Modern families uphold ancient pidyon haben rite

Quick — think of the most well-known Jewish lifecycle rituals. Brit milah (bris), b'nai mitzvah and a wedding under a chuppah (wedding canopy) are three that would probably make everyone's list.

What? You didn't remember the pidyon ha'ben?

It's a ritual for certain Jewish male infants observed in most traditional Conservative and Orthodox families. It doesn't occur often because it can only be performed when very specific criteria are met.

Rabbis and other sources cite several biblical mandates for the mitzvah of pidyon ha'ben. In ancient times, the firstborn son held special status, both materially — he received a double portion of his father's estate — and spiritually, when God told Moses, "Sanctify to Me every firstborn, the first issue of every womb among the Children of Israel."

Thus, it was interpreted that firstborn males were to be dedicated to the service of the Holy Temple, or redeemed from service by paying five shekels to a priest (Kohen).

When the Israelites were spared from the plague of the firstborn before the Exodus from Egypt, an even stronger bond was created between God and Israel that elevated firstborn males to an even higher degree of holiness and service to God. After the Golden Calf incident in the desert, when firstborn males lost their right to perform service in the Temple, God upheld his claim to every firstborn male — and the obligation of redemption of the firstborn male was maintained.

More simply put, said Rabbi Mark Zimmerman of Conservative Congregation Beth Shalom. "The firsts of everything belong to God; by extension that's applied to children as well. If you haven't fulfilled that mitzvah [of pidyon ha'ben], you haven't given proper thanks to God."

Adds Rabbi Chanan Feld, a Berkeley-based mohel, "This is a glossed-over mitzvah. "People have only a vague notion of what it is."

Rabbi Reuven Stein, Atlanta Kashruth Commission director and a Kohen, also pointed out the significance of pidyon ha'ben in remembering the Exodus.

Any Kohen who is familiar with the priestly blessings can conduct a pidyon ha'ben. Stein performs about two or three a year and Zimmerman estimates there are three or four a year at Beth Shalom.

Rabbi Ariel Asa, a mohel, is aware of about a half-dozen pidyon ha'ben ceremonies during the five years he's been in Atlanta.

The small numbers cited by all three rabbis result from the very specific criteria that must be met for a pidyon ha'ben to be required:

*The mother is Jewish and she has never had a baby before, male or female.

*The baby was conceived "naturally," not through in-vitro fertilization or other means.

*The baby was not delivered by Caesarean section.

*The mother had no abortions or miscarriages prior to this birth.

*Neither the baby's father nor maternal grandfather is a Kohen or Levi.

Notes Rabbi Feld, "If they fit the bill, then we encourage families to do it."

Other factors over the years have contributed to pidyon ha'ben becoming less common, according to Stein. Sometimes, he says, the "parents just don't do it." When that happens, it's the responsibility of the firstborn male to do it himself when he's old enough, said Stein, who knows of one Atlanta father-son duo that went through the ceremony together recently.

The pidyon ha'ben ritual is short. The baby's father tells the Kohen of his intentions to redeem his son, then presents his son to the Kohen along with five "shekels" (usually silver dollars). The Kohen ascertains that the father wishes to redeem his son, accepts the coins and blesses the baby.

The ceremony is usually less hectic than the bris, which is held eight days after birth, and the mother is usually more relaxed. The baby is dressed up and often is presented to the Kohen on a silver platter and adorned with jewelry loaned by guests "to show how precious the child is and to beautify the mitzvah," said Stein.

According to Rabbi Harvey Winokur of Reform Temple Kehillat Chaim, "[Pidyon ha'ben] is not a ritual that's practiced to any extent in Reform congregations."

The closest equivalent in Reform communities, said Winokur, is a show of commitment to a congregation's religious school — a family might make a donation to the school "in hopes that the child would continue their [Jewish] education."

Family tradition played a big role in Micah Bradley Kornblum's pidyon ha'ben last year. The 1907 silver dollar coins used to redeem him were also used to redeem Micah's grandfather, former Atlantan Gene Kornblum, and father, Craig Kornblum of Atlanta.

Joel Libowsky, Craig's cousin and the Kohen through whom Micah was redeemed, is the grandson of the man who officiated at Gene and Craig Kornblum's pidyon ha'ben.

In addition, Rabbi Jonathan Glass of Traditional Congregation B'nai Torah, who officiated Micah's pidyon ha'ben, performed Craig and Sheri Kornblum's wedding ceremony when he was rabbi at the Orthodox synagogue in New Orleans where Sheri grew up.

"My impression is that whatever level of observance, families are seeking more ritual, not less," says Feld. "Once they find it, they get more interested."