Main piece: The first born son who would have died in the Passover story. If you read the Haggadah on Passover, there’s a tenth plague. The tenth plague is when the angel of death comes down and kills the firstborn male child of all the Egyptians, but spares the firstborn male child of the Jewish slaves. And I don’t know how it got converted to buying back that child as a tradition, but the tradition is you redeem the firstborn son at birth. You give ten silver dollars to a Kohen. Kohanim children don’t have to have a pidyon haben. What my grandfather used to do, because my grandfather was a Kohen at a lot of simchas like that, is they would give him the money and he would give it back to them for the child as a gift. There’s a prayer, it’s a month after the bris. A separate ceremony. They usually have a little party. There’s a blessing, the Kohen gives the baby a blessing. It’s all symbolic, you know, not just like, an exchange of goods. Nobody’s buying or selling the child.
Background: My informant is an eighty-eight year old Jewish man from Baltimore, Maryland, and a Kohen. He has watched his grandfather and father be the Kohen in the pidyon haben ceremony, and has been the Kohen for one himself.
Context: A pidyon haben is a Jewish ceremony where ten silver dollars is given to a Kohen in exchange for their newborn son in order to remember/commemorate the work of the Angel of Death in the Passover story, where she killed all the firstborn sons of the Egyptians, but spared the ones of the Jews, whose doors were marked with lamb’s blood (this is also where the practice of putting mezuzahs on doors in Jewish homes originated). The Kohens are one of the twelve tribes of Israel who historically took on the position of high priests, as they are said to be descendants of Aaron. Kohanim in modern Jewish settings today still perform blessings over the congregation. Tribal identity within the Jewish faith is established through the patrilineal line – my informant’s grandfather and father were both Kohens, so my informant is as well. Simcha is a yiddish term meaning party or celebration, often referred to in religious celebrations, such as weddings or Bar/Bat Mitzvahs. A bris is a Jewish male circumcision ceremony that occurs when the child is eight days old (female children have baby naming ceremonies, where similar prayers and blessings are performed, but no circumcision takes place).
Analysis: When there is a newborn child, historically there is concern that the child will not live very long, and there is pressure from the religious community to indoctrinate the baby into its ranks so that it can be protected both spiritually and by the congregation (this is the purpose of a bris). However, in the talmudic tradition, there remains a threat against first born sons, regardless of age, by the Angel of Death. Although Jewish people still protect themselves with a variant of the lamb’s blood they put on the door during the Passover story (mezuzahs), there is still a lingering want to protect the first born son from spiritual threats, such as the Angel of Death. The number of silver pieces, ten, represent the fact that the Angel of Death was the tenth plague (and also the number ten is important in Judaism, because that is the number of commandments there are and also the number of Jewish persons required to pray – a minyan). Silver in Judaism is a metal that represents both moral innocence and holiness. Since the firstborn is just a baby, the parents offer silver as a representation of proof of their innocence (even if the money is given back). Additionally, a Kohen is a holy figure, so offerings of silver in return for blessings for the longevity and health of the child’s life is a suitable exchange. A pidyon haben also occurs a month after the bris (which happens when the child is eight days old), so by that time it is likely the child will live past infancy.