Parshas Bo mentions the mitzvah of pidyon haben, redeeming the bechor, the first-born boy. The mitzvah is performed optimally when the baby turns a month old, by giving a cohen five sela’im, equal to about 96 grams, of silver (Chazon Ish).
The dollar value of the five sela’im varies, depending on the market price of silver. Some people have the custom of giving the cohen six coins, in case the coins are defective and do not contain enough silver.
WHO IS REQUIRED TO REDEEM THE BECHOR?
The obligation rests on the father of a boy who is the first-born of his mother and was born through natural delivery. If the father is a cohen or a levi, or if the mother is the daughter of a cohen or a levi, there is no mitzvah of pidyon haben. Since pidyon haben is dependent on the boy being the first-born of his mother, her pedigree is taken into consideration concerning whether there is a requirement to redeem her son (Bechoros 47a).
If a boy is born from a non-Jewish father and a bas levi, there is also no mitzvah of pidyon haben since his mother is the daughter of a levi. However, if a boy is born from a non-Jewish father and a bas cohen, there is a mitzvah. Since the daughter of the cohen has violated her kedusha by being with a gentile, she loses her status as a bas cohen. Because of this relationship, she loses her rights as the daughter of a cohen – for example, she may no longer eat terumah even when we can reestablish tehorah.
Similarly, the son of a yisroel who marries a bas cohen who had previously been with a gentile is required to be redeemed.
Incidentally, there are poskim who rule that the grandson of a non-Jewish father and a bas levi is also excluded from pidyon haben. This means that the son of a non-Jewish father and a bas levi does not have a mitzvah to redeem his son. Since this man does not have a Jewish father, he is considered to be a levi pasul who is not obligated to perform pidyon haben on the basis of his mother being a bas levi. (Note that Shu’t Maharam Shick, Yoreh Deah #299 rejects this ruling.)
WHAT HAPPENS IF A COHEN MARRIED A DIVORCEE?
If a cohen married a divorcee or any other woman prohibited to him, the children born are challalim, which means that they have become defiled from kehuna. The daughters may not marry cohanim, and the first-born son born to this cohen from this woman needs to be redeemed just like any yisroel. Furthermore, his son’s son will also require pidyon haben like any other yisroel.
WHAT IS THE HALACHA OF A BECHOR BORN THROUGH CAESARIAN SECTION?
There is no mitzvah of pidyon haben if the boy was delivered through caesarian section. His younger brother is also not considered a first-born even if he is born through natural delivery. Similarly, a boy born after a miscarriage is not a bechor for purposes of the mitzvah of pidyon haben (Bechoros 46a). This last halacha depends on how far advanced was the terminated pregnancy, a topic that we will leave for a different time.
WHAT HAPPENS IF NO ONE REDEEMS THE BECHOR?
If the father cannot or does not redeem the bechor, other people can redeem him but are not required to do so. However, if no one redeemed the bechor as a child, then he is required to redeem himself when he becomes an adult (Kiddushin 29a).
Many men who are not from an observant background did not have a pidyon haben. At a pidyon haben that I once performed (I am a cohen), the grandfather of the newly redeemed baby came over to me, saying, “You know, I am also a first-born and a baal tshuva. I can’t imagine anyone ever made a pidyon haben for me.” And so two pidyonim were performed on the same day, one for the grandson and one for the grandfather!
WHAT IS THE PROCEDURE?
As opposed to other mitzvos such as bris mila and a wedding where the mitzvah is performed first and then the festive meal is eaten, pidyon haben is performed during the meal in order to call attention to the mitzvah.
The procedure is as follows: after the assembled have made hamotzi and taken their seats, the father brings the bechor to the cohen, who is seated at a place of honor. The custom is to bring the bechor on a large silver platter. Many have the custom of placing sugar cubes, cloves of garlic, and jewelry on the platter. The father declares to the cohen that the baby is a first-born child, a male that must be redeemed.
The cohen then responds with the famous and enigmatic question: “Mai Ba-is Tefay?” Which do you prefer? Would you rather have your child or the five sela’im of pidyon?
The father responds that he would prefer his son, and that he is prepared to redeem his son. He then recites the bracha on the mitzvah and the bracha of shehechiyanu, and places the coins into the cohen’s right hand. The cohen waves the coins over the head of the bechor while blessing him. Then the cohen recites the Birkas Cohanim and other words of blessing on the head of the bechor. The procedure is completed by the cohen reciting a bracha on a cup of wine and drinking it.
WHAT DOES IT MEAN WHEN THE COHEN SAYS “MAI BA-IS TEFAY?” DOES THE FATHER REALLY HAVE A CHOICE?
The wording of the cohen’s question, “Which do you prefer?” implying that the father has a choice is extremely strange. Halachically, there is no choice or option. The father has a mitzvah to fulfill, which he is required to observe. So why does the cohen suggest to the father that he has a choice?
The text of our pidyon haben ceremony goes back 1,000 years, and since that time probably tens of thousands of interpretations have been suggested for this question. Think of your own answer to this question, and you’ll have something to share with others the next time you attend a pidyon haben!
WHY DO SOME PEOPLE PLACE GARLIC CLOVES AND SUGAR CUBES ON THE PLATTER THAT HOLDS THE BABY?
There are many customs that have developed around the mitzvah of pidyon haben. Some people place pieces of garlic, sugar cubes, or candies alongside the bechor when he is brought in for the pidyon. Among the many reasons I have heard for this custom: The sugar cubes show that the mitzvos are sweet, and garlic is a symbol and segula for fertility.
WHEN IS THE PIDYON PERFORMED? WHY IS THE MINHAG TO PERFORM PIDYON HABEN IN THE AFTERNOON?
