Last week our family participated in a ritual commanded in the Torah and associated with the birth of a baby boy, a mitzvah that has become increasingly rare in Jewish life: the Pidyon HaBen, or redemption of the firstborn son, which applies in only an estimated 5 to 10 percent of Jewish births.
What follows are a few thoughts about the little-explored custom and the little boy who has been the focus of my thoughts in recent days.
The Book of Exodus has the first of several references in the Torah to redeeming the firstborn. “Consecrate to Me every firstborn, man and beast; the first issue of every womb among the Israelites is Mine,” God tells Moses (Ch. 13, v. 2), who explains to the people: “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 … man and beast. Therefore I sacrifice to the Lord every first male issue of the womb, but redeem every firstborn among my sons.”
In ancient times, acknowledging God’s kindness in sparing the firstborn sons of the Israelites, those sons were dedicated to the priestly service in the Temple.
Though we no longer have the Temple, we continue to recall that tradition in having parents “reclaim” their firstborn son in a ritual where, on the 31st day after the birth, the father symbolically “pays” the kohen five silver coins to represent the release of the child from priestly service.
During the brief ceremony it is traditional for the baby to be placed on a silver platter — according to some customs, he is surrounded with precious jewelry, recalling how the Jewish people left Egypt bearing gifts from their former taskmasters.
The kohen accepts the coins as payment, blesses the child with the priestly benediction and returns him to his grateful parents
And so it was that we gathered in Los Angeles, where our younger son and his wife live, and observed the ritual, recognizing its primary message that all of our blessings come from God.
This was the third Pidyon HaBen ceremony in our immediate family. The first was for our older son; the second, almost 31 years later, for his firstborn son; and this third redemption was for our younger son’s new baby.
(Our daughter’s first child was also a boy, but she was exempt from the mitzvah because her husband is a kohen, and it was he who officiated at both of his nephews’ ceremonies.)
At first I was surprised to learn how few friends and associates had ever attended a Pidyon HaBen. But then I realized how few babies qualify for the ritual. According to Jewish law, it only applies to firstborn boys and to parents who are not descended from kohanim or Levites. In addition, since the Torah speaks in halachic terms of “he who opened his mother’s womb,” the mitzvah does not include the son of a woman who delivered through a caesarean birth or who had previously miscarried.
Our new grandson, Moshe Kol, is named for both his paternal and maternal great-grandfathers — each a Moshe. And as my son explained several weeks earlier at the brit milah, he and his wife chose the name Kol (Hebrew for voice) because both of their grandfathers were the voice of their respective communities — one a rabbi in Annapolis, Md., the other a cantor near Atlantic City, N.J.
And “Kol” is a reference to the power of music and prayer in our tradition, noted my son, a sweet singer and composer of soulful songs.
Holding this infant in my arms during our visit, coaxing him to sleep on my shoulders, I could not help but think of the rapidly changing world he enters, fraught with wonders, dangers and challenges, and of how the older generation tries to both impart life experience to — and at the same time learn from — the young.
It’s a delicate balance, and has been since the dawn of history. But what remains permanent despite all the scientific and technological advancements man has achieved is the miracle of birth, and the awe, joy and worries every parent encounters in assuming the responsibility for a new life.
For all the mystery surrounding Pidyon HaBen, the ritual reminds us again of the eternal promise God made to our ancestors, of our gratitude for the divine intervention in taking the Israelites out of slavery and into the land of Israel, and the commitment we renew in each generation to repair the world for those who come after us.
May Moshe Kol Rosenblatt grow to lend his voice to this noble endeavor, and may he be a source of pride to his family, community and Clal Yisrael.