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This article should be read after my article
"An Exchange of Holiness: Redeeming the Firstborn Son"
One of the 613 Commandments in the Torah is for a father to "redeem" his Jewish wife's firstborn son.
Let us explain what is meant by the word "redeem." The child is never taken away, after all, and never has to be "bought" back. Nevertheless, the father of a firstborn child must give a kohain-priest of his choosing a specific amount of money (five sela'im--this will be explained later) to "redeem" his son.
It is important to note that the father may not give his son to the kohain, nor may the kohain take the child. The Torah commands the father to redeem his son from the kohain, and he has no choice in the matter. The father symbolically gives his son to the kohain, but only for the purposes of the Redemption. The Redemption must be performed. And like all the Commandments, a blessing is recited before it is performed.
In this article, I hope to discuss some of the basic Laws of the Redemption of the firstborn son, as well as the actual Ceremony performed.
First of all, the child's mother must be Jewish. If the mother is not Jewish, this Commandment does not apply, because the child is not Jewish anyway. If the mother is Jewish and the father is not Jewish, then the mother must perform the redemption, and when the boy reaches age 13 and a day, he should perform the Redemption again himself (without saying the blessing). If the non-Jewish father performs the redemption, it is not valid and must be redone by the mother or another Jew.
Only a male child gets redeemed. If a woman's firstborn child is a female, no redemption is performed for any child of that woman. This is because only the male firstborns were in danger of being killed, and therefore only the male firstborn were saved from danger.
Why weren't the firstborn Israelite girls in any danger? Because the Exodus from Egypt came about through the merit of the women of that generation (1), who put themselves through tremendous self-sacrifices to bear children in Egypt, and because the women of that generation never worshipped idols in Egypt the way many of the men did. Thus, the women had special protection, and this extended to baby girls as well. Therefore, only boy children were in any danger at all from that particular Plague, and thus they were saved by the Redemption of the Firstborn that Hashem commanded their fathers to perform (2).
Why do we redeem only the firstborn son of the woman, and not that of the man? The Rabbis explain that it is because Hashem's love for the Nation of Israel is like the love a mother has for her child, which is usually of greater intensity than even the love a father has for his child (3).
The kohain must also be a man, because it must be someone who is included in the Torah's Commandment to serve in the Holy Temple. Only male kohanim served in the Holy Temple.
It is the status of the mother that determines whether or not a child is considered a firstborn. The Torah described the child as a firstborn that "opens the womb." These words indicate a number of important factors. Some of them are:
If a woman converts to Judaism, gets married, and gives birth to a son, the same Laws apply as to any other Jewish woman. In other words, if this child is the first child to which she ever gave birth, then he must be redeemed. But if she had a child before she converted, no redemption is performed on any of her children.
If she converted while pregnant, and she gives birth to a firstborn baby boy after she has converted, the boy must be redeemed. However, no blessing is recited, and the child should do it for himself again after he becomes an adult (also without a blessing), since there is some question as to his status.
If either the father or mother is a kohain or a Levite, their son does not need redemption. If the status of either parent is not certain, one should ask a competent Orthodox Rabbi if one should make a Redemption at all. Even if a Redemption is to be done, in some cases there might have to be one without a blessing.
The Redemption must be performed on the thirty-first day of the child's life. If for some reason it was not performed then, it should be done as soon as possible.
It is forbidden to delay the redeeming of a firstborn baby boy. Even if a child is, G-d forbid, so sick that he has not been able to be circumcised yet, the Redemption is performed nevertheless.
Each day that the redemption is delayed is another instance of transgressing the Torah's Commandment to redeem one's firstborn son. Therefore, if for some reason the Redemption was delayed one day, do not continue to delay the performance of this Mitzvah.
If a firstborn son was never redeemed, it must be done even at a later time, no matter how old he is. If a seventy-year-old man, for example, realizes that he is a firstborn and was never properly redeemed, he must perform the Mitzvah immediately.
It is permitted to perform a Redemption at night. However, the general custom among Ashkenazic Jews is to do it during the day. Some Sefardic communities have the custom to perform it on the night after the thirtieth day. This is perfectly acceptable, because thirty days have passed, and the thirty-first day has already begun. Follow the custom of your local Orthodox community and the instructions of the Rabbi. Regardless of your Custom, if it will be impossible to perform the Mitzvah during the day, do it the night before and don't be concerned, because it is not a legal problem at all, just a matter of differing valid Customs among Jews. The important thing is that thirty days must have passed.
