A Historical View of Pidyon HaBen
From biblical to contemporary times, how Jews have practiced this ceremony of redemption of the first-born.
Reprinted with permission from A Time to Be Born: Customs and Folklore of Jewish Birth (Jewish Publication Society).
A first child has special significance for both parents, and this was as true in biblical times as today, but then only when the child was male. A mother's firstborn boy was consecrated to divine service, and a father gave his first-born son a double portion of his possessions as his birthright inheritance. In medieval times, it was customary for a father to vow his first-born son to the study of Torah. In later centuries, too, it was not uncommon for an eldest son to study while his younger brothers learned a trade.
The Book of Exodus tells that God spared the Israelite first-born sons when casting the 10th plague on the ancient Egyptians, because first-borns were divinely consecrated. The Israelites raised their first-born sons to a life of priesthood. After the incident of the Golden Calf, however, only the tribe of Levi proved themselves worthy of priesthood. Ever since, an observant Jewish father who is not of levitic or of priestly lineage (a cohen) has redeemed his wife's first-born son from lifelong service to God (provided his wife is not of a levitic or priestly family). The father redeems his baby when the child is one month old, by paying the money equivalent of five shekels "by the sanctuary weight."
Additional details regarding this ritual were laid down in the Mishnah, in a tractate entitled Bekhorot, "first-borns," and in the later codes. The blessings and statements recited during the ritual were formalized and included in the first true prayer book, in the ninth century.
Unlike the circumcision ritual, the redemption of the first-born is postponed for a Sabbath or Jewish festival. It is not performed if the mother had aborted [or miscarried] a formed fetus previously [40 days or more after conception], because the miscarriage preceded the newborn in opening the womb; nor is it done if the baby was born by caesarean section, because in this case the womb was opened artificially. If a mother had one or more babies by caesarean section and then eventually gave birth vaginally to a son, she would redeem this baby, the first to open her womb naturally.
In 15th-century Germany, if the father died without having redeemed his son, a little medallion with the words ben cohen was hung on a lace around the baby's neck to remind him to redeem himself when he reached maturity. It soon became customary, however, to inscribe the medallion with the Hebrew letter heh, numerically equivalent to five, representing the five-shekel redemption fee.