason is that in parashat Ki-Tisa (Shemot 34:20), the mitzvot of redeeming the firstborn and of going to Yerushalayim for the holidays are mentioned in the same verse. When such a thing happens, there is a tendency to compare the two laws to each other, and thus the Aruch HaShulchan claims that just as one cannot send someone else to fill his place in Yerushalayim, so too can he not have someone else perform the pidyon ha-ben for him.

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