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Pidyon Haben (Redeeming of the Elder Son)

The mitzvah (commandment) of Pidyon Haben, the redeeming of the eldest son, is held when the newborn is at least 31 days old. It consists of “redeeming him from a Cohen”. (Numbers 18:15) Although this mitzvah is a bit complex, let us try to explain it: Originally, G-d had attributed the function of Cohen (priest) to the eldest son of each Jewish family to represent it in the Temple. (Exodus 13:1-2, Exodus 24:5, commentary by Rashi) Then came the affair of the Golden Calf. When Moses came down from Mount Sinai and saw this spectacle, he broke the Tablets of the Law and gave the following ultimatum: “Choose! Either G-d or the idol” (“He who loves the Lord follows me” Exodus 32:26). Only the tribe of the Levis sided with G-d (“All the Levites gathered around him”, Exodus idem). Then G-d decreed that the eldest sons of each family would henceforth be deprived of their status of Cohen and that the Kehunah (priesthood) would be exclusive to the tribe of Levi. (Numbers 3:11-12) This brings us to the mitzvah of Pidyon Haben. Every eldest son is technically a potential “Cohen”,who cannot assume his role. He must therefore “be replaced” by a Cohen from the tribe of Levi. The father of the baby is to be relieved from this obligation by offering the Cohen five silver coins as exchange value. This commandment has a deeper motivation: that of remembering the Exodus from Egypt, when G-d killed the eldest sons of the Egyptians and spared those of the Hebrews. Since the love for the firstborn is so strong, it is an appropriate time to acknowledge once again that