In the top drawer of my dresser lie five silver coins. They were purchased from Israel for approximately $100 and were used for the redemption of our first-born son. The ceremony is called Pidyon HaBen (Redemption of the First Born) and is typically held on the 31st day of a first-born son’s life. The coins were minted in Israel between the year 1970-1977 specifically for the Pidyon HaBen ceremony.
The origins of the Pidyon HaBen go back to the time of the Holy Temple. G-d’s original intention was for the first-born son of every family to serve in the Holy Temple. But, when Moses returned from atop the mountain with the Tablets from G-d to discover the Golden Calf that was created in his absence, he demanded that the Jewish people choose between G-d and the idols. Only the Tribe of Levi chose to stay with Moses and G-d. From that point forward, the Kohanim – or Holy Priests of the Temple – came from the Tribe of Levi. The first-born sons from the other tribes were “redeemed” from their duties through the payment of silver coins. Today, in Orthodox and Conservative homes, this tradition continues.
A Pidyon HaBen, however, is not a common occurrence. There are several pre-requisites in order for the redemption to take place. The conditions that must be met include:
* The mother must be Jewish
* The baby boy must be the first child ever born to the mother
* The baby must be delivered naturally, not via C-section
* The mother may not have had any prior miscarriages or abortions
* The father must not be a Kohen or a member of the Tribe of Levi
* The mother’s father, also, must not be a Kohen or member of the Tribe of Levi
To fulfill the mitzvah, you must have a Kohen, five silver coins equaling approximately 110 grams and a festive meal. The custom itself involves the father declaring his first-born son to the Kohen. The Kohen asks if the father would prefer to redeem his son or “give him over” (the father, by the way, is required by the Torah to redeem him). Two brachos are recited – one thanking G-d for giving us the mitzvah of Pidyon HaBen and the other is the Sheh’he’cheyanu, a well-known blessing thanking G-d for bringing us to where we are now. The father then pays the Kohen with the silver coins. The coins are later returned to the family as a gift from the Kohen.
The Pidyon HaBen is a mitzvah that has been carried from our ancient tradition into modern times. At my son’s Redemption, he was carried in on a silver tray filled with the jewelry of the women in attendance. At the time of the Golden Calf, the women refused to give their jewelry for the making of the Golden Calf (I’m not sure if it’s because they wanted to hold on to their jewelry or because they didn’t want to participate in idol worship. Either way – they kept their jewels). We also passed out garlic and sugar cubes to our guests. In Kabbalistic terms, if the guests cook and serve the garlic and sugar in a meal, the merit of the Pidyon HaBen is theirs as well.
Jewish tradition sets up life with guidelines on how to live “right”, with ceremonies and mitzvot that bring us together as a community, and with the intention of showing us that everything we do has a deeper meaning.
There may be no other time in life when we feel closer to G-d then when we become parents for the first time. Our awe at the miracle of life and the recognition that we are now responsible for something outside of ourselves is ritualistically enhanced by the redemption of the first-born.