“Why You’ll Never See a Vampire at a Pidyon HaBen”

 I’d like to share with you a synopsis of my comments at my grandson Moshe Dov’s Pidyon HaBen last week.

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“Why You’ll Never See a Vampire at a Pidyon HaBen”

According to the original plan, every family was supposed to have its own Kohain — Priest.  If someone wanted to bring an offering to G-d on a private Altar, he asked a Firstborn to officiate. 

For example, Esau, the firstborn son of Issac and Rebecca, bore that privilege and responsibility.  However, he wasn’t worthy of that role.  No one wants to have one’s offerings to G-d brought through the auspices of a murderer and idolater.  That’s why Jacob offered to purchase the Birthright from Esau.  When Esau learned some of the complicated and sometimes dangerous rules of the Priesthood, he responded, “If I’m going to die, of what value to me is the Birthright?! (Genesis, 25:32) 

The Firstborn of Israel belong to G-d.  When the Egyptians refused to release G-d’s children from bondage, He finally sent the Tenth Plague against them to get the job done.  The Israelites smeared the lamb’s blood of their Passover Offerings (offered, no doubt, by the Firstborn) on their doorposts.  G-d looked into an Egyptian house:  “Oh, you’re a firstborn Egyptian human or animal?  You’re dead!”  He looked into an Israelite home:  “Oh, you’re an Israelite human or animal?  You’re Mine!” 

Firstborn animals are holy.  A farmer whose cow or sheep or goat gave birth to a firstborn male was not permitted to use it for himself; it belonged to G-d.  It needed to be brought as an offering. 

Firstborn humans are holy people who are supposed to be devoted to G-d’s Service.  But, at one point, they blew it! 

Moses came down from Mount Sinai with the Ten Commandments engraved on two stone tablets.  To his shock and dismay, his People were worshipping a Golden Calf.  He smashed the Tablets. 

Most of the nation didn’t personally participate in worshipping the idol; but most of the nation seemed to tolerate it.  Moses wanted to see who was still uncompromisingly on the side of G-d and righteousness.   Surely, the Firstborn were not participating in or accepting this sacrilege!  Or, so one would have thought:

“Whoever is with G-d, join me!” cried Moses.  The entire Tribe of Levi flocked to his side.” (Exodus, 32:26)

Where were the Firstborn?  They were nowhere to be seen!  Apparently, they were busy with their younger siblings at the Golden Calf!

The Firstborn had lost their way.  They were supposed to have known better.  They were the leaders of Israel!  They were the clerics!  Yet they had failed.

The devotion that the Firstborn should have shown toward G-d was demonstrated by the Tribe of Levi instead.  The Levites were found to be more worthy than the Firstborn.  It was time for a change. 

The Firstborn were replaced by the Levites.  The sanctity of each Firstborn was “transferred” to a corresponding Levite.  When they ran out of Levites, the remaining Firstborn were redeemed with 5 silver Shekels that were given to the head Levite, Aaron the High Priest.

And that is how it is done today.  When an Israelite woman who is married to an Israelite man gives birth to a Firstborn son, the father is obligated to redeem him by giving the equivalent of 5 silver Shekels (approximately 100 grams of silver – 5 silver U.S. dollars are sufficient) to a Kohain in order to redeem him.  (Since Aaron, the progenitor of the Kohanim, was a member of the Tribe of Levi, every Kohain is also a Levite.)  If the father is a Kohain or Levite, or if the mother is the daughter of a Kohain or Levite, the child is exempt from the requirement to be redeemed. 

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When Rabbi Shimon Schwab, of Blessed Memory, was a teenager, he went to visit Rabbi Yisroel Meir Kagan, (1838-1933) known as the Chofetz Chaim.  (Brief biographies of the Chofetz Chaim can be found here and here.  Read his obituaries in the New York Times and Time magazine here.)

Rabbi Kagan, the leader of world Jewry, was, at the time, quite old. He asked the young man if he was a Kohain. The young man replied that he was not. “Why not?” asked the sage. “Because my father’s not a Kohain.” “Why not?” “Because HIS father wasn’t a Kohain.”

Once the youth was sufficiently confused by the interrogation, the Chofetz Chaim explained his point. “I am a Kohain, and when the Temple is rebuilt, I will officiate there. I am a Kohain because 3,000 years ago, my ancestors responded to Moses’ call, ‘Whoever is with G-d, join me!‘ (Exodus 32:26) You, young man, are NOT a Kohain, because YOUR ancestors ignored that call.

“Make sure, young man, that you never miss an opportunity to respond to Moses’ call!”

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The Tribe of Levi in general and the Kohanim in particular, have distinguished themselves by their willingness to stand up and be counted when it comes to the honor of G-d and His Torah.

