A Historical View of Pidyon HaBen

From biblical to contemporary times, how Jews have practiced this ceremony of redemption of the first-born.

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Many collections of Judaica have preserved a heyalakh, a little heh medallion. To prevent the loss of such a necklace in the wear and tear of childhood, the medallion was some­times kept instead in a safe place in the local synagogue. A medallion from Ianina, Greece, tells that a baby born in 1865 was not redeemed, and a later inscription adds that the boy redeemed himself. Nowadays, in traditional communities, when a father cannot redeem his first-born son, a relative or even a community dignitary may do this, instead of waiting for the child to do so himself when he is old enough.

Redemption Price

When it was no longer known what exact weight the five shekel coins should be, Jews used five silver pieces or five local coins as redemption money, or even a ring, a silver or pewter tray, or an item of clothing. A poor Jewish father could bor­row some coins to present to the cohen, who returned them after the ceremony.…

Sometimes the redemption money was put on a silver tray, thereby increasing the value of the father's contribution. A beautifully crafted tray from Danzig in the 18th century, of hammered copper with repousse, shows the cohen's hands blessing the swaddled baby. It was a community possession, rather like the Chair of Elijah. Ashkenazi communities in Europe and Eastern Europe in the nineteenth century commissioned skilled Jewish craftsmen to make such trays, which were heavily decorated with a biblical scene, usually the sacrifice of Isaac. The father placed the baby on the tray and decked him out in his mother's jewelry; he returned the tray and the jewels at the end of the ritual and paid the cohen in cash. The tray, the jewelry, and the baby's fancy clothing enhanced the beauty of the occasion. Like the medallions, these beautiful trays also feature in most Judaica collections.

Today, the Bank of Israel has minted special coins for use in this ritual. Jews still improvise, however: some Jews in Turkey use five silver spoons when redeeming their first-born son, and in Morocco, [some use] seven gold bracelets, which the cohen returns later, receiving a money gift instead.

Regional Variations

Over the centuries, regional variations have occurred in the embellish­ment of the ceremony. In some Jewish communities in the early twentieth century, the redemption ceremony was dramatic. In Rabat-Sale, Morocco, for example, Jews created a festive atmosphere in the home with perfume and flowers and invited guests for the occasion. After prayers, the cohen asked the mother in the presence of the mid­wife to swear that this was indeed her first child and the child of her husband. He would then suddenly rise and pretend to leave with the baby. The mother's wails of despair prompted the father to negotiate the ransom of five jewels or silver coins. The cohen returned the baby only when they all reached an agreement. A few days later, the father visited the cohen and exchanged the jewels for money, which he distributed to the poor of the community. In other Moroccan communities, the drama involved the mother's surrendering the jewelry she was wearing, piece by piece, until the cohen agreed to perform the ceremony.

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Michele Klein has a PhD in Developmental Psychology from the University of London. She is the author of New Life: A Diary For Jewish Parents and A Time To Be Born.