The Torah, in parshat Bamidbar, alludes to the redemption of the first born son (Numbers 3:40-51). Originally, the eldest son in each family was designated to serve in the Temple. After the eldest in the family faltered by participating in the sin of the golden calf, the Temple work was transferred to the tribe of Levi, which was not involved in the sin. The Torah required the redeeming of each first born at that time for five coins. One wonders why, if the redemption already took place, it is repeated for every first born son to this day.
In Egypt, the first born functioned as priests. In this way, every Egyptian family was connected to the Egyptian religion. Appropriately, it was the Egyptian first born who was killed in Egypt as they were the religious visionaries and therefore most responsible for enslaving the Jews. Once they were killed, and the Jewish first born were saved, they, too, were designated to dedicate their lives to religious service. (Exodus 13:15) This was done, not only in recognition of having miraculously escaped the slaying of the Egyptian first born, but also as a means of binding each Jewish family to the Holy Temple.
From this perspective, it can be suggested that the ceremony that we have today of redeeming the first born (pidyon haben) is meant as an educational tool-to remind families that there was a time when one of their own was connected directly to the Temple service. Such a reminder, it is hoped, would result in a commitment by the entire family, to a life of spirituality and religious commitment.
During the pidyon haben ceremony, the Kohen (Jewish Priest) asks the parents of the child if they prefer to keep the child or to pay for the redemption, with the assumption that the parents will pay for the redemption. As a Kohen, I always wondered what would occur if the father decided to keep the money rather than take his child. Interestingly, Jewish Law insists that regardless of the response, the child remains with his family. If the end result is the same, why is this question asked in the first place?
When the Kohen asks, “What do you prefer, the money or the child?” what he is really asking is, “what is your value system? Is it solely based on money, or does it have at its core, the essence, the soul of the child?” The Kohen has the responsibility to challenge the parent with such a question. With the response to this rhetorical question, the family reaffirms that spiritual values are the highest priority in raising a child.
Note that if one of the child’s grandfathers is a Kohen or Levi, he is not redeemed. This is because, even in contemporary times, the pidyon haben reminder is not necessary for there are roles unique to his family’s religious life which serve as an aid in remembering the priorities of a spiritual quest.
So, the next time we go to a pidyon haben, we should not rush through it. We should realize what is happening. We should recognize that through their words, a family is making a commitment to live the Torah and walk with God throughout their days.