One such person was Harold Goldfeder.  It was known in Washington, D.C. that Mr. Goldfeder was a man who stood for Torah standards.  When it came to matters of Jewish Law, he consistently answered Moses’ call of “Whoever is with G-d, join me!”  True to his role as a Kohain, he refused to compromise when it came to Halacha.  To Harold Goldfeder, being popular was not as important as doing what is right.

Harold Goldfeder passed away at a young age; he never got to enjoy the pleasure of seeing grandchildren.

Back in 1979, I sat in a hotel lobby in Jerusalem, chatting with a young lady I had just met an hour or two before.  She told me that her father, Harold Goldfeder, of Blessed Memory, had been a Kohain.  The first thought that went through my mind was, “well, if our first child is a boy, I won’t have to redeem him!” 

A year and a half later, when Harold Goldfeder’s grandson was born, I saved myself 5 Shekels!

Today, Harold Goldfeder has a great-grandson.  This time, there’s no exemption.  Little Moshe Dov’s father and mother are both Israelites.  So the Kohain needs to be paid!

And what an honor and a pleasure it is for me to see that my grandson’s redemption money is going to a very familiar Kohain – my brother-in-law, Chayim Goldfeder!

All those years ago, Mr. Goldfeder saved me 5 Shekels of silver; now for his son, it’s pay-back time!

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Moshe Dov was brought into the room where the Pidyon HaBen was to take place.  He was lying on a blanket that had been placed on a large silver tray.  The tray (and the baby!) were covered with silver and gold jewelry, and little packets of sugar cubes and garlic.

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 The Kohain receives this redemption money because his tribe didn’t participate in the worship of the Golden Calf.  There was another group of people who had nothing to do with the Golden Calf – the women. 

When the husbands asked their wives to part with their gold jewelry to be melted down to make the Calf, the women refused.  They remained steadfast in their faith in G-d and eagerly awaited Moses’ return.  On the other hand, when Moses later made an appeal for contributions for the Tabernacle, the women participated generously.

The women of Israel have always distinguished themselves for their love of Mitzvahs.  At a Pidyon HaBen, the women demonstrate this love by using their jewelry to adorn the guest of honor.  (I had actually toyed with the idea of asking a friend to lend me his Rolex for the occasion.  Then I decided, based on the reason for this custom, that we should stick with women’s jewelry!)

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What about the garlic?  No, we’re not trying to scare vampires away!  It is a great privilege to participate in the meal of a Mitzvah celebration.  Sugar and garlic are flavor enhancers that go a long way.  Take a garlic-and-sugar packet from a Pidyon HaBen and add it to your Shabbos cholent, and voilà! – leftovers from the celebration!  (On Rosh Hashanah, tonight’s Pidyon HaBen celebration will continue in a cholent as far away as Uman, Ukraine!)

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After the redemption took place, Great-Uncle-Chayim-the-Kohain blessed the little “redemptee.”  Part of the blessing he gave him is borrowed from the ceremony at a Bris: “May it be Your will that the same way he has entered into this redemption (or, at a Bris: “The same way he has entered into the Covenant…”) so too may he enter into the Torah, the Chuppah (marriage canopy) and good deeds.”

What does this blessing mean?  “The same way he has entered the Covenent/redemption…?”  What is the “same way?”  Should he come to his Chuppah the same way he came to his Bris — naked, kicking and screaming???!”

My nephew, Rabbi Moshe Goldfeder, explained to me that there is something unique about a child of this age as he begins his Mitzvah life.

Moshe Dov has never in his life engaged in gossip.  He has never insulted anyone.  He has never stolen and he has never violated G-d’s Word.  Moshe Dov is a Tzaddik; a perfectly righteous little Tzaddik!  The blessing we give him is that the same way he has entered the Covenant – without sin, the same way he has entered redemption, surrounded by those who love him, and bedecked with the adornments of those who love Mitzvahs, so too may he live a sinless life that is devoted to growing into a Ben Torah.  May he grow into a Torah scholar like his father, a devoted lover of Torah and Mitzvahs like his mother, and an uncompromising fighter for Torah values like his great-grandfather!

Mazel Tov.  May we all celebrate many Simchas in the coming New Year!

Rabbi Yerachmiel Seplowitz

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This is the weekly message at https://torahtalk.wordpress.com. Copyright © 2000-2009 by Rabbi Yerachmiel Seplowitz.  May be reprinted. Please include copyright information.

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Rabbi Yerachmiel Seplowitz is a Mohel (Brisrabbi.com) and chaplain in Monsey, New York. For information about scheduling a Bris or a lecture, or just to say hello, call (800) 83MOHEL.

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Published in: on September 16, 2009 at 10:59 am  Leave a Comment  

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