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.
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.
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.
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.
Jews from some Sephardic and Syrian communities recall that a first-time mother dressed in her bridal gown; in Persian communities, she wore the veil from her wedding. The new mother formally begged the cohen to return her baby. He would refuse, and she would persist in her pleas until the cohen reluctantly consented. The happy outcome was celebrated.
In Salonika in the early 20th century, the mother pretended to yearn for the return of her baby while the father avowed that he would prefer to sleep undisturbed at night, and guests teased and joked. A wealthy father offered a valuable gold or silver bracelet instead of the five biblical shekels; a poor father offered a new item of clothing. Iraqi Jews report that when it was performed, the ceremony was a dramatic game between the cohen and the baby’s father, using a kiddush cup instead of jewelry, and eventually ending when the father gave the cohen a symbolic sum of money.
The redemption ritual is not mentioned in ethnographic accounts of Jewish life in India, Yemen, and Aden. Often these communities had no cohen to carry out the redemption, and therefore the ritual was not performed; when it was done, there was apparently little ceremony. In Egypt, in the 19th century, the redemption was sometimes done on the 18th day (18 is the numerical equivalent of chai, the Hebrew word for life).
In the late 20th century, this ritual remains picturesque among those who practice it. Some Ashkenazi Jews still put the baby on a silver tray, surround him with sugar lumps (in the hope of good things to come) and garlic cloves (against evil spirits), and drape him with his mother’s gold jewelry. Persian Jewish first-time mothers and Jewish women in Turkey still wear their bridal veil for the redemption ceremony.
Some Orthodox Jews see the redemption of a first-born son as a symbolic act of acknowledging God’s supremacy and [humanity’s] subservience. Others see in it acknowledgement of the great significance for parents of the arrival of their first male heir, because the ritual’s blessings express the feelings expected of first-time Jewish parents: gratitude to God for the first fruit of the mother’s womb. Performance of this duty implies dedication to raise the infant within the Jewish faith.
In the last 20 years, some parents have created unorthodox variations of the traditional ritual, such as a redemption ceremony for a first-born daughter or a special kiddush for the opening of the womb. Through these innovations, some Jews in the United States have sought to celebrate childbirth, to suit their spiritual needs. By modeling a new ceremony on the ancient redemption ritual, they acknowledge the psychological significance of a first child in a way that highlights Jewish continuity and has religious meaning for them.
Reprinted with permission from A Time to Be Born: Customs and Folklore of Jewish Birth (Jewish Publication Society).
Pronounced: AHSH-ken-AH-zee, Origin: Hebrew, Jews of Central and Eastern European origin.
Pronounced: seh-FAR-dik, Origin: Hebrew, describing Jews descending from the Jews of Spain.