Parashas Korach includes the Torah obligation to redeem firstborn sons: “Every first issue of a womb of any flesh that they offer to Hashem, whether man or beast, shall be yours; but you shall surely redeem the firstborn of man, and the firstborn of an impure beast you shall redeem” (Bamidbar 18:15).
There are two fundamental ways in which the obligation of pidyon haben can be understood. One follows the simple reading of the verse: the act of pidyon haben is an act of redemption, whereby the firstborn son is released from his attachment to the kehunah and the service of Hashem. The Seforno (Shemos 13:2; Bamidbar 3:13) understands pidyon haben in this way, writing that before he is redeemed, it is forbidden to use a firstborn child for any regular labor.
Yet, the Seforno’s restriction is not mentioned by any halachic source (the Gemara, Bechoros 9b, states explicitly that one can perform labor with a firstborn son, though this can refer to a firstborn after redemption), calling this understanding of the pidyon haben concept into question. Although the pidyon haben ceremony has the Kohen asking the father of the child, “Which do you desire more, your firstborn son or the five sela’im that you must pay for his redemption?” in a halachic sense it seems that the act of pidyon makes no change in the firstborn son’s status.
Rather than an act of redemption, a second possible understanding of pidyon haben sees the obligation as parallel to other matnos kehunah—gifts that are given to the Kohen. According to this understanding, the word pidyon refers to an exchange of money. When a person has a firstborn male child, he must pay the sum of five sela’im to the Kohen.
In the current article we will explore this question by means of several halachic issues that are related to the basic definition of pidyon haben. Can pidyon haben be performed via an agent? Must a child who has died be redeemed? Why do we recite a blessing over pidyon haben? And how do these questions relate to the essential nature of pidyon haben?
These questions, among others, are discussed below.
Redemption or Financial Debt?
In a ruling that many find perplexing, the Rema (Yoreh De’ah 305:10), rules that pidyon haben cannot be accomplished by means of an agent (a shaliach). Many poskim, including the Taz and Shach, disagree and that is the consensus. The Vilna Gaon (305:17) also disagrees and expresses his wonder at the Rema’s ruling: Why should pidyon haben be different from other mitzvos, for which an agent is able to act on behalf of his sender?
Moreover, the Vilna Gaon asks, it is surely possible to redeem a firstborn child even without the prior knowledge of the child’s father! We know that a person can redeem maaser sheini without the owner’s knowledge, and this should be even more true for pidyon haben, which the Vilna Gaon describes as being a simple payment of a monetary debt. Such a payment can surely be accomplished without the father’s knowledge—and there is thus no need for any act of agency.
The Vilna Gaon proves his understanding of pidyon haben as a simple financial debt from the statement of the Gemara (Bechoros 49a; Kiddushin 29b) whereby the mitzvah involves a financial lien on the father’s property. This implies the presence of a financial debt, which according to Vilna Gaon is the only component of the mitzvah. The act of pidyon is thus not an act of redemption, but a payment of a Torah mandated debt.
The Machaneh Efraim (Zechia U’matanah 7) issues a similar ruling concerning redeeming somebody else’s child. Moreover, the Ketzos Hachoshen (243:4) rules that in principle, the five sela’im can be paid to a Kohen even against his will. The reason for this is that the Kohen need not make any transfer to the father of the firstborn child since the child does not belong to the Kohen. All that is required is giving money to the Kohen.
Note that the Ketzos Hachoshen concludes that the money must be willfully received by the Kohen, only since the Torah uses the term nesinah (giving), which implies a willful acceptance. This is how he explains the opinion of Tosafos, quoted below.
According to the Rema, however (although the Nesivos in Shut Chemdas Shlomo responsa 32 does not explain the Rema this way), one can suggest that perhaps pidyon haben involves an element of redemption that only the father of the child can carry out and cannot be performed by means of agency (see Pischei Teshuvah 305:16 for a further discussion of redemption by means of an agent; see also Shut Chasam Sofer, Yoreh De’ah 292).
Redeeming a Dead Child
What is the halacha concerning a firstborn child who is killed before reaching the age of thirty days? A son who dies a natural death within thirty days of birth is considered a nefel, who was never fully alive and is therefore exempt from pidyon haben. But what is the halacha concerning a child who was born healthy, yet was killed before reaching the age of thirty days?
