Author Archives: Shoshana Matzner-Beckerman

About Shoshana Matzner-Beckerman

Shoshana Matzner-Bekerman is a graduate of Bar-Ilan University and Hofstra University. She is the compiler of The International Directory of Child Development Research Centers.

The Meaning of Pidyon HaBen

Reprinted with permission from The Jewish Child: Halakhic Perspectives (Ktav Publishing).

Judaism grants a special status to the firstborn male child. In every home, the birth of the first child is a special occasion pre­ceded by preparations and a sense of excitement. The parents’ attitude toward the newborn is usually one of awe mixed with doubt and hope that they are “doing the right thing.” With the birth of subsequent children, the feelings are more settled, and preparations become more routine. The special excitement and wonder accompanying the birth of the firstborn male is cap­tured in Judaism in the special ceremony for the redemption of the first son, pidyon ha-ben.

coins for pidyon habenOne explanation given for this commandment is that it commemorates the great miracle that took place in Egypt when the Almighty killed all the firstborn Egyptian males and spared the Jewish sons. 

Furthermore, the firstborn male child has special rights con­cerning inheritance and a certain religious obligation to fast on the eve of Passover. This stems from the historic fact that the Almighty sanctified the firstborn males of the Jewish people while they were still in bondage in Egypt, so that they would devote their lives as priests in the Tabernacle and the Temple.

This is interpreted by Eliyahu Kitov [in his book Man and His Home] as a reward for the faith and trust in God displayed by the Jewish people, who fulfilled the com­mandment of circumcision and the Passover sacrifice while in Egypt and under the difficult conditions imposed upon them. As the entire nation proved their loyalty to God by joining the covenant, the Almighty did not isolate the entire nation for the priesthood but only their firstborn, as it is written: “Sanctify each firstborn male child to Me, among the children of Israel.”

However, since the firstborn males joined the nation in their act of worshipping the golden calf in the desert, the Almighty replaced them with the Levites, ordaining: “And each firstborn male child shall be redeemed” and “And you shall take the Levites for Me, the Almighty, instead of each firstborn male child in Israel.”

The Importance of a Hebrew Name

Excerpted with permission from The Jewish Child: Halakhic Perspectives (Ktav).

The importance of giving the Jewish child a Hebrew name is also based on the concept that the language of the "celestial court" is Hebrew. This [gave rise to] a custom originating with the kabbalists [Jewish mystics] of the 17th century, in which every Jewish child chooses a biblical verse beginning with the first let­ter of his name and ending with the last letter of his Hebrew name. [One can find standard lists of such names and verses in some traditional prayerbooks.] This verse is recited after the Shemoneh Esreh prayer [also known as the Amidah, the core prayer of every Jewish worship service], and it is believed that the soul reports to the celestial angels with this verse in order to advance the processing of its earthly record after death. It is also believed that the Messiah will use the Hebrew names when he calls the dead to arise.