Talmidav Shel Aharon
21-5767: Mitzvah 53-54
April 23, 2007
Mitzvah 53 – It is a positive commandment to sanctify firstborn males that open a womb.
Hafetz Hayim: As Scripture says: “Consecrate to Me every firstb0orn, whatever opens the womb among the children of Israel, both of man and of beast” (Ex. 13:2) and it is a religious duty to consecrate a firstborn pure (kosher) animal, saying, “this is herby holy” as Scripture states “All the firstling males … you shall consecrate to The Lord your G-d.” (Deut. 15:19) If on did not consecrate it, it is hallowed of itself. At the present time [when there is no Temple where it may be offered up] a firstling is to be allowed to graze until it develops a defect and then it is given to a Kohen. It applies to both men and women.
Mitzvah 52 –It is a positive commandment that an Israelite is to redeem his son who is a firstborn to his Israelite mother.
Hafetz Hayim: as Scripture states, “However, the firstborn son of a man you shall redeem” (Num. 18:15) This redemption is for five Shekels or movable goods worth five shekels. The redemption fee is to be given to the Kohen, and the money for the redemption is entirely non-holy. If the father of the firstborn son is a Kohen or a Levite, or the mother of the firstborn is the daughter of a Kohen or a Levite, he is free of the obligation of redeeming the son. The time for his redemption is after thirty days from his birth, as Scripture says, “And their redemption – from a month old you shall redeem them (Num. 18:16) if someone has no father he has a duty to redeem himself when he grow up. It is in effect everywhere in every time.
With the destruction of the Temple of Jerusalem, the first Mitzvah above has pretty much lapsed. While the Hafetz Hayyim notes that only a Kohen (a person of priestly descent) can benefit from the first born of all animals, he reminds others that they can not use that animal and it has the right to just live out its life until in becomes, for any reason, unfit for sacrifice, then it can be given or donated to a Kohen. Outside the land of Israel this is never done today and while I assume that it may still be performed in the land of Israel, it is of such little concern today that this is all I am going to say about it. I can only add that this is what applies to Kosher animals. Animals that are not fit for sacrificing will be handled in a future lesson.
The firstborn of human beings is quite a different matter. In the early days of our people, the firstborn of a family would become the religious head of the family. Such a boy was raised to make sure that all rituals performed by the family were done properly. The definition, which is important is that this boy should be the firstborn of his mother (if the firstborn is a girl, she did not qualify and the next child, if a son, was not the firstborn) If the boy was born by cesarean section, he was not qualified since he did not “open the womb”, if a subsequent boy was born normally, he would also not qualify since he was not “firstborn”.
Since we have established that the firstborn of all animals was to be dedicated to the Temple of Jerusalem, and since child sacrifice was banned from our earliest times, the firstborn son has to be redeemed from this service. After the incident of the golden calf in the wilderness, the ritual duties of the firstborn were given over to Aaron, the brother of Moses and his descendants forever. The other children of Levi, were also given duties in the Temple ritual. Still, a father had to “redeem” his firstborn from the sacred duties through a ceremony called “Pidyon HaBen” the “Redemption of the (firstborn) Son”. The father releases his son from his ritual duties by giving five shekels to a Kohen. Since the ancient Shekel was silver, the custom was to use five silver coins. The ceremony was followed by a “seudah Mitzvah” a “meal in celebration of a Mitzvah” and it was often a big event since the only other birth party would be the circumcision and that was on the eighth day after birth and it was difficult to invite and involve the community on such short notice. Pidyon HaBen was done after the 30th day from birth, so there was more time to make a special party in honor of the boy.
I believe that the reason the ceremony was done after the 30th day was due to the fact that, in past time, there was the reality of infant mortality. A boy who lived 30 days was considered to be a “survivor” and would then be redeemed.
The son of a Kohen or a Levi, or the boy born to a mother who was the daughter of a Kohen or a Levi, could not be redeemed since they were required, due to their genealogy, to serve in the Temple and they could not be redeemed from this service.
While there is no service yet created for a girl who is firstborn, many have included in the Simchat Bat ceremony, prayers reflecting her firstborn status.
One of the reasons given why firstborn boys (and girls today) were required to fast before the beginning of Pesach, was because the firstborn used to be the one responsible for the sacrifice of the Paschal lamb. This was taken from them (again, because of the incident of the golden calf) and they mourn this loss on the day they would have made the offering. Since “The study of Torah is greater than all the other Mitzvot” by studying Rabbinic works, finishing a major section was a cause for celebration and through this “Siyyum” “completion” ceremony, they would be released from their fast and would be able to eat.
Pidyon HaBen is like Brit Milah in that if, for any reason, a father does not circumcise or redeem his son, the son himself has the obligation to perform these rituals when he is old enough to be able to take care of them.