There is a slight implication that Rashi (Bava Kama 11b), maintains that if the baby was born after nine complete months (full term), the father must pay five sela’im to the Kohen. This can be understood if the concept of pidyon haben is simply a financial obligation. Because the son was a healthy child, the financial debt is an obligation of the father (on the thirtieth day after the child’s birth) even if the child is no longer among the living.
If, on the other hand, we view the mitzvah as an act of redemption, it stands to reason that a dead child need not be redeemed even if he was born healthy, and no payment needs to be made by the father. This, indeed, is the opinion of Tosafos, who disputes Rashi and writes that based on the Pasuk there is never an obligation to pay the Kohen if the child did not survive until his thirtieth day (whether he was killed or died naturally).
One could perhaps suggest that the opinion of Tosafos is that the mitzvah is not merely the payment of a financial debt but includes an element of redemption. A child who is dead, for whatever reason, cannot be redeemed.
This will also square with the opinion of Tosafos in Kiddushin (8a), that the money of pidyon haben cannot be paid without the willing acceptance of the Kohen. The Atzmos Yosef explains that the Kohen is in a sense “the master of the firstborn,” and therefore needs to be aware of the payment, “just as a woman needs to be aware of the payment when receiving kiddushin” (see however Chazon Ish, Even Ha’ezer 148, who revises the wording of Tosafos).
The Gemara (Kiddushin 29b) poses the following query: If a person is a firstborn whose father failed to redeem him, and this person has a firstborn child who must also be redeemed, which of them takes preference? The Gemara responds that a person must see to his own redemption before that of his child, because a mitzvah pertaining to oneself takes precedence.
The concept of a person’s own redemption taking precedence seems to indicate that the mitzvah is not merely a financial obligation, if the mitzvah involves nothing more than a financial obligation, what is the difference between a person’s own pidyon and his son’s—both are merely financial obligations?
Furthermore, the Mishnah Berurah (Biur Halacha 656) questions the halacha above (a person’s own redemption takes precedence over his son’s) from the principle by which a person need not spend more than a fifth of his wealth for the purpose of a mitzvah. If all a person has is five sela’im, why does he need to spend all he has on pidyon haben? This question implies that pidyon haben is not a simple financial obligation—for a financial obligation, the limit of spending more than one fifth does not apply. (This is the Chazon Ish’s answer to the question of the Mishnah Berurah.)
The Rashba (Vol. 1, no. 18) writes in fact that the reason why a blessing is made over pidyon haben, and not over other obligatory donations to Kohanim, is because pidyon haben involves more than merely giving the Kohen his due. When paying a debt, even when this fulfills a Torah mitzvah, no blessing is recited; pidyon haben, according to the Rashba, involves more than merely paying a debt—an element of redemption—and therefore a blessing is recited (see also Shut Rivash no. 131).
A Conceptual Redemption
According to the sources above—the act of pidyon haben involves an element of redemption. But what is the nature of this redemption?
The Radbaz (1:496) rules that a father retains the option of giving his child to the Kohen (though he writes that the option is not practical, since the Kohen will not be able to make use of the child as a slave). But this is very much a daas yachid, an opinion not found elsewhere. So which redemption is involved here?
In defining the obligation of pidyon haben, the Rambam writes that it is “as if he receives [the child] from the Kohen and acquires it from him” (Sefer Ha-Mitzvos, Positive Commandments 80). The operative word is ke’ilu—“as if.” True, the redemption has no practical ramifications; nonetheless, prior to his redemption the firstborn child has some connection, to the Kohanim, which is undone by his redemption.
Sefer HaChinuch (392), in a similar sense, writes that the Kohen states “this is in place of this … this [money] will be go to the Kohen and this [child] will enter into Torah, chuppah, and good deeds.” There is a redemption of sorts—a conceptual redemption, even if not a full redemption with practical ramifications.
The question of the nature of pidyon haben has perplexed many authorities. The Aruch Hashulchan (Yoreh De’ah 305:35), for instance, expresses wonder at what kind of redemption is applicable in the context of pidyon haben.
It may be that the ambiguous nature of the pidyon haben redemption is the source of the dispute between authorities, as noted above, over how the mitzvah should be understood—as a simple payment of financial debt, or as an act of acquisition from the Kohen.
It is also possible that all agree that the mitzvah includes both elements. It is more than a mere financial obligation, but the question is which of the elements is more prominent: Is the essence of the mitzvah a financial payment, which also results in a redemption of sorts, or is the essence an act of redemption, which also serves to pay a financial obligation?
We end with a prayer for the speedy redemption and rebuilding of the Mikdash and the coming of Eliyahu who will clarify all doubts.