Pidyon HaBen (Hebrew: פדיון הבן; trans. Redemption of the Son) is a ritual in Judaism whereby a firstborn son is redeemed from a Kohen in order to release him from his obligation to serve in the Temple. Although nowadays there is no Temple, the ceremony is still observed by Orthodox and Conservative Jews.
In the Hebrew Bible the laws concerning the redemption of the first-born male are referred to in Exodus, Numbers and Leviticus. The New Testament also refers to the practice in the Gospel of Luke 2:22-24.
The Shulkhan Arukh states that when a Jewish woman gives birth by natural means, i.e. vaginally and not by Caesarean section, to her firstborn, if it is a son, then the child must be "redeemed". The father of the child must "redeem" the child from a known Kohen representing the original Temple priesthood, for the sum of five silver Shekels, or equivalent in country's currency (if it has silver currency of the correct weight). The procedure does not apply when the father is a Kohen or Levi, and does not normally apply when the mother is the daughter of one.
This "redemption" ceremony is performed on the 31st day after the birth of the child (the day of birth is considered the first day) and is accompanied by a customary festive meal known as a se'udath mitzvah. It is performed on the 31st day because of a tradition that if a child survives a month, his chances for good health were assured. If the 31st day after birth falls on Shabbat, a festival or a fast day, the redemption is not performed and must be performed immediately after the holiday ends. This is because handling money on Jewish holidays is forbidden.
If a woman gives birth to a second son naturally when the first son was born by Caesarean section, that child is not redeemed either. Additionally, a first-born male does not require redemption if his birth was preceded by an earlier miscarriage by the mother that occurred after the third month of pregnancy. However, if the miscarriage occurred during the first 40 days of pregnancy, redemption is required. If the previous miscarriage occurred after forty days, but before the fetus developed distinguishing characteristics, redemption of the first-born is still required, but the blessing said by the father is omitted.
The restriction to initial vaginal birth stems from the Biblical text regarding the redemption, which says a child that is "Peter Rechem Imo", or the "opening of his mother's womb", needs to be redeemed.
Levites, including Kohanim, do not redeem their children through the Pidyon HaBen ceremony. The reason is that the Levites, as substitutes for the first-born, are pledged to minister and assist the kohanim in Divine service, and cannot be redeemed from their service obligation. In Orthodox Judaism and to a lesser extent in Conservative Judaism, Levites remain irredeemably pledged to Divine service to this day, are expected to report for duty in a future rebuilt Temple in Jerusalem, and in the meanwhile have a limited number of special ritual duties and privileges.
The children of daughters of Levites and Kohanim, are not normally redeemed either. According to some authorities, however, a child whose mother is a Bat Kohen and whose father is a non-Jew requires a Pidyon HaBen ceremony.
In the traditional ceremony, the father brings the child to the Kohen and recites a formula, or responds to ritual questions, indicating that this is the mother's firstborn son and he has come to redeem him as commanded in the Torah. The Kohen asks the father which he would rather have, the child or the five silver shekels which he must pay. The father states that he prefers the child to the money, then he recites a blessing and hands over five silver coins (or an equivalent amount of total silver). The Kohen holds the coins over the child and declares that the redemption price is received and accepted in place in the child. He then blesses the child and returns him to the custody of his family.
The ceremony traditionally takes place amidst a minyan of 10 men. The child is sometimes presented on a silver tray, surrounded by jewelry lent for the occasion by women in attendance. The event is accompanied by a meal, and guests in some places are given cloves of garlic and cubes of sugar to take home: these strongly-flavored foods can be used to flavor a large quantity of food which will in some sense extend the mitzvah of participation in the ceremony to all who eat them.
Contemporary religious authorities believe that the Shekel HaKodesh (Holy Shekel) of the Temple was larger and of purer silver content than the standard Shekel used for trade in ancient Israel. Halakha requires that the coins used have a requisite total amount of actual silver. There are verying opinions as to the correct amount of silver, they fall in between 100 grams and 117 grams. Coins which do not contain the requisite amount of silver do not result in a valid redemption.
The Israeli Mint has minted special edition 23.4 gram silver commemorative coins for the purpose, five of which would come to exactly 117 grams of silver. Pre-1965 American silver dollars weigh 26.73 grams of 90% silver content and hence contain 24.06g of pure silver, although such coins have become increasingly rare (modern U.S. coins contain no silver). Four American Silver Eagle coins, specially minted coins sold to collectors and investors which contain 31.103 grams of 99.9% pure silver, or five of the above-mentioned specially minted silver coins of Israel are commonly used for Pidyon Ha-Ben in the United States.
Though the silver coins are the payment to the Kohen under Jewish law, they are usually returned to the family as a gift for the child, as the coins themselves are often commemorative in nature. There are many examples of artistically crafted gift boxes or display cases made for the child to have as a memento of the occasion. The father then usually offers a gift or fee of more conventional cash to the Kohen.
Some Kohanim sell coins of sufficient weight and purity of silver to facilitate the ceremony, as such coins are usually not readily obtainable.
Women and Pidyon HaBen
Some Orthodox authorities, citing a passage in the Talmud (Kiddushin 8a) describing such an event, permit a male non-Kohen married to a Bat Kohen (daughter of a male Kohen) to accept Pidyon HaBen money on the Bat Kohen's behalf. The question of a Bat Kohen accepting Pidyon HaBen money on her own behalf is a matter of discussion in Modern Orthodox Judaism but is not currently done in practice. No branch of Judaism currently accepts a Pidyon HaBat (redemption of a first-born daughter) ceremony.
