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Ask the Aish Rabbi a Question

Recent Questions:

Redeeming First Born

We have a new baby boy and I heard something about having to "buy him back from a kohen." What do I have to do – and how much is this going to cost?

The Aish Rabbi Replies:

Mazal Tov!

You heard right. Pidyon Haben refers to the "redemption of the first born son," and is commanded in the Torah (Numbers 18:15). The reason we perform this mitzvah is to remind us about the Exodus from Egypt and how God killed the Egyptian first born, yet spared our first born. Also, since a person loves his first born so much, it is a fitting time to re-acknowledge the fact that everything we own in fact belongs to God. (Numbers 3:13)

The background for this mitzvah is somewhat complex, but here goes:

Originally, God intended that the first-born of each Jewish family would be a kohen – i.e. that family's representative to the Holy Temple. (Exodus 13:1-2, Exodus 24:5 Rashi)

But then came the incident of the Golden Calf. When Moses came down from Mount Sinai and smashed the tablets, he issued everyone an ultimatum: "Make your choice – either God or the idol." Only the tribe of Levi came to the side of God. At that point, God decreed that each family's first-born would forfeit their "kohen" status – and henceforth all the kohanim would come from the tribe of Levi. (Numbers 3:11-12)

Thus the mitzvah of Pidyon HaBen. Since the first-born child is technically a "kohen" whose potential cannot be actualized, then he has to be replaced (so to speak) by a kohen from the tribe of Levi. This is accomplished by the father of the baby offering the kohen a redemptive value of five silver coins for the boy.

There are many factors which determine when and if to perform this mitzvah. You will need to find a rabbi well-versed in Jewish law who can guide you through this procedure.

In general, Pidyon HaBen only applies to the son who "opened his mother's womb." Therefore, all the following conditions must apply:

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

2) The baby was delivered in the normal way, not via C-section.

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

4) The father of the baby is not a Kohen or a Levi, and the mother's father is not a Kohen or a Levi.

If the above conditions check out, then:

1) Find a kohen with a very strong tradition in his family that he is indeed a Kohen.

2) Get five silver coins. The specific kind of silver coins depends on where you are in the world. Ask your rabbi.

3) The Pidyon Haben ceremony is held after the baby is 30 days old, on the 31st day. It does not take place on Shabbos.

4) The ceremony is held in the context of a festive meal, and basically goes like this: The father attests to the fact that this is indeed his first born son. The Kohen then asks the father: "What do you want to do, give me your first born or redeem him?" (As far as I know, the father has never chosen to give up his son!) The father then makes two blessings, and gives the coins to the Kohen. Additional blessings are said; the full text is printed in the siddur.

If your baby does not meet the conditions for having a Pidyon HaBen, don't be concerned – there is no defect in his status. In fact, only about 1-of-10 families ever meet all the conditions for Pidyon HaBen.

As far as the cost of this mitzvah, don't let it worry you. The eternal reward for following God's will is much greater than five silver coins!

By the way, if someone was supposed to have a Pidyon HaBen as a child, but never did (i.e. their parents neglected to do so), then the obligation remains – and they should contact a rabbi ASAP to perform the ceremony.

May your new son grow up to be a great source of pride to your family, to the Jewish people, and to the Almighty!

Ketubah: 200 Zuz

I see that my marriage ketubah says it is worth 200 zuz. What is the equivalent of 200 zuz in American dollars?

The Aish Rabbi Replies:

Let's see: In the Passover Haggadah we sing about "the goat my father bought for two zuzim." So I guess your ketubah is worth the equivalent of 100 baby goats.

But seriously: The rabbinic sources say that a Zuz [Dinar] is the equivalent of 3.5078250 grams of pure silver. This was established at the time of the Second Temple Era and is practiced today.

According to that figure, 200 zuz comes out to 701.565 grams of pure silver. This is equivalent to 24.7466 ounces of pure silver. At $30 US per ounce of silver, the total value of 200 zuz is approximately $750.

There is nothing that prevents the husband from increasing the sum specified in the Ketubah to beyond that demanded by the strict letter of the law.

