To Redeem a First Born

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by R. Gidon Rothstein

Parshat Bamidbar has no mitzvot in Sefer Ha-Hinuch, so She’iltot will open the door for us. Probably because this parsha has the replacement of the first-born by the Levi’im, he records the mitzvah of pidyon ha-ben, redeeming human first-born. It fits nicely with last time, when we looked at ma’aser behemah, some of whose rules were derived from verses about bechor behemah, first-born animals.

Aruch Ha-Shulhan Yoreh De’ah 305;1 gives us valuable context, the sanctification goes back to Egypt, when Hashem killed the Egyptians’ first-born and spared/saved the Jewish first-born. Levi’im replaced them after the sin of the Golden Calf.

The Money Paid

Rambam in Mitzvat Aseh 80 lays out the obligation, to redeem first-born sons by giving five sela’im (silver coins, whose exact value is unclear) to a kohen, in silver or items worth that value of silver (kessef or shaveh kessef; we often translate kessef as money, but here, silver is a more accurate translation, because in the time of the Gemara, precious metals were the bearers of inherent value. Our fiat money raises many halachic questions, and for pidyon ha-ben, we usually use silver coins).

The payment must be movable property, cannot be land, servants, or with a shetar, a document declaring a transfer of value, like a check. Paying in an invalid way means there has been no redemption, showing pidyon ha-ben is not about giving the kohen a certain value, it’s exchanging the first-born for items given.

The redemption price need not all go to one kohen, just to male kohanim, because Bamidbar 3;48 refers to Aharon and his sons. The need for the inference reminds us—an idea we have seen in Daf Yomi recently as well—that women born to a kohen family are kohanot, represent the clan as well for some purposes, so the Torah makes a point of referring to Aharon and his sons when some function is restricted to the males. Aruch Ha-Shulhan Yoreh De’ah 305;3 says it more forcefully than I have, in general kohanot are included in a right the Torah assigns to kohanim (his example is reshit ha-gez, the requirement to give the first of a sheep’s shearing to a kohen).

Nor must the kohen or kohanim keep the money; he/they may return it to the father after the ceremony, as long as the father does not make a condition of it when he gives the money. The payment is symbolic, rather than an actual repurchase of a child.

Who Is To Be Redeemed

In the ceremony, though, the parties treat it like a repurchase. The father redeems the child as if the boy currently belongs to the kohen, Rambam says, and the father is buying him back. Mothers are not obligated in this mitzvah, according to a derivation too involved to present here, found on Kiddushin 29a. Despite her exemption, the status of “first-born” depends on this baby being the first to have come out of the mother’s womb. (In other areas of halachah, such as inheritance, a father’s first-born is what counts.) Minhat Hinuch lays out an interesting ramification, a man might make more than one pidyon ha-ben, where there will never be more than one bechor for inheritance.

Sefer Ha-Hinuch 392 (Parshat Korah) sources the rule to the phrase peter rehem in Shemot 13;2, the opening of the womb. Bechorot 46a cites it to exempt the first-born of any woman who previously miscarried late enough to incur tum’at ledah, the ritual impurity and recovery after giving birth. If her womb opened enough to create tum’ah, she has had a peter rehem.

The mother’s role restricts who needs to be redeemed in another surprising way. Before we get to her, let’s remember sons of kohanim or Levi’im are not redeemed; Sefer Ha-Hinuch explains they replaced the bechorim in the desert, so obviously do not need redemption themselves. (I think he means the first-born Levi or kohen will serve in the way bechorim lost, so a Levi or kohen bechor is living the original plan, with no need to be redeemed from it.)

However, we also do not redeem first-born sons whose mother is from a Levi or kohen family. On the one hand, this is another example of the continuing relevance of women’s birth identities even if they join another family by marriage; on the other, it is odd, because this child will count as a regular Jew and would seem to have been one of those first-born who would have served in the Temple but for the sin of the Golden Calf.

Sefer Ha-Hinuch attributes the exemption to the mother’s role in deciding what counts as first-born. Since it is peter rehem, the first child she bears, who needs pidyon, if she is a kohenet or Leviyah, her womb cannot produce a child needing redemption [I don’ t find the answer fully satisfying, but this is not the venue to explore further.]

The Age of Redemption

Pidyon ha-ben happens only once the baby his lived thirty days, because the Torah says so, Bamidbar 18;16. Minhat Hinuch makes a point of saying the pidyon must therefore happen only on day thirty-one; without his point, we might have thought to count days like we do for circumcision, where a small part of both first and last are good enough. As long as a boy has been in this world on eight different days, even if it’s an hour at the end of one and an hour at the beginning of the last one, milah can be done. Here, the Torah says the baby has to live a month, so it has to be thirty full.

Shach Yoreh De’ah 189;30 focused on the use of the word hodesh, month, Bamidbar 18;16. In contrast to the general view we just saw, it means thirty full days, Shach pointed out a lunar month is actually twenty-nine days, twelve hours, and 793 parts of an hour (the reason some months have twenty-nine days, some thirty). A pidyon performed once the baby had lived that long should be valid, he claimed. (For his view, if a baby was born in the morning, we could do a pidyon late in the afternoon of the thirtieth daySometimes, circumstances push for as early a pidyon as possible, making this a leniency we sometimes can imagine needing.) Others disagreed, and I believe we do not generally follow it.

