Pidyon Haben: A Jewish Ritual to 'Redeem' the Firstborn Son

In this ancient tradition, a Jewish firstborn son is 'redeemed' from the hands of a priest (Cohen) using silver coins.

Gil Cohen-Magen

The Pidyon Haben is an ancient ritual carried out for the firstborn son – if he was born naturally, not by caesarean, and if he does not belong to the priestly line – in which the father "buys back" his son from a Cohen (a Jew from the priestly line).

The ceremony takes place 30 days after the boy is born. It usually involves a festive meal, in which the baby, sometimes ornately dressed and bejeweled, is presented on a silver platter (literally) to a Cohen.

The father recites a formula (in Hebrew) announcing that the child is his first born and thus needs to be redeemed, quoting the Biblical passages commanding the redeeming of first born sons (Exodus 13:2: "Sanctify unto me all the firstborn, whatsoever openeth the womb among the children of Israel, both of man and of beast: it is mine,"  and Numbers 18:16: "And those that are to be redeemed from a month old shalt thou redeem, according to thine estimation, for the money of five shekels, after the shekel of the sanctuary, which is twenty gerahs").

Then the Cohen asks the father, in Aramaic, if he would rather give him the boy, or redeem him for five stones (an archaic amount of money in silver) according to the law.

The father then answers (in mixed Hebrew and Aramaic) that he prefers to have his son, and then recites a benediction thanking God for allowing him to live to complete the commandment (Shehechianu). Then the father gives the Cohen his payment (there is some disagreement on exactly how much is to be given, but many use specially minted coins of silver weighing 20 grams each), and receives his son in return.

The Cohen recites a benediction on a glass of wine, then recites the Priestly Blessing with his hands on the child’s head, which concludes the ceremony. The son has been redeemed.

By the way, a similar ceremony takes place when one’s she-ass has its first baby donkey: "Redeem with a lamb every firstborn donkey, but if you do not redeem it, break its neck. Redeem every firstborn among your sons." (Exodus 13:13).