What is the Redemption of the Firstborn?
In Judaism, the ritual of Pidyon Ha-Ben ("Redemption of the Son") is grounded in the Jewish concept that the first and best things belong to God: in Numbers 8:17, God declared: "Every firstborn among the Israelites, man as well as beast, is mine."
According to Jewish beliefs, the God of Judaism has never asked for child sacrifice, but rather required firstborn sons to devote their life to service in the Temple. Parents may "redeem" their sons from this obligation by paying a small sum of money to a kohein (a member of the priestly family).
The ritual of Redemption applies to a relatively small number of children. Only those who are male, have "opened up the womb" (are not delivered by caesarean and do not come after the birth or miscarriage of any other child) and are not descended from the Levites must be redeemed. The exception for Levites originates with the story of the Golden Calf (Numbers 18), in which the faithfulness of the Levites is rewarded with a special role in the Temple.
Pidyon ha-Ben takes place on the 31st day after birth, but may not be performed on a Sabbath since it includes the exchange of money. The ceremony begins with the father bringing his son before a kohein, and announcing that the child is the firstborn son.
The kohein asks if the father would prefer to give him his son or redeem the child for five shekels, and the father answers that he would like to redeem his son.
He recites benedictions and hands the kohein five silver coins (the Bank of Israel mints silver coins just for this purpose; in America, silver dollars are used).
The kohein passes the coins over the child's head and recites:
This is in place of that. This is excused on account of that. May it be that this son has entered into life, into Torah, and into fear of God. May it be God's will that just as he has entered into redemption, so may he enter into Torah, into marriage, and into good deeds. In Orthodox families, the ceremony is followed by a major celebration, accompanied by food and drink and a short sermon or talk.
The ritual is not generally observed by Reform Jews. Many Conservative families perform the ceremony for all firstborn children, whether male or female.