(sources: Bechoros 5, with Tosfos; Baba Basra 90a, with Tosfos; Maimonides - Laws of Shekalim; Igros Moshe - EH Part 1:101; Sefer Mesoras HaShekel)

School Shooting

I have often thought about the tragedy in Columbine and other schoolyard shootings. My impression is that these boys want to create an awesome experience, to impress the world with their power, their genius. Maybe they had it backwards. They were consumed with themselves when they could have been inspired by awesome teachers and students.

I would appreciate the Jewish perspective.

The Aish Rabbi Replies:

Why is it that of all of the tragedies that dominate the headlines, the events at Columbine High School are particularly disturbing?

The answer is because it happened to a bunch of kids at school.

Schoolchildren still have an aura – a smile of innocence that somehow encapsulates the American Dream, the courage of the Rockies and the glory of the flag of liberty. In the heart of a child lies the kernel of potential from which germinates society's most precious dreams.

But when the decadence of the adult world is so great that it seeps into the mind of a child, and that beautiful smile can turn into a snarl of hate and frustration. Our hopes for a better tomorrow are smashed, and all the pride in our technological advancements seem to shrivel into nothingness.

That is why we are so disturbed. Because if our children can stoop to such lows, what does this say about the adults from which it all trickles down?

Judaism teaches that from whatever occurs in life, there is a lesson to be learned. So what should society's response be to Colorado? Is it really metal detectors that will solve the problem?

Perhaps we should ask ourselves why 50 years ago the top problems in America's public schools were: talking out of turn, chewing gum, making noise, running in halls, cutting in line, dress code infractions, and littering. And today the problems are: drug and alcohol abuse, pregnancy, suicide, robbery, rape and assault.

Perhaps we should consider the overall effect of a society that teaches objectification of woman (pornography), that teaches disloyalty (adultery), that teaches lack of commitment (divorce), that teaches rights over responsibilities (frivolous lawsuits), and that teaches the blind pursuit of every lustful whim (the unregulated proliferation of violent video games, funereal rock music, comic-book fantasies and apocalyptic films).

The solution is not armed guards at schools, weapons sweeps, or a ban against wearing long blacks coats (as Denver school authorities imposed following he shootings).

Rather, it is getting adults to set examples for their children. The Hebrew word for parent comes from the root "teacher." And that is what we are, whether we like it or not.

So what point does it all boil down to? What one shift can society make to turn this ship around?

It's a basic spiritual issue. One forensic psychiatrist, specializing in children who commit multiple murders, examined the eight multiple murders committed by U.S. schoolchildren in the last three years. His conclusion? The common denominator amongst these children is that they have no connection with God.

Newsweek reported that the Colorado killers asked two female hostages a question: “Do you believe in God?” When they said "yes," the gunmen shot them at point-blank range.

The Sages, too, teach that belief in God is the primary deterrent to murder. How so?

The Ten Commandments are divided into two tablets. The first tablet (commandments 1-through-5) speak about relationship with God. The second tablet (commandments 6-through-10) speak about relationship with fellow man. The two tablets are parallel: The first commandment – "Believe in God" – corresponds to the sixth commandment – "Don't murder."

What's the connection?

Every human being is created with a holy, divine soul. We are not meaningless hunks of meat hurtling on a rock through space and time. We may be uncomfortable with the primacy of man – because of the responsibility that entails. But the alternative is that by teaching our children that they are no better than animals, they will treat each other as animals.

But it goes deeper than this. The recognition that God encompasses everything teaches that in the spiritual dimension, there are no conventional boundaries between entities. We are all one unit. When we appreciate this, then hurting the other guy – “paying him back" – is as ridiculous as hurting yourself. If you're slicing a carrot and accidentally cut your finger, do you take the knife and cut your other hand in revenge? Of course not. Why? Because your other hand is part of you, too.

Of course, love of God is erroneous if it doesn't translate into care for others. Imagine the irony of a “believer” shooting abortion doctors, or burning infidels at the stake. True love of God brings greater humility, not indignant self-righteousness.

To teach kids to care for others, they need to experience the joy of giving. The Torah says that "the external awakens the internal." This means that even if you find it difficult to love others, you can still do actions that demonstrate love – with the understanding that this will ultimately affect your insides.

Children are only a reflection of the adult world in which they live. What happened in Colorado should serve as warning about the effect that society is having on our children. Perhaps this tragedy can strengthen our children in the path of Torah, setting shining examples for the next generation.