Bar-Ilan University's Parashat Hashavua Study Center

Parashat Bo 5766/ February 4, 2006

Lectures on the weekly Torah reading by the faculty of Bar-Ilan University in Ramat Gan, Israel. A project of the Faculty of Jewish Studies, Paul and Helene Shulman Basic Jewish Studies Center, and the Office of the Campus Rabbi. Published on the Internet under the sponsorship of Bar-Ilan University's International Center for Jewish Identity. Prepared for Internet Publication by the Computer Center Staff at Bar-Ilan University. Inquiries and comments to: Dr. Isaac Gottlieb, Department of Bible,



Pidyon Ha-ben --Redeeming the First-born


Rabbi Aviad Stollman


Paul and Helene Shulman Basic Jewish Studies Center


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. 22:28).   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. 1:22).

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. 13:11-15):

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 Egypt, the house of bondage.  When Pharaoh stubbornly refused to let us go, the Lord slew every first-born in the land of Egypt, the first-born of both man and beast.  Therefore I sacrifice to the Lord every first male issue of the womb, but redeem every first-born among my sons.”

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. 18:15-18). 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. 18:15).”   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 (Austria, 15th century).  In his Terumat ha-Deshen (rulings and writings, par. 235), he replied to a query on the matter:   “Regarding your question, were he to give his son to the priest would he thereby have fulfilled the commandment as one does with the first-born of a donkey – that interpretation is not correct.”   Rabbi Isserlein’s response became incorporated in the Rema’s glosses on the Shulhan Arukh (Yoreh De’ah, par. 305.9), and was commented upon by Rabbi Abraham Zvi Hirsch Eisenstadt (Russia, 19th century), in Pit’hei Teshuvah (Yoreh De’ah, par. 305.15).  There he cites the explanation given by Rabbi Ya’ir Bachrach (Germany, 17th century) on the formulation of the ge’onim:

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 Epstein (Belorussia, 19th-20th century) in his Arukh ha- Shulhan (Yoreh De’ah, par. 305.35).  In his opinion, even in our own times the first-born sons are consecrated to the Lord, “like all things of kedusha (sanctity) that may not be profaned, and they (the first-born) must eat and perform all their actions in a state of sanctity.”   However, since it is impossible to bear this burden, “the Torah provides the solution of redeeming [the first-born], so that thereby they are removed from their state of sanctity, and this is what is meant by the priest saying, ‘Which would you prefer.’   There surely would be no father who would not want to redeem him.”

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 Temple worship.  This sanctity was cancelled following the sin of the golden calf, at which time “the Lord set apart the tribe of Levi” (Deut. 19:8), who had not been party to the sin, to take care of the Mishkan and later the Temple.   The other type of sanctity given them was, as we mentioned, in order to deliver them from the plague of the first-borns.  This was an extremely lofty and limiting type of sanctity, consecrating them “like Nazirites, or even more so, setting them aside for the worship of the Lord,” but it was not like the sanctity given the tribe of Levi.  The first-borns of Israel who are born today still have that second type of sanctity and therefore they must be redeemed, “so that they may participate in ordinary work.”   Thus we can now understand why the Israelites were given the commandment to redeem their sons at the time of the Exodus, with no relation to, and hence long before, their failing in the sin of the golden calf.