“Which do you prefer—your firstborn child, or the five coins required to redeem him?”
This disconcerting question is part of the ritual known as pidyon haben, the redemption of the firstborn son. Rabbi Asher ben Yehiel (13th–14th centuries) reports this question as part of the liturgy from the geonic period in his Talmud commentary, and it is duly repeated by his son Rabbi Yakov ben Asher and later codifiers of Jewish law.
How does the ritual go?
The mitzvah of pidyon haben applies only in a narrow set of circumstances: if a woman from an Israelite family delivers a son in a vaginal birth and has had no previous pregnancies, and the father is not himself akohen (priestly descendant). In that case, on the 31st day of the child’s life, the parents are supposed to “redeem” their son from a kohen. The kohen asks them the “Which do you prefer?” question, and—assuming they answer, as expected, that they prefer their child—the kohen agrees to serve as a proxy for the child, in return for the five silver coins. The kohen takes the coins and declares them to be in place of the child, then the parents say blessings, and everyone enjoys a festive meal. It is like a bris, but without the surgery. Continue reading