Parashat Bo 5766/ February 4, 2006
Lectures on the weekly Torah reading by the faculty of
Pidyon Ha-ben --Redeeming the First-born
Rabbi Aviad Stollman
and Helene Shulman Basic Jewish
The first mention of the consecration of the first-born occurs in this week’s reading: “Consecrate to Me every first-born; man and beast, the first issue of every womb among the Israelites is Mine” (Ex. 13:2). Further on, in parashat Mishpatim, we receive greater clarification: “You shall give Me the first-born among your sons” (Ex. ). Without this clarification in parashat Mishpatim we might understand that there is no duty to actively give one’s first-born to the Lord, but that belonging to the Lord (consecration), like the holiness of the first-born, happens automatically and is not the result of any human action. How are we to understand actually “giving” the first son to G-d? Giving one’s first-born to the Lord could be understood in the way of Hannah’s vow to give her son Samuel to Eli, the priest: “When the child is weaned, I will bring him. For when he has appeared before the Lord, he must remain there for good” (I Sam. ).
These two verses in Bo and Mishpatim oblige every father to give his first-born son to the Lord. There are, however, two other biblical sources that provide the option of redeeming the son. This week’s reading devotes several verses to the subject, and provides an explanation of this commandment to redeem the first-born (Ex. -15):
And when the Lord has
brought you into the land of the Canaanites … you must redeem every
first-born male among your children.
And when, in time to come, your son asks you, saying, “What does this
mean?” you shall say to him, “It was with a mighty hand that the Lord brought
us out from
The second source is found at the end of parashat Korah. Scripture there details the procedure for redeeming first-born sons in actual practice (Num. -18). The problem arises when we note that these two sources do merely give the option of redeeming the first-born, rather they make it obligatory to perform this rite of redemption. Now that we are faced with two obligations – to consecrate our first-born son and to redeem him – perhaps we are obliged to perform both of these acts? Is it not feasible both to give one’s first-born to the Lord, and only afterwards to redeem him?
This question was answered by Maimonides in Sefer ha-Mitzvot (positive command 80): “The Torah explained how this act of giving is to be done, namely that we redeem him from the priest, as if he [the priest] had already received him [the first-born], and so we buy him [the first-born] back from him [the priest] for five sela coins. That is what is meant by the words, ‘but you shall have the first-born of man redeemed’ (Num. ).” In Maimonides’ opinion, redeeming accomplishes both acts. In other words, we are dealing here not only with redeeming, but also with giving, “as if he had already received him, and so we buy him from him.” Thus we see that an independent preliminary stage of giving is not required.
In contrast to Maimonides’ view above, that there is no independent commandment to consecrate, only the commandment to redeem, the ge’onim ruled that in the rite of redeeming one’s son the priest shall ask the father, “Which would you prefer, to have your first-born son or to have the five sela with which you are obliged to redeem him?” The father then responds, “I would rather have my first-born son, so here are five sela to redeem him.” This dialogue is in fact part of the Pidyon ha- ben ceremony to this very day. Are we to understand from this new formulation that the father has the option of leaving the newborn in the hands of the priest? Did the ge’onim presume that it was possible to actually give one’s first-born to him? A variety of explanations have been given for the formulation set forth by the ge’onim, some of which we shall present below. All, however, rule out the halakhic option of leaving one’s first-born in the hands of the priest.
The earliest authority to
make this point appears to have been Rabbi Israel Isserlein
That does not mean he is given a choice, for if the father wished to leave his son with the priest he would not thereby have fulfilled the commandment, … rather this is said in order to make the father happy about redeeming his son, to make him want to redeem him; for perhaps he feels hesitant about redeeming him for so much money.
In other words, the ge’onim instituted this formulation in order to soften the commandment to redeem one’s son for those fathers who might have been hesitant about spending so much money. Thus Rabbi Bachrach provided a psychological-sociological context for the formulation instituted by the ge’onim.
A different explanation of quite some interest was offered by Rabbi Shelomo Zalman Auerbach in his responsa, Minhat Shelomo (Part I, par. 62), also based on the understanding that the ge’onic formulation was intended for simple folk. In his opinion, it was not a means of intimidation, as Rabbi Bachrach had suggested, rather a means to prevent misunderstanding the process of redeeming, because such a misconception might defeat the legal-halakhic efficacy of the rite:
It could be that anyone who thinks that upon the birth of a first-born son he must give five sela charity to the priest – having no idea that through this act he is redeeming his son – did not in fact redeem his son, and the priest must return his money to him. Perhaps the ge’onim therefore instituted the formulation “Which would you prefer…,” so that the common folk would know that this is not simply an act of giving charity, rather of redeeming.
A different approach was
suggested by Rabbi Yehiel Michal
In his opinion, the expression used by the ge’onim does not attest that one could actually give one’s first-born to the kohen, rather it indicates the possibility of letting the first-born remain in the state of sanctity that pertains to first-borns. A similar idea occurs in the writings of the biblical exegete, Rabbi Ovadiah Sforno (Italy, 15th-16th century), who maintained that redeeming one’s son is intended to redeem the first-borns from the extra sanctity given them at the time of the plague on the first-borns of Egypt, in order to save them from death – “consecrating the first-born humans among the Israelites like Nazirites, or even more so, setting them aside for the worship of the Lord, blessed be He, and forbidding them to do common work.” Therefore, after the Exodus, it was necessary to restore them to their original state, “so that they could do regular work.”
According to Rabbi
Ovadiah Sforno’s view, the
first-borns were distinguished by two types of sanctity.
One type of sanctity of first-borns had
to do with their being destined for