Hashem spoke to Moses, saying: Sanctify to Me every firstborn — the one that first opens the womb in birth — among
the Israelites. Among both man and beast, it is Mine….
You will then bring to Hashem every firstborn. Whenever you have a young firstborn animal, the males belong to
Hashem….You must redeem every firstborn among your sons.(1)
This is one of the 613 Commandments of the Torah: to «sanctify» every firstborn male. If it is the firstborn of a kosher animal, then it is given to a kohain-priest. If it is the firstborn of a Jewish woman, then it is «redeemed» from a kohain-priest. That is a requirement that a father must fulfill, if his wife has a firstborn son.
By «redeem,» the Torah means that a certain amount of money must be given to a kohain in a sort of symbolic exchange for the firstborn boy.
The Special Status of Firsts
Why the firstborn? What is so special about being the first baby boy born to your mother?
The Sefer Hachinuch points out that in general, firsts have a special status. The Torah tells us to bring our first fruits to the kohanim-priests at the Holy Temple, and to do the same with our firstborn kosher animals. Our firstborn sons have a special status as well. Why is this?
It is because Hashem wants to purify us and give us merit by our performing a Commandment involving the first of all we produce, so that we know that everything in the universe belongs to Hashem. Anything a human being has, in any situation at any time, he has only because it has been allotted to him by the loving kindness of Hashem.
After putting in so much effort, and doing so many different things in order to reach this point and to produce this
result, when he finally sees that result he cherishes that end product more than anything else. Yet what does he do with
it? He immediately gives it away to Hashem!(2)
It’s sort of like your first paycheck, the one you received for the very first week of your very first job. You want the money, of course, but you also want to save the check. Some people make a copy of it and save it. Years ago, shopkeepers used to take the first few dollar bills they made and paste them to the wall behind the counter. Those were the first «fruits» of their labor in their new business, and they wanted to memorialize them.
We cherish our first fruits, and we always remember them fondly.
What then do we Jews do with our first fruits? We offer them, our most beloved fruits, to Hashem. We acknowledge that everything we can ever have comes from Hashem. No matter how much work we put into it, we have it only out of Hashem’s goodness. And we wish to thank Hashem for the boundless good He has offered us.
In ancient times, it was the practice of many Gentile cultures to sacrifice their children to their idols. The Torah does not ask this of us (and in fact forbids it). The Torah asks us to send our adult firstborn sons to work in the Holy Temple for a few months of every year. They were also expected to be religious leaders.
The Torah is also the first of Hashem’s creations, as it says, «G-d made me at the beginning of His doing things, the first of His works of long ago. In the distant past I was chosen, I was of the first, of those who preceded the earth.»(3) The Torah is
therefore very beloved to Hashem.
And it says, «Thus says Hashem: Israel is My son, My firstborn,»(4) and therefore we are very beloved to Hashem. We, the
Jews, are set aside for the special Torah Service that we must do. It is for that Service that we have been Chosen.
The Children of Israel are also called «the first of all nations.»(5) We are therefore taught, «Israel is holy to Hashem’s, the first
fruits of His harvest: whoever tries to destroy her will be held guilty, and evil will befall him, says Hashem.»(6)
Therefore, we, the firstborn of all nations, who are set aside to do Holy Service to Hashem, do ourselves set aside the firstborn of our families, and dedicate them to serving Hashem.
Our Forefathers knew of the special holy status of the firstborn. This is why Jacob negotiated with his brother Esau for the birthright. Esau, says the Torah, by selling the birthright to Jacob, «denigrated the birthright of the firstborn.»(7)
The Sefer Hachinuch(8) tells us that in addition to «firsts» being special to us, dedicating our firstborn sons has another reason. It is to commemorate and thank Hashem for the great miracle that He performed for us in Egypt. Hashem had repeatedly warned the Egyptians, and had already sent them nine plagues, but they refused to release the Children of Israel from slavery. Whereupon Hashem forced the Egyptians to release us, by killing their firstborn sons and firstborn animals, and by saving our firstborn sons and animals. And when Hashem performed the Plague of the firstborn against the Egyptians, He passed over our houses and saved our firstborn from dying.
In gratitude and recognition of Hashem’s taking care of us through all this, everything that is firstborn has a certain special status. Hashem has commanded that we devote our firstborn sons to serving Hashem in the Holy Temple. Our firstborn animals are also holy, and we offer them up to Hashem by giving them to the people who do the work at the Holy Temple.
And this is why only a male child or animal gets redeemed. Only the male firstborn of Egypt were killed, and therefore only the male firstborn of Israel were saved from danger.
So the firstborn have two reasons for having a special status. As firstborn, it is a greater gift than any other. In addition, they were spared from death in Egypt more so than all other Jews were spared. While all Jews thank Hashem for His saving them from death in Egypt, the firstborn sons have an additional reason to thank Hashem.
