There are fewthings more convoluted and misunderstood than Pideon Haben that we find in this week’s Torah Portion, Parshat Bamidbar in Numbers 3:13. (It is also found in other places in our Torah). I would like to bring some cohesion to the Redemption of the First Born. Its rules and regulation are myriad, and you will appreciate some of the deductive and cogent reasoning.
For every first born is Mine 3:13 is the aegis of the ceremony for redeeming of the first born. Based on the Torah’s assertion that all the firstborn belong to God, our practice is that they should be redeemed as the Levites serve in their place. Correspondingly, through this ceremony of grateful acknowledgement, parents can claim the child for themselves.
In very ancient times, among primitive peoples this may have meant the firstborn was actually sacrificed. Among our people, it meant the firstborn was given to the priest to assist in the sanctuary. The act of redemption was a means of retaining the essence of our primary obligation to God---and at the same time keeping the firstborn son home with the family. The actual ceremony is widely practiced, but seldom seen. We have what appears to be a conundrum.
It is estimated that barely 10 percent of births are entitled to a Pideon Haben. Eliminate girls, stillbirths, the mother suffering a miscarriage (with some exceptions), the delivery via Cesarean section, the mother having a child with another man, and for a woman who converted, if she had child prior to conversion, the subsequent son is not eligible. And last, if the boy is of a Kohen or Levi, he is not eligible.
Soon after our firstborn Benny came into the world, one of my earliest teachers visited our apartment. After the obvious chitchat, the question was asked, “Did Benny have a Pideon Haben?” He did not. The teacher seemed surprised and asked “Why not?” I responded “Lauren is a bat Levi.” From the look on his face I could see he did not agree. My heart was in my mouth when I replied (and controverted it) to my beloved (and respected) former teacher that the Levi exception was applicable for the daughter of a Levi.[i]
After a Chumash and/or a Tanach, one book I would suggest for your personal library is A Guide to Jewish Religious Practice by Rabbi Isaac Klein. For those who were at our lecture last month on the newest Conservative Movement book, The Observant Life, you may remember that Rabbi Cohen mentioned Rabbi Klein’s book as the guide previous to it. I recommend both, but if you are only going to choose one, choose The Observant Life since my adult education offerings next year will draw largely from it.
One must take particular care and show the utmost respect to all (and certainly for a revered teacher). I could hardly hold Rabbi Klein’s book as I turned to the pertinent section and there it was in black and white, “the same rule applies to the firstborn of a daughter of a Kohen or Levi, who is married to an Israelite.” I was relieved and like to think my former teacher finally looked at me as a rabbi and no longer as an adolescent.
You have asked me what time it was, and I have proceeded to tell you how to build a watch. It is required that a Kohen “perform” the ceremony; typically the rabbi acts as a “master of ceremonies”. At this point in time it is the posture of the Conservative Movement that the ceremony is restricted to male firstborn. Let us pray that the day will come soon for all of us to experience the rare, but invigorating, ceremony of a Pideon Haben here at CSI.
Rabbi Jeffrey Abraham
[i] An explanation is in order. My father-in-law is a Levi or ha Levi. His daughter, Lauren, is a bat Levi, the daughter of a Levi.