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Firstborn (Bechor) Privileges

I’ve been studying Deuteronomy with my children and was at a loss to explain why the firstborn receives a double portion of the inheritance (21:17). What is the basis for this?

The Aish Rabbi Replies:

It’s a very good question. The Torah accords a higher status to the firstborn son (bechor) – giving him a double portion of his father’s inheritance, and initially putting the Temple service in the hands of the firstborns – until later that service was given to the Priests in their stead. There are a number of suggested reasons for this:

(1) The oldest son would naturally take over the family’s affairs with the father’s passing. It was thus natural to give him a larger portion of the family estate. The firstborn is also credited with making his father into a father; thus, he has a special role in the family (R. Samson Raphael Hirsh Deut. 21:17)

(2) A father naturally loves his eldest son most since he views him as his continuity. The firstborn demonstrates that his father is capable of having children and serves as a constant reminder that the family line will continue (Abarbanel Deut. 21:17).

(3) Firsts are always beloved to God, such as the first fruits (which are brought to the Temple) and the firstborn animals. God likewise grants the firstborn son an extra portion (Abarbanel ibid.).

(4) Originally the Temple service was the charge of the firstborn – until it was given to the Tribe of Levi in their stead. The Tribe of Levi did not inherit a portion of the Land of Israel because they were to be dedicated entirely to Divine service. As a result, they were not given land to work, but instead would receive tithes from the rest of the nation.

Had the firstborn remained obligated in the Temple, they too would not have been granted an inheritance. Now however, that they were replaced, they not only receive their own portion of their father’s estate, but they receive an extra one – in place of the one lost by Levi (Yalkut Reuveni Ki Tetzei, quoted in Chizkuni Numbers 3:12).

It should be mentioned that although the above is the Torah’s straightforward rule, it is very common in practice to arrange matters differently today – for example, for a father to bequeath more to his other sons and some to his daughters, or to leave a portion of his estate for his wife. Although we may not transgress the Torah’s command, there are means of doing so which are legitimate both religiously and legally (it involves the father giving a portion of his assets as gifts shortly before his death). Although the details of this are beyond the scope of this response, any religious lawyer who deals with estate planning should be able to guide you in how this should properly be done.

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