Sefer Ha-Hinuch assumes the rule came to ensure the baby is not a nefel, too premature to survive. Minhat Hinuch infers he would allow a pidyon early if we were sure the baby had been full term (such as where a couple was separated for nine months before the birth, for some reason). Rashi seems to have agreed, the two of them taking the Torah’s reference to a month as a practical matter. Tosafot in Baba Kamma and Rambam are sure the month was a gezerat ha-katuv, a Scriptural decree, not based on any reason we know.

The idea of viability does have one universally accepted application, according to Minhat Hinuch: a baby who became a terefah, sustained one of the bodily injuries the Torah defined as unsurvivable, would not be redeemed when the month came, even if he was still living.

Father and Son Sharing the Mitzvah

Sefer Ha-Hinuch always tells us what happens if one fails to observe a commandment or violates a transgression. Here, he says a man who passes away without having redeemed his first-born son, has neglected a positive commandment, adding “oy lo, how terrible is it for him, that he has borne a sin on his soul”.

The comment sticks out, first, because he does not write that for other obligations; second, because this mitzvah might still be observed in the end. A man whose father did not redeem him is required to redeem himself. Sefer Ha-Hinuch does locate the responsibility with the father as long as he is alive, because the Torah did not put a time limit on it, but a non-redeemed bechor must redeem himself.  The man neglected his own mitzvah, but the mitzvah might still happen, yet Sefer Ha-Hinuch still threw in his krechtz over how terrible this is.

Minhat Hinuch is certain the son becomes obligated as soon as reaches the age of majority, from that point on both of them required to do it. He thinks Sefer Ha-Hinuch meant the father had the prior duty, so if the father is ready to, the son should not preempt his mitzvah.  If he did, the father may be able to demand compensation.

[It’s a reminder of a remarkable subcategory of halachah, that a Jew can demand monetary payment from another Jew who stole his/her right to do a mitzvah. Minhat Hinuch is not confident the son would have to pay, but I find the whole idea important; we as Jews value mitzvot so fully, it is a legally recognized form of damage to take someone else’s mitzvah opportunity, despite the abundance of such opportunities our Father in Heaven has given us.]

The son’s obligation opened the door to a debate among aharonim about the role of a court, Minhat Hinuch points out. For circumcision, the Gemara inferred the local court had to ensure the baby was circumcised if the father did not, but makes no such point about pidyon. They might, however, coerce the son to perform the mitzvah, as is their role with other mitzvot.

Minhat Hinuch also wonders about the son redeeming himself as a child. While a child’s mitzvah observances usually do not count, if our focus is on the financial element, perhaps the kohen having received the five sela’im would be effective, regardless of whether the one giving those sela’im was not yet a competent adult (ditto for a shoteh, someone not currently in their right mind, who gives the money and later recovers.)

Were People Redeeming Their First-Born?

Sefer Ha-Hinuch encourages early observance, despite the Torah’s not setting a time for it. With circumcision, for contrast, the Torah says to do it on the eighth day (even on Shabbat); for pidyon, the Torah sets only a start time, from a month old. From the Torah itself, there is no obvious difference between a father who redeems a two-month old son seems to have done the same mitzvah as the one who redeemed his son on day 31.

Sure, we often say zerizim makdimim le-mitzvot, better to do a mitzvah sooner, but that’s no different for pidyon ha-ben than any other mitzvah. Nonetheless, Sefer Ha-Hinuch chooses here to remind readers hacham lev yikah mitzvot, Mishlei 10;8, reading it as “the wise of heart acquires mitzvot.”

One more oddity of Sefer Ha-Hinuch’s presentation stands out to me, and perhaps explains the other idiosyncrasies I have pointed out. Without explaining why, he details the whole ceremony for pidyon ha-ben, like we might find in a siddur, repositories of lay halachah then and now. He does not do this in general, either.

We have four ways Sefer Ha-Hinuch went out of his way surprisingly. He emphasized the significance of failing to observe it, reminded us the main obligation stays with the father despite the son’s also becoming obligated when he reaches adulthood, encourages early performance, and includes a manual for the ceremony.

It makes me wonder if pidyon ha-ben was a weakened observance in Sefer Ha-Hinuch’s time and he was trying to rejuvenate its observance.

I have skipped much, including Aruch Ha-Shulhan’s long discussion of Rema’s ruling a father cannot redeem his son by messenger. The ins and outs are beyond our space limitations, but if we accept Rema’s idea (as many do not), it would mean the Torah insisted on the father’s direct involvement in recovering this first-born son for the family.

Because while the Jewish people might have had a nation where half the families had someone set aside for God’s service, we instead have a world when one clan cares for that, the rest of the families raising all their children, including first-born, in the warm embrace of a loving family. Or, at least, one willing to pay five sela’im to keep the kid.

About Gidon Rothstein

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