OF PIGEONS AND PRIESTS: REDEMPTION OF THE FIRSTBORN
Most lifecycle events in traditional Judaism are well known by the majority of Jews. After all, who hasn't been present at, or at least heard of, a Bris (circumcision), a Bar/Bas Mitzvah, or a Chuppah (Jewish wedding canopy), etc.
But I am willing to bet that there are a great many Jews out there who have never been present at, nor have even heard of, one of the more interesting and somewhat strange lifecycle events in the life of a Jewish boy - the Redemption of the Firstborn - known in Hebrew as the Pidyon Haben. (I myself have thus far only attended three of these ceremonies!)
Even the Hebrew name of this strange ritual lends to the unfamiliarity and confusion that this unique mitzvah seems to enjoy among many Jews - when you first hear it spoken, it sounds a lot like "pigeon hopping" - leading people who aren't in the know to believe that Pidyon Haben is some sort of weird, superstitious ritual involving birds.
I believe there is a good reason for this mitzvah's seeming lack of popularity - and this in spite of the fact that it is one of the 613 Biblical commandments in the Torah. Let us first briefly explore the ritual of Pidyon Haben.
"YOUR MONEY OR YOUR SON!"
As explained in the Artscroll Siddur (Prayer Book) commentary, when a male baby who is his mother's first conception becomes a month old, his father must "redeem" him by giving five silver shekels to a Kohen (priest). The main source for this Biblical commandment can be found in this week's Torah portion, Parshas Korach, where G-d commands the Jewish people ".... you shall surely redeem the firstborn of man .... Those that are to be redeemed - from one month shall you redeem according to the valuation, five silver shekels by the sacred shekel; it is twenty gera" (Numbers 18:15-16).
It is commonly accepted that five silver dollars are adequate for the performance of this mitzvah although some authorities hold that the silver dollar is less than the shekel and so seven dollars should be used. Ideally, the mitzvah should be performed as soon as the baby is over a month old, but it can be performed at any time during the child's life. (So if you’re a firstborn son and you never did this mitzvah, speak to your local rabbi.) The rule is, though, that the sooner we can perform a mitzvah the better, so we generally redeem the firstborn at the earliest opportunity.
Like the marriage and circumcision ceremonies, the redemption is celebrated with a festive meal. The ceremony is customarily performed as soon as the guests are seated and have made the Hamotzi blessing over bread. Thereupon the baby is brought to the place where the father and the Kohen are seated. To show love for the mitzvah, the baby is usually brought on a silver tray and bedecked in jewelry.
The father and the Kohen stand. The father holds his child and declares to the Kohen that this is indeed his firstborn son, whom he wishes to redeem according to the commandment of the Torah. The Kohen then asks the father, "Which do you prefer: to give away your firstborn son, who is the first issue of his mother's womb, or do you prefer to redeem him for five shekels as you are required to do by the Torah?"
[Despite the implication that the father has the choice of leaving his son with the Kohen if he prefers not to part with five shekels, this is not so. Sorry, parents …. even if your infant son is "colicky" and is keeping you up all night long and driving you nuts, you can't just dump him off on the Kohen and keep the money for yourself! Firstly, the Torah requires the father to redeem his son. Furthermore, the child is not the property of the Kohen and is not taken from his parents even if the father refuses to redeem him. Rather, this question is so framed in order to increase the father's love for his son and for the mitzvah of redeeming him.]
The father then replies that he wishes to redeem his son, and, with the redemption money in hand, recites two blessings - one on the performance of the mitzvah of Pidyon Haben, and a She-he-cheeyanu to thank G-d for having brought him to this joyous occasion. The Kohen accepts the money and, while swinging it in a circular motion over the infant's head, says, "This is instead of that; this is in exchange for that; this is pardoned because of that. May this son enter into life, into Torah, and into fear of Heaven. May it be Your will that just as he has entered into this redemption, so may he enter into the Torah, the marriage canopy, and good deeds, Amen."
The Kohen places his right hand on the infant's head and blesses him with the Priestly Blessings. The Kohen then hands the infant to his father, and takes a cup of wine and recites the blessing over it. The festive meal in celebration of the mitzvah continues, followed by Grace after Meals. [For the complete version of the Pidyon Haben ritual with all the prayers, see The Artscroll Siddur pages 218-221.]
Now you must know that not every firstborn child is eligible for the mitzvah of Pidyon Haben. There are a whole host of exemptions.
Obviously, if one gave birth to a girl first, the son who was born after that would not be considered "the first issue of his mother's womb", and would thus not be required to be redeemed. Additionally, the Talmud teaches that only a son born through a vaginal delivery is required to be redeemed, not one born through caesarian section. Also, if there were any miscarriages prior to the birth of this son, he would not be considered the "first issue" and would not require redemption. Finally, if the son was born to parents who descend from the tribe of Levi (meaning that the boy's father or his mother's father is a Kohen or a Levi), he does not require a redemption.
Considering all these "redemption exemptions", it is no wonder that many Jews are not so familiar with the ritual of Pidyon Haben. Whereas every boy requires a Bris, only a firstborn son with no girls (or miscarriages) ahead of him, who wasn't delivered by C-section, and whose parents are not from Kohen or Levi families, would require a redemption .... and that doesn’t occur too frequently.
THE RATIONALE FOR THE MITZVAH OF PIDYON HABEN
In declaring that firstborn males must be redeemed, the Torah teaches that G-d laid claim to all firstborn Jews at the time that He killed all the firstborn Egyptians in the last of the Ten Plagues. As G-d said to Moses immediately following the last plague: "Sanctify to Me every firstborn, the first issue of every womb among the Children of Israel .... is Mine" (Exodus 13:1).
The salvation of the Jewish firstborn from the plague is what consecrated them to G-d; by extending His protection over them, G-d "acquired" them, as it were.
And it is due to this special sanctity that the firstborn sons enjoy which consecrates them for Divine service as "acquisitions" of G-d, that we are obligated to "redeem" them, thus releasing them of their special status, and permitting them to engage in mundane pursuits, just like everyone else.
Now I know that this sounds like a really strange concept .... the firstborn sons were saved by G-d in Egypt, and that made them become holy, requiring their fathers to redeem them by giving money to the Kohen, who represents
G-d. The truth is, though, that there is a really important lesson in this seemingly strange mitzvah.
The Bible commentators point out that without being redeemed, the firstborn would remain consecrated, and would not be permitted to do any mundane activities. Which means that, in essence, the redemption serves to remove the special sanctity that the child enjoyed until now! And for this we rejoice and make a festive meal?? If the redemption serves to lessen the infant's holiness, why do we celebrate the event?
Rabbi Yaakov Kamenetsky ZT”L, in his classic Bible commentary Emes L’Yaakov, explains that the celebration at the Pidyon Haben goes to the heart of what it means to be a Jew. Whereas in some other religions, being holy and consecrated and removed from the mundane, physical world is considered to be a high spiritual level, the Jewish belief has always been that the physical and the spiritual are not in conflict. We don't remove ourselves from the mundane world in order to become holy. On the contrary, we sanctify and elevate the physical world by using it properly in the manner which the Torah describes.
We therefore celebrate the redemption of the firstborn because it enables the child to bring sanctity to activities which would have been forbidden to him otherwise. No longer consecrated, the child can now take the physical world in which he lives, and find meaning and spirituality in his daily life.
And that is the entire purpose of a Jew's being put here on earth in the first place so it is definitely cause for great celebration!
[Sources: The Artscroll Siddur (Prayer Book) pages 218-221]