“And all the first-born of man among thy sons shalt thou redeem. And it shall be when thy son asketh thee in time to come, saying: What is this? that thou shalt say unto him: By strength of hand the LORD brought us out from Egypt, from the house of bondage;and it came to pass, when Pharaoh would hardly let us go that the LORD slew all the firstborn in the land of Egypt, both the first-born of man, and the first-born of beast; therefore I sacrifice to the LORD all that openeth the womb, being males; but all the first-born of my sons I redeem.” (Exodus 13: 13-16)
Originally God intended for all Jewish first-born sons to serve Him in the Temple. They were inducted into service when God spared them from the Plague of the Firstborn in Egypt. However, after the Sin of the Golden Calf, the first-borns lost their status. The Tribe of Levi did not participate in the Sin of the Golden Calf, and so they replaced the first-borns to work in the Holy Temple, with the sons of Aaron being the priestly class.
When a Jewish woman gives birth to her first-born son, the father is obligated to redeem the child from a kohen, a priest. They perform a ceremony called the Pidyon Haben, the Redemption of the Son. The father “buys” his son from the priest to redeem him. As it says in Numbers 18:16, “ And their redemption-money–from a month old shalt thou redeem them–shall be, according to thy valuation, five shekels of silver, after the shekel of the sanctuary–the same is twenty gerahs.”
The obligation only applies if both parents are “Israelites,” not if they are descended from the Tribe of Levi or the priestly class. The obligation begins when the baby is 30 days old, and so the Pidyon Haben ceremony is traditionally held at 31 days. If a boy reaches the age of 13 without being redeemed, he becomes responsible for his redemption, and must perform the ceremony, himself. A party is held, with bread, meat, and wine. Friends and family gather for this momentous occasion. Blessings are recited, the father gives the priest 5 silver coins, and his son is redeemed.
Because there are very strict guidelines about who must be redeemed, only 1 in 10 families performs the pidyon haben ceremony. This special ceremony is a momentous occasion and special milestone, stretching back thousands of years. The Jewish people have maintained their lineage all the way back to before they received the Commandments. Maintaining the commandment of Pidyon Haben keeps traditions alive, as well as our connection to our roots, tracing back generations. We remember that God protected our first-born sons from the Plague of the First Born in Egypt, and we pray that He continues to protect us and all of His children and the Land of Israel.