Shabbat Shalom from Bruce Washburn:
Here is this week’s Halakhah in the Parashah:
Parashat Korach (Outside Israel) | Chukat (Israel)
June 24, 2023 | 5 Tammuz 5783
Torah (Outside Israel): Numbers 16:1-18:32
Triennial: Numbers 16:1-17:15 Haftarah: I Samuel 11:14-12:22
Torah (Israel): Numbers 19:1-22:1 Haftarah: Judges 11:1-33
If You Didn’t Make the Bris,
Have a Pidyon HaBen!
The Halakhah in the Parashah
At times I am amused by how much I remember from what I learned in high school, especially when I compare it with how much I have forgotten from what I learned yesterday or the day before (a phenomenon I am sure familiar to many of you). This seems to be especially true of history, where we spent an inordinate amount of time in high school studying medieval Europe. One thing I remember clearly is that the first born son would inherit the estate and the second born son belonged to the priesthood. I was glad I was a first born son (unfortunately my father did not own a castle).
Jewish law works differently. On several occasions the Torah emphasizes that the first born of animals and of people both belong to the priest. This is presented in different ways in different places. For instance Numbers 3:12-13 explains that the Levites serve in the Temple in place of the first born, who due to God’s saving them at the time of the plague of the firstborn in Egypt, all belong to God (see also Exodus 13:12-15) Theoretically, one might have thought that since God took the Levites, the first borns can just go on their merry way. But elsewhere in the Torah, including in our parashah, we learn that even after the substitution of the Levites for the first born, the first born still belongs to the kohanim. Numbers 18:15-16 offers the following instruction:
The first [male] issue of the womb of every being, human or beast, that is offered to God, shall be yours; but you shall have the male first born of human beings redeemed, and you shall also have the firstling of impure animals redeemed.
Take as their redemption price, from the age of one month up, the money equivalent of five shekels by the sanctuary weight, which is twenty gerahs.
Theoretically the priests should offer on the altar all first born mammals. But impure animals and human beings cannot be sacrificed, so in their redemption, the father (or in the case of impure animals, the owner) would pay a price to the priest, five shekels for a human child. This halakhah, that first born male children must be redeemed, was codified into Jewish law and remains in practice to this day. And since, unlike circumcision, one can do this on one’s own, it is worthwhile knowing how it’s done.
First of all, the redemption can be performed only once the child is one month old, which usually is a few weeks after circumcision. This is calculated at 30 days, including the day of birth and the day of the redemption. It is not done on Shabbat, so if the 30th day falls on Shabbat (or a festival) the child cannot be redeemed until after Shabbat.
A slightly complicated issue is determining how much money must be given to the kohen to redeem the son. The Torah refers to twenty gerahs of silver, which according to rabbis is about 85 grams of silver. Thus whatever is given to the kohen must have the value of 85 grams of silver, and it’s probably worth rounding up to 100 (different authorities calculate biblical weights in different ways). In today’s market, this is about 75 dollars, a bargain compared to what you’re going to end up spending on your son. One can give the priest five coins that have in them 100 grams of silver or one can also give the equivalent in value. Many authorities do not think paper money should be used for this redemption. If you can find real silver coins, all the better!
For the ceremony one needs to find a kohen (according to the Tosafot it might be possible to give this to a bat kohen, a woman whose father is a kohen) and perform the ceremony which involves the kohen asking the father if he wishes to give the boy to the kohen or redeem him (this always draws a chuckle). And then the father recites two blessings, gives the money to the kohen and the kohen recites the blessing over wine and drinks a cup of wine. The kohen then blesses the son.
This mitzvah does not apply in all cases. First of all, the son must be the first born, so if there was a daughter born first, the mitzvah does not apply. If the mother had a post-third month miscarriage, then the first born son is not considered to have “opened her womb” and need not be redeemed. The mitzvah does not apply to children born from a cesarean section, since they did not “open the mother’s womb.” Also if the father is a kohen or Levite or the mother is a daughter of one, then the son need not be redeemed.
I remember performing this for my son, Yadin, who is now almost 25 years old. His brit milah was on Shabbat and it was not possible to invite everyone we knew. He was born at the end of the summer, before the new crop of Conservative Yeshiva students arrived. The pidyon haben, which occurred after Rosh Hashanah and after the start of the year, was a special opportunity to welcome Yadin into a select group of B’nai Yisrael, and to do so in front of a crowd different from those who had attended his brit. And while all my children are special to me, and we had ceremonies for our girls and boys, there is something special about a first born son. In terms of changes in life, I think the most radical change is to go from not being a parent to being a parent. Life has never been the same since. I’m glad we had an opportunity to perform a special ritual that was just for him.