If a Redemption was performed before thirty days have passed, the Redemption is invalid, and must be redone. Even if the Redemption was done on the thirtieth day, it is invalid and must be redone.
Redemption of the Firstborn is not performed on the Sabbath or Yom Tov (Biblical Holiday), because that is forbidden. That is the only time that this Mitzvah is intentionally delayed. If the thirty-first day occurs on a Sabbath or Holiday, the Redemption is performed at night after the Sabbath or Holiday (some do it on the following day). The Redemption may not be performed on the previous Friday (or Erev Yom Tov), since thirty days will not yet have passed.
Redemptions may be performed on Purim, Chanukah, and even on Tisha b'Av. (If on Tisha b'Av, none of the festive aspects of the Ceremony are performed, and no feast is given.)
If the firstborn was born around sunset time, write down the exact time he was born, and discuss it with the Rabbi. The Laws of when to begin counting the thirty-one days are complex, and if the baby was born when the night is just beginning, a Rabbi must be consulted so we know which day to begin the count. If your Rabbi lives in a different city, make sure to inform him of your exact location, since sunset takes place at different times in different areas.
The Torah mandates an amount of five sela'im, or assets worth that much. This equals approximately 100 grams of silver. The calculations and measurements that are involved are much too complicated to be discussed here (nor am I expert enough in it to treat the subject properly).
Any amount less than five sela'im invalidates the Redemption, and it must be performed again with the proper amount. It is permissible to give the kohain more than the required amount, but not less. This is true even if the kohain is willing to take less. Neither the kohain nor the father, nor anyone else in the universe, has the right or authority to lesson or abrogate or change (even temporarily) the amount the Torah commands the father to give.
Nor may the kohain tell the father, "I am willing to forgo the Redemption money, and we will do it without any exchange of money or assets at all." The Torah commands the father to pay the kohain the value of five sela'im, and he must do so to fulfill the Mitzvah.
The Custom is to use silver money for the Redemption. In many countries, the amount of silver in silver coins changes with almost every minting. Therefore it is important to ascertain precisely how much silver there is in the coins you choose to use, so that the coins you use will have at least 100 grams of silver. (For example, four American silver dollars dated 1996 contain, all together, about 113.4 grams of silver. But this is not true of every year.) A good coin collectors' book should have that information.
It is also permissible, technically, to use assets (except real estate or I.O.U. notes, which are unacceptable) worth that much money, but the Custom today is to use silver coins if you can get them.
Experienced kohanim today often own the coins used for the Redemption of the Firstborn, and they are often willing to sell you some (you must own the coins you give the kohain) and accept them back again for the Redemption.
The giving of the money is an integral and necessary part of the Mitzvah. You must give the money with the intent that the kohain will truly own the money, and he must take it with that intent -- even if he gave you or sold you those coins in the first place.
The kohain is permitted to return the silver coins to the father at some later time, if he freely chooses to do so. This Law is for the benefit of poor people.
You must choose one kohain to whom to give the money. You may not divide the money among more than one kohain.
If you ask or tell a kohain to perform with you the Redemption, and he agrees to do it, you may not change your mind and use a different kohain. However, if you did so, for whatever reason, the Redemption is valid, and need not be performed again.
If possible, the Redemption should be performed with at least ten Jewish adult males present. However, it is more important to do the Mitzvah on time, so don't delay the Redemption to wait for the people to arrive.
The child should be there at the Redemption, but if that is not possible, the Redemption may be performed by the father and the kohain even without the child being there.
It is the custom to dress the child in nice clothing, and to adorn him with jewelry. Many women have the custom to loan a piece of their own jewelry for the occasion.
The parents should dress in their Sabbath clothing in honor of the Mitzvah.
First, all present should begin a Festive Meal by washing their hands for bread in the manner that Jewish Law commands. (If it is a fast day, no feast is given.)
Immediately after the breaking and the eating of the bread, before anything else is eaten, the Redemption is performed.