The Import of this Special Status
Therefore, the firstborn sons of Israel had a very high and holy status. They were the original kohanim-priests. They performed all priestly tasks during the first few months after the Israelites left Egypt. They officiated when any sacrifice was brought.
It’s important to understand what «holy» means in Judaism. «Holy» means special, and set aside from other things. If someone or something is «holy to Hashem,» then it is dedicated to Hashem, and may not be used for anything else. That is what the Torah means by «sanctify»— set it aside for holiness.
The Children of Israel are holy to Hashem, and therefore are granted the special status of performing various holy functions, and, conversely, may not commit many acts that are permitted to non-Jews. Similarly, the firstborn had yet a higher level of holiness, and were set aside for the Holy Service in the Holy Temple.
There are numerous levels of holiness. The status of the firstborn was so holy, that they were not allowed to do any tasks that were not holy. Everything they did had to be holy. If they built a house, it would become holy, and would automatically belong to the Holy Temple.
Hashem therefore instituted the Redeeming of the Firstborn. When a firstborn son is thirty days old, the father would give five sela’im, or the value of five sela’im, to the firstborn who were working as priests, doing the Holy Service. Then the firstborn son was allowed to do mundane, secular work, but he was still privileged to do the Holy Service.
Now we can understand what the Torah tells us in Exodus:
Hashem spoke to Moses, saying: Sanctify to Me every firstborn — the one that first opens the womb in birth — among the Israelites. Among both man and beast, it is Mine….
You will then bring to Hashem every firstborn. Whenever you have a young firstborn animal, the males belong to Hashem….You must redeem every firstborn among your sons.
Your child may later ask you, «What is this?»
You must answer him, «With a show of power , Hashem brought us out of Egypt, the place of slavery. When Pharaoh stubbornly refused to let us leave, Hashem killed all the firstborn in Egypt, man and beast alike. I therefore sacrifice to Hashem all male firstborn animals, and redeem all the firstborn of my sons.»(9)
Firstborn kosher animals were given to any kohain-priest you chose, which means another firstborn. The kohain then had it ritually slaughtered at the Holy Temple. Most of the animal was eaten by the Kohain and his family, and parts of it had to be burned on the Holy Altar at the Holy Temple.
That was the status as of the time of the Exodus. But since then, a number of things have changed.
Replaced, But Still Holy
Not very long after we left Egypt, some of the Gentiles who had left Egypt with the Children of Israel tricked many of the Israelites into worshiping an idol, the golden calf. The firstborn were also involved in that sin, as well as many other men. Therefore, the firstborn lost their lofty positions as kohanim, and no longer were allowed to officiate with sacrifices or other priestly duties, and they therefore no longer received the Priestly Gifts (such as the Firstborn animal, the tithes, and all the other things given to kohanim). The firstborn still have a special status, but not as kohanim.
However, the entire Tribe of Levi did not sin. They remained completely loyal to Hashem, and never worshiped the golden calf. Because of that, Hashem awarded to them the job of serving Hashem at the Holy Temple. Most of them did service as Levites. Aaron the Levite became the High Priest, and his descendants became the kohanim.
But what about the firstborn? How do we commemorate the fact that Hashem saved them from death in Egypt?
Since the Torah commanded that each firstborn son still be considered holy, we perform a ceremony in which we acknowledge the miracle that Hashem did for all the firstborn. Now, when a firstborn son is redeemed, it is because he is no longer a kohain. He has certain advantages as a firstborn, but he may no longer do the Holy Service at the Holy Temple.
Therefore the Torah says:
Hashem spoke to Moses, instructing him, I have separated the Tribe of Levi from the other Israelites so that they may take the place of all the firstborn among the Israelites, and the Levites shall be Mine.(10)
How is this replacement to be done? By means of the Pidyan Haben, the Redemption Ceremony of the firstborn. When a firstborn boy is thirty days old, his father recites the relevant blessing, and gives the value of five sela’im to a proper kohain-priest of his own choosing.
Even though the firstborn sons were no longer allowed to perform the Holy Service at the Holy Temple, and even though each firstborn son must be redeemed at the age of thirty days, the firstborn sons of Israel will always retain a measure of holiness.
For the Laws and Customs of the Redemption of the firstborn, please read my article: Pidyan Haben: How to Redeem Your firstborn Son.
1. Exodus 13:1, 12-13
2. Book of Jewish Education, by HaRav Reb Aharon HaLevi of Barcelona, around the year 1350, Mitzvah #18
3. Proverbs 8:22-23
5. Amos 6:1
6. Jeremiah 2:3
7. Genesis 25:34
8. Loc cit
9. Exodus 13:1-16
10. Numbers 3:11