The Torah says that the mitzvah is to redeem the bechor when he turns a month old.
How does one determine that a child is a month old? Although one is accustomed to thinking of a Jewish month as being either 29 or 30 days long, these are actually calculations of the calendar which deal only with complete days. There is a dispute in halacha as to how one determines that the bechor is a month old.
One opinion follows the day-count method and rules that the pidyon haben should take place on the 31st day after the boy was born, counting his day of birth as day one (Magen Avraham 339:8).
However, others rule that a month for pidyon haben is determined by the astronomical method, meaning the same amount of time that transpires from one new moon to the next. Since the time that transpires from one new moon to the next is 29 days, 12 hours and 793/1080 of an hour (usually called 793 chalakim), the time for pidyon haben begins when the bechor is exactly 29 days, 12 hours and 793 chalakim old (Shach 305:12).
The common practice is not to perform a pidyon haben until both opinions have been fulfilled.
Usually, by the morning of the 31st day, the bechor is 29 days, 12 hours and 793 chalakim old. However, if the bechor was born shortly before sunset on a long summer day, daybreak on the morning of the 31st day is less than 29 days, 12 hours and 793 chalakim since his birth. In this situation, one should wait to perform the pidyon until he is 29 days, 12 hours and 793 chalakim after birth (Pischei Tshuva 305:17). For this reason, it is a common custom to schedule a pidyon haben on the afternoon of the 31st day, which is always an appropriate time according to both opinions.
When the earliest time to perform the pidyon is on an erev Shabbos or erev Yom Tov, the pidyon should be scheduled in the morning (Mishna Berura 249:13). In the rare case that it is not yet 29 days, 12 hours and 793 chalakim after birth, one should calculate when the 29 days, 12 hours and 793 chalakim after birth falls out and schedule the pidyon then.
When the 31st falls on Shabbos or Yom Tov, the pidyon should be scheduled for Motzei Shabbos or Motzei Yom Tov (Shu”t Noda Biyehuda Tenina, Yoreh Deah #187).
WHAT DOES ONE DO IF THE THIRTY-FIRST DAY FALLS OUT ON A FAST DAY?
There are two practices mentioned by the poskim. One approach is to perform the pidyon during the fast day so as not to delay the opportunity to observe the mitzvah, and conduct the festive meal at night after the fast is over. The other approach is to delay the pidyon until the night after the fast, and then perform the pidyon during the meal as it usually is done (Shach, Yoreh Deah 305:12).
CAN ONE PERFORM THE MITZVAH OF PIDYON HABEN BY GIVING THE COHEN A CHECK OR A BOND?
One does not fulfill the mitzvah of pidyon haben if one gives the cohen an IOU note or a bond. The yisroel must give the cohen something that has inherent value such as merchandise. A check is an order of payment instructing the bank to release funds, but itself has no inherent value. Therefore a check is not equal to cash and is not valid for pidyon haben.
It should be noted that according to many prominent gedolei poskim, our paper money or coins should not be used for pidyon haben because they also do not have inherent value. (Shu”t Chasam Sofer, Yoreh Deah #134; Aruch Hashulchan (305:18) and Shu”t Oneg Yom Tov YD # 102 all rule not to use our money for pidyon haben.)
Usually the pidyon haben is performed with silver coins, although at one pidyon haben I performed the father handed me 96 grams of silver. When coins are used, they are often supplied by the cohen, in which case he sells them to the father before the pidyon. It is halachically acceptable for the father to pay for the coins by check when he buys them from the cohen, and then give those coins to the cohen for the pidyon.
CAN ONE FULFILL THE MITZVAH BY BUYING THE COHEN A PRESENT?
Yes, as long as the present is worth at least the value of five sela’im (96 grams of silver). However, the prevalent custom is to give the cohen silver coins as mentioned above.
MAY THE COHEN RETURN THE MONEY TO THE FATHER OF THE BECHOR?
The cohen may return the money. However, this should not be his regular practice since it might cause a loss of revenue to other cohanim because yisraelim may stop using them for pidyon haben (Shulchan Aruch Yoreh Deah 305:8). There are some poskim who contend that today the money should be returned since the cohen cannot prove that he is a cohen (Shu”t Yaavetz #155). However, the accepted practice is that the cohen does not return the money (Pischei Tshuva 305:12, quoting Chasam Sofer).
ONCE THE FATHER ASKED A COHEN TO BE THE COHEN AT HIS SON’S PIDYON HABEN, MAY HE SUBSEQUENTLY CHANGE HIS MIND AND USE A DIFFERENT COHEN?
Once the father has asked one cohen to “officiate” at the pidyon haben, he should not ask another cohen. However, if he does give the redemption money to a different cohen, the pidyon is valid (Rama 305:4).
MAY THE FATHER OF THE BECHOR DIVIDE THE MONEY FOR PIDYON HABEN BETWEEN TWO OR MORE COHANIM?
It is preferable not to do this, but if he did so, the pidyon is valid (Pischei Tshuva 305:10, quoting Chasam Sofer).
A RATIONALE FOR THE MITZVAH
It behooves us to consider the reason for the mitzvah of pidyon haben. Following the smiting of the first-born in Egypt, all first-born boys had a certain kedusha, which should have entitled them to a role of service in the Beis Hamikdash.
However, because the bechorim were involved in worshipping the Eigel Hazahav, the Golden Calf, they lost their unique status and could no longer perform any special role in the Beis Hamikdash. Therefore, the bechor must undergo a redemption ceremony to make amends which is to pay the cohen as a means of “redeeming” his former kedusha.