Pidyon HaBen, (פדיון הבן; trans. Redemption of the Son), is a ritual in Judaism whereby a firstborn son is redeemed from a Kohen in order to release him from his obligation to serve in the Temple. Although nowadays there is no Temple, the ceremony is still observed by Orthodox and Conservative Jews.
This "redemption" ceremony is performed 29 and a half days (plus the amount of time needed to gather a quorum of ten men) after the birth of the child (the day of birth is considered the first day) and is accompanied by a customary festive meal known as a se'udath mitzvah. It is performed after 29 days because of a tradition that if a child survives a [lunar] month, his chances for good health were assured. If the 29th day after birth falls on Shabbat, a festival or a fast day, the redemption is not performed and must be performed immediately after the holiday ends. This is because handling money on Jewish holidays is forbidden.
The restriction to initial vaginal birth stems from the Biblical text regarding the redemption, which says a child that is "Peter Rechem Imo", or the "opening of his mother's womb", needs to be redeemed.
Levites, including Kohanim, do not redeem their children through the Pidyon HaBen ceremony. The reason is that the Levites, as substitutes for the first-born, are pledged to minister and assist the kohanim in Divine service, and cannot be redeemed from their service obligation. In Orthodox Judaism and to a lesser extent in Conservative Judaism, Levites remain irredeemably pledged to Divine service to this day, are expected to report for duty in a future rebuilt Temple in Jerusalem, and in the meanwhile have a limited number of special ritual duties and privileges.
The children of daughters of Levites and Kohanim, are not normally redeemed either. According to some authorities, however, a child whose mother is a Bat Kohen and whose father is a non-Jew requires a Pidyon HaBen ceremony.
The ceremony traditionally takes place amidst a minyan of 10 men. The child is sometimes presented on a silver tray, surrounded by jewelry lent for the occasion by women in attendance. The event is accompanied by a meal, and guests in some places are given cloves of garlic and cubes of sugar to take home: these strongly-flavored foods can be used to flavor a large quantity of food which will in some sense extend the mitzvah of participation in the ceremony to all who eat them.
The Israeli Mint has minted special edition 23.4 gram silver commemorative coins for the purpose, five of which would come to exactly 117 grams of silver. Pre-1965 American silver dollars weigh 26.73 grams of 90% silver content and hence contain 24.06g of pure silver, although such coins have become increasingly rare (modern U.S. coins contain no silver). Four American Silver Eagle coins, specially minted coins sold to collectors and investors which contain 31.103 grams of 99.9% pure silver, or five of the above-mentioned specially minted silver coins of Israel are commonly used for Pidyon Ha-Ben in the United States.
Though the silver coins are the payment to the Kohen under Jewish law, they are usually returned to the family as a gift for the child, as the coins themselves are often commemorative in nature. There are many examples of artistically crafted gift boxes or display cases made for the child to have as a memento of the occasion. The father then usually offers a gift or fee of more conventional cash to the Kohen.
Some Kohanim sell coins of sufficient weight and purity of silver to facilitate the ceremony, as such coins are usually not readily obtainable.
Pidyon HaBen is one of the rarest Jewish ceremonies usually applying to approximately 1 in 50 Jewish births . The firstborn must be a boy, caesarian section births are not eligible, a previous miscarriage precludes the ceremony, and neither grandfather can be a Kohen or a Levi. The ceremony is even rarer because it generally not performed in Reform Judaism and Reconstructionist Judaism, which have generally abolished the status of Kohen and special traditional ceremonies involving it.
Following the Israelite Exodus from Egypt, after the nation had sinned with the Golden Calf, the priesthood was taken away from the first-borns, and given to the tribe of Levites, specifically to the Kohenim, High Priest Aaron, his children, and their descendants. At the same time it was instituted that the first born of each family should be redeemed; i.e. they would be 'bought back' from the dedication to God that would previously have been required of them. Levites were substituted for the first-born and wholly given to Divine service:
The first-born male of every clean animal was to be given up to the priest for sacrifice (Deuteronomy 12:6; Exodus 13:12, 34:20; Numbers 18:15-17). The first-born of unclean animals, however, was either to be redeemed or sold and the price given to the priest (Leviticus 27:11-13, 27). The first-born of an ass, if not redeemed, was to be put to death (Exodus 13:13; 34:20).
According to Peake's Commentary on the Bible, the passages in the Hebrew Bible referring to the redemption of the firstborn as reflecting traditions that already existed, rather than being the origin of them. According to passages in the text which textual criticism scholars attribute to the priestly source, the firstborn of anything legally belonged to Yahweh, while according to passages attributed to the Jahwist and the Elohist, it was only firstborn males. The passages attributed to the deuteronomist argue that unblemished firstborn animals should become slaughter offerings at the Temple in Jerusalem, but those attributed to the priestly source argue instead that unclean animals and firstborn humans had to be redeemed by handing over an appropriate amount of money, and that it was only the clean animals that should become sacrifices, with the meat from such sacrifices only being permitted to be consumed by the priests. According to the text, if a firstborn ass was not redeemed, it had to be killed.
Only the Jahwist and Priestly Source provide a background explanation for these regulations, and both state that the regulations arose as a result of the death of the (non-Israelite) firstborn in Egypt; the Jahwist's text argues that the male firstborn were to be sacrificed in commemoration of the event, and thus firstborn human males had to be redeemed from this fate; the priestly source instead argues that as a result of the event the Israelite firstborn were consecrated to the service of Yahweh, but that subsequently the Levites took over this role, and so the firstborn had to be redeemed. As a result of the priestly source's argument, this interpretation claims that a rabbinical tradition arose that the firstborn males from all tribes had originally performed the function of priest, prior to the Tabernacle being constructed; this argument is also why children of Levites are seen as not themselves requiring redemption.
However, biblical criticism scholars believe that the requirements to give the firstborn to the priesthood, or to redeem them (as appropriate to the species), predate the timeframe of the events which the Torah describe as happening in Egypt. A number of scholars have proposed that in the original form of the custom, human first born males were sacrificed along with the first born animal males; The 1906 Jewish encyclopedia reports that "The interpretation of the custom of redeeming the first-born as a modification of an older custom of sacrificing the first-born sons in connection with the Passover feast (Baudissin, in Herzog-Plitt, "Real-Encyc." 2d ed., x. 176; comp. also Frazer, "The Golden Bough", 2d ed., ii. 48), has no foundation in history Although such suggestions concerning the origin of Pidyon HaBen were dismissed in the late 19th century, as evidence for them had not been found in any historic semitic culture, they have more recently gained much credence, due to the discovery of the bodies of children in the foundations of many Canaanite buildings. The reason for the preference of firstborn, whether animals or people, is not, however, known.