The Redemption of the First Born the Rare Mitzvah
By Menachem Mendelsohn
Pidyon Haben, the redemption of the first born, is a rare mitzvah than can only be performed once in a lifetime and not everyone is able to do this mitzvah. This is the mitzvah of redemption of the first born and requires special circumstances in order to perform it.
The reason that this mitzvah is so rare is that it applies only to the first born male child only. If the first born child happens to be a girl then the parents do not have a mitzvah to redeem her. And even when the first born child is a boy, if the father is a Kohen or a Levy or if the mother's father is either a Kohen or a Levy then also there is no mitzvah to perform. The child must be the first born son to a father who is neither a Kohen nor Levy and the mother's father must not be a Kohen or a Levy.
Since this mitzvah is rare - we may safely assume that at least fifty percent of all births are female, and that many births are second or third (or more) births for the mother, the possibility of performing this mitzvah is quite small. Add to this the restriction of not being from a Kohen or Levy and you can see that it is indeed rare.
The historical background of this mitzvah dates back to the time when the Jews were about to leave Egypt. The tenth plague was the death of the first born Egyptians from the lowest on the social pecking order to the very highest, the heir of Pharaoh. The Jewish first born were spared this death (see Exodus 11:4-7 and 12:12-13). G-d then decreed that the first born of the children of Israel, both man and beast were to be holy. The first born of cattle and sheep were to be offered to G-d and the first born ass (donkey) was to be redeemed with a lamb. The first born son was to be redeemed with money which was to be given to a Kohen (see Exodus 13:1-16).
The Mitzvah of Pidyon Haben requires that the first born male child be redeemed after the thirtieth day from birth; therefore the ceremony is performed on the thirty-first day. If it comes out on a Shabbat then it is postponed for the following day; we do not exchange money on the Shabbat.
The redemption is done by the father by giving to a Kohen five sela'im or shekels (see Numbers 18:15). These five sela'im were the silver shekels that were in use in biblical times. This transaction is done during a special festive meal that is arranged to celebrate this special occasion. Everyone washes their hands in the customary manner for bread and begins the festive meal. The Kohen is given the honor of making the blessing on the bread for all of those seated. After beginning the meal, the father brings in the first born to the Kohen and while holding the baby he says to the Kohen, "My Jewish wife has borne to me this first born son."
The Kohen asks him, "What would you prefer to have your first born son or the five sel'ayim which you are obligated to give me for the redemption of your son?"
The father replies, "I want my first born son. Here are the five sela'im which is required of me for the redemption."
Then as the father gives the Kohen the redemption money, the father makes the following blessing: "Blessed are You, L-rd, our G-d, King of the universe, who has sanctified us with His commandments and commanded us in regard to the redemption of the son."
This is followed immediately by the blessing of Shechiyanu, "Blessed are You, L-rd, our G-d, King of the universe, who has granted us life, sustained us, and enabled us to reach this occasion." The blessing of Shechiyanu is made at all instances when a special time or event has come to us.
The Kohen now recites the blessing over wine. If there is no wine then another important beverage can be used. It is also traditional that the Kohen gives a special blessing to the child that he may grow up wise and with the fear of G-d, and that the parents should merit much joy from him and see him through to the Chupah (marriage canopy).
The obligation of the redemption rests upon the father and not the mother. If for some reason the father had not redeemed the first born son, the son is obligated to redeem himself. This is often done when he reaches the age of bar mitzvah.
The mitzvah of Pidyon Haben is similar to other mitzvoth that concern the first fruits. During the time of the holy Temple in Jerusalem, the first fruits were taken up to the Temple. The first fruit was dedicated to G-d as part of our inner acknowledgement of His eternal goodness towards us for renewing the season and giving us fresh fruits. The concept of acknowledging G-d's goodness towards us - that we should not take for granted all that we receive from nature, either from the ground, the trees, or even from animals as being a natural function of nature. We must realize that all if from Him and to Him our eyes focus. When we receive benefit, we desire to thank Him for His kindness.
The same is true in the case of the first born son who was consecrated to G-d. Through the mitzvah of Pidyon Haben we are able to express our deepest gratitude to Him for all of His kindness to us through out the generations. When we acknowledge that our happiness comes because of G-d's goodness, then He will continue to help us, but when some one does not acknowledge G-d and His goodness, he is asking for problems.
from the July 2008 Edition of the Jewish Magazine