The child is placed on a large silver tray to be brought before the kohain. (Again, this is only if you can get such a tray. If not, never mind. There are also numerous free loan societies and individuals in many areas that will make all the items you need available to you. Ask your Rabbi.) The father then brings the child, on the silver tray, to the kohain. He should also prepare the money in advance, preferably also on a small silver tray, or at least on a nice, fancy tray, if possible.
The father, holding his son on the tray, stands before the kohain. The kohain may sit or stand, according to his Custom.
Much of the recitation that follows is entirely symbolic. Remember, the father has no choice in the matter. He is required to redeem this child regardless. The blessings, however, are mandatory. Nevertheless, if the Ceremony was performed, and the blessings were mistakenly ommitted, the Redemption is valid, and the blessings are not recited later, because then it is too late. The blessings must be recited immediately before the Mitzvah is performed.
The father declares: "This is my firstborn son. He is the first out of his Jewish mother's womb."
(If the child is not present, the father says: "I have a firstborn son to redeem. He is the first out of his Jewish mother's womb.")
In some communities, the father adds: "The Holy One, Blessed is He, commanded us to redeem him, as it says, 'His redemption, at age one month, shall be made with the value of the silver of five Sanctuary shekels, which is equal to twenty geirah.' And it says, '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.'"
The father places the tray with his son on the table.
The kohain declares: "Which do you prefer? Do you wish to give me your son, your firstborn, who is the first out of his mother's womb? Or do you wish to redeem him for the five sela'im as you are required to do by the Torah?"
The father responds: "I wish to redeem my son, and here is the money for his redemption, as I am required by the Torah."
The father then recites: "I am hereby prepared and ready to fulfill the Commandment of Redeeming the Firstborn."
The father picks up the money and recites the following two blessings, either in Hebrew or in English:
"Blessed are You Hashem our G-d, King of the universe, Who has made us holy with His Commandments, and commanded us concerning the Redemption of the Firstborn."
"Blessed are You, Hashem our God, King of the universe, Who has kept us alive, sustained us, and brought us to this moment."
The father then immediately hands over the money to the kohain's hand.
(Among many Sefardim, the kohain recites certain blessings at this point.)
The kohain places his hand on the child and blesses him:
"May Hashem make you as great as Ephraim and Menasheh. May Hashem bless you and keep watch over you; May Hashem make His Presence enlighten you, and may He be kind to you; May Hashem bestow favor on you, and grant you peace. May Hashem guard you from all evil, and guard your soul. Let many days and years of life and peace be given to you."
The kohain then lifts up a cup filled with wine and recites the blessing over wine:
"Blessed are You Hashem, our G-d, King of the universe, Who creates the fruit of the vine."
He drinks from the cup. The meal is resumed. If possible, the meal should include meat or chicken, and wine.
Many have the custom to distribute cloves of garlic during the meal. The reason for this seems to be that eating from the food distributed at the Redemption Meal of a firstborn is considered very praiseworthy, and garlic was very cheap. Besides which, one head of garlic can be divided up into many cloves, so it is possible to give many people one small piece very cheaply, and everyone has a small share in the Mitzvah Feast. (4). There are also Kabbalistic reasons as well, apparently (5).
This festive meal should not be treated as a mundane meal, and should include discussions of Torah. It is customary to invite Torah Scholars to enjoy the meal, and ask them to speak words of Torah and inspiration to those in attendance.
In Egypt, the night before the Israelites left Egypt, the Firstborn children of the Israelites were saved from death, as all the firstborn of Egypt were dying. While that was happening, the Israelites were sitting at the very first Passover Seder, and eating the Passover Lamb Sacrifice. They sat, spoke Torah, and sang praises to Hashem for His kindness to the Children of Israel. As you eat at the Festive Meal Celebrating the Redeeming of your (or your friend's) Firstborn Son, remember to thank and praise Hashem, as we did when our firstborn children were saved back then.
1. Babylonian Talmud, Sotah 11b
2. Maaseh Roke'akh, Bechoros; Chidah, Zeroa Yemin, 6a
3. Nachmanides, Exodus, Chapter 12-13
4. Pidyan Haben Kihilchaso, Rabbi Gedalyah Oberlander, 1993, Jerusalem, page 267-268, footnote 137
5. Ibid, page 298