Pidyon HaBen

What does true freedom mean to you? For some it is being able to do whatever you want. For others freedom is the abdication of responsibility. For me, true freedom is represented by a Jewish ceremony mentioned in today’s Torah portion I’ve only been to twice. I do not remember the first time I attended, as I was only 31 days old. The second time was at my former congregation two years ago. The ceremony is pidyon haben, the redemption of the firstborn son.

What is the ceremony of pidyon haben about? Originally, the first born males were supposed to serve G-d in the Temple. However, as enumerated in Tractate Megillah of the Jerusalem Talmud, the firstborn men rushed to sacrifice to the golden calf. As a result, the Levites were appointed to serve in the Temple instead. There were more firstborn males than Levites, and these extra firstborn were redeemed at five shekels apiece, which was given to Aaron and his sons. Five shekalim was a lot of money in Temple times, perhaps a penalty to increase the firstborns’ remorse for turning away from G-d.

We symbolically remember this redemption through continuing the ceremony of pidyon haben. The qualifications for redemption are that the child is male, the first issue of the womb, a natural birth and not descended from a Kohen or Levi on either side. These restrictions are what makes it so rare for this ceremony to be done. The ceremony occurs when the child is 31 days old except on a Shabbat or Festival, in which case it is pushed to the next date. At the ceremony, the parents bring their child to the Kohen, who says “Which is your preference: to give me your firstborn son, the first issue of his mother, or to redeem him for five shekalim, as you are obligated according to the Torah?” I have never heard of a parent choosing to give their 31 day old son to the Kohen! For redemption, five silver coins are given to the Kohen and are held over the baby boy’s head, indicating that this child is redeemed. If one was not redeemed as a child, Tractate Kiddushin in the Babylonian Talmud states that he must redeem himself as an adult. An example of this occurred two years ago, when a member of my former congregation redeemed himself at a pidyon haben.

What does this have to do with us? After all we now live in a post-Temple, egalitarian age. Some find pidyon haben to be sexist and have created pidyon habat ceremonies to symbolically redeem their first-born daughter. While the ceremony of pidyon haben might seem outdated or exclusive, a vestige of years past, I would argue that the principles behind it have everything to do with who and what we are. The first commandment is that G-d redeemed us from Egypt, a commandment which pervades the entire Torah. This demonstrates that before we could be free to worship the one true G-d, we needed to be redeemed from slavery. Similarly, there is merit to continuing the tradition of pidyon haben, acknowledging that true freedom must begin with redemption. May we actualize the teachings of pidyon haben to truly feel free to serve G-d and to lead our community? To crystallize this teaching through prayer, I ask that you turn with me to the reading Teach Us True Freedom and continue responsively.

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