In Conservative Judaism
Conservative Judaism requires a Pidyon HaBen ceremony under the same circumstances as Orthodox Judaism. The Committee on Jewish Law and Standards (CJLS) permits a Bat Kohen (daughter of a male Kohen) to perform the Pidyon Haben ceremony on her own behalf. The CJLS, however, concluded that a Pidyon HaBat ceremony for a daughter was "prohibited by the Torah" and suggested, as an alternative, that parents recite the text "Rabbi Akiva interpreted: By virtue of the reward due the righteous women of the generation of the Exodus were our forefathers redeemed from Egypt" for a first-born daughter, as part of the regular Simchat Bat ceremony.
In Reform and Reconstructionist Judaism
Consistent with their views that Temple- and priesthood-related rituals and statuses are archaic and inconsistent with modern egalitarian values, Reform Judaism and Reconstructionist Judaism generally do not perform the Pidyon HaBen ceremony.
Frequency of ceremony
Pidyon HaBen is one of the rarest Jewish ceremonies usually applying to approximately 1 in 50 Jewish births . The firstborn must be a boy, caesarian section births are not eligible, a previous miscarriage precludes the ceremony and neither parent must be a kohen or a Levi. The ceremony is even rarer because it generally not performed in Reform Judaism and Reconstructionist Judaism, which have generally abolished the status of Kohen and special traditional ceremonies involving them.
Traditional Jewish interpretation
According to the traditional rabbinic interpretation, in the early part of the Bible, as recorded in the Book of Genesis, the duties of a priest fell upon the eldest son of each family. The first-born was to be dedicated to God in order to perform this task.
Following the Israelite Exodus from Egypt, after the nation had sinned with the Golden Calf, the priesthood was taken away from the first-borns, and given to the tribe of Levites, specifically to the Kohenim, High Priest Aaron, his children, and their descendants. At the same time it was instituted that the first born of each family should be redeemed; i.e. they would be 'bought back' from the dedication to God that would previously have been required of them. Levites were substituted for the first-born and wholly given to Divine service:
And thou shalt give the Levites unto Aaron and to his sons; they are wholly given unto him from the children of Israel.
And I behold, I have taken the Levites from among the children of Israel instead of every first-born that openeth the womb among the children of Israel; and the Levites shall be Mine. For all the first-born are Mine: on the day that I smote all the first-born in the land of Egypt I hallowed unto Me all the first-born in Israel, both man and beast, Mine they shall be: I am the LORD.' (Numbers 3:9, 12-13)
The first-born male of every clean animal was to be given up to the priest for sacrifice (Deuteronomy 12:6; Exodus 13:12, 34:20; Numbers 18:15-17). The first-born of unclean animals, however, was either to be redeemed or sold and the price given to the priest (Leviticus 27:11-13, 27). The first-born of an ass, if not redeemed, was to be put to death (Exodus 13:13; 34:20).
Biblical Criticism perspectives
Biblical criticism perspectives are based on the Documentary Hypothesis, that the Torah was compiled by an editor from four different sources, each with a different perspective.
According to Peake's Commentary on the Bible, the passages in the Hebrew Bible referring to the redemption of the firstborn as reflecting traditions that already existed, rather than being the origin of them. According to passages in the text which textual criticism scholars attribute to the priestly source, the firstborn of anything legally belonged to Yahweh, while according to passages attributed to the Jahwist and the Elohist, it was only firstborn males. The passages attributed to the deuteronomist argue that unblemished firstborn animals should become slaughter offerings at the Temple in Jerusalem, but those attributed to the priestly source argue instead that unclean animals and firstborn humans had to be redeemed by handing over an appropriate amount of money, and that it was only the clean animals that should become sacrifices, with the meat from such sacrifices only being permitted to be consumed by the priests. According to the text, if a firstborn ass was not redeemed, it had to be killed.
Only the Jahwist and Priestly Source provide a background explanation for these regulations, and both state that the regulations arose as a result of the death of the (non-Israelite) firstborn in Egypt; the Jahwist's text argues that the male firstborn were to be sacrificed in memorial of the event, and thus firstborn human males had to be redeemed from this fate; the priestly source instead argues that as a result of the event the Israelite firstborn were consecrated to the service of Yahweh, but that subsequently the Levites took over this role, and so the firstborn had to be redeemed. As a result of the priestly source's argument, this interpretation claims that a rabbinical tradition arose that the firstborn males from all tribes had originally performed the function of priest, prior to the Tabernacle being constructed; this argument is also why children of Levites are seen as not themselves requiring redemption.
However, biblical criticism scholars believe that the requirements to give the firstborn to the priesthood, or to redeem them (as appropriate to the species), predate the timeframe of the events which the Torah describe as happening in Egypt. A number of scholars have proposed that in the original form of the custom, human first born males were sacrificed along with the first born animal males.
The 1906 Jewish encyclopedia reports that "The interpretation of the custom of redeeming the first-born as a modification of an older custom of sacrificing the first-born sons in connection with the Passover feast (Baudissin, in Herzog-Plitt, "Real-Encyc." 2d ed., x. 176; comp. also Frazer, "The Golden Bough", 2d ed., ii. 48), has no foundation in history" Although such suggestions concerning the origin of Pidyon HaBen were dismissed in the late 19th century, as evidence for them had not been found in any historic semitic culture, they have more recently gained much credence, due to the discovery of the bodies of children in the foundations of many Canaanite buildings. The reason for the preference of firstborn, whether animals or people, is not, however, known.