QUESTION: What is the status of pidyon haben (redemption of the first-born) within Reform Judaism? May it take place after the mother has had a miscarriage? (Rabbi Cyril Stanway, Hattiesburg MS)
ANSWER: Reform Jews have only seldom practiced this ritual. As we do not recognize any special status for priests and Levites (Philadelphia Conference Proceedings Yearbook Central Conference of American Rabbis Vol I 1890 p 178; W. Jacob The Pittsburgh Platform in Retrospect p 108) it is therefore not logical to demand the redemption of the first born. If it is done in Reform circles it is a symbol of a tradition and a tie to the past. Those who want to conduct the ritual should note the following matters:
The Biblical tradition informs us that the first born sons were devoted to the service at the Temple and earlier at the tent of meeting. However, this special sanctity which they possessed could be redeemed (Ex 13.15; 34.19; Lev 27, 1-8; Nu 18, 14-16; Deut 15.19). It, of course, became necessary to follow such a system as soon as priests and Levites were designated for service at the sanctuary.
Naturally priests and Levites and their daughters who married Israelites do not need to redeem their first born (Bek 2.1). As for the rest of Israelites, it is incumbent among traditional Jews to redeem all first born males. In matters of inheritance "first born" means the first son of the father. With pidyon haben it means the first son of the mother. The child, however, is not considered first born if the mother had a miscarriage and if that fetus was more than forty days old (Shulhan Arukh Yoreh Deah 305.23). Furthermore, if there is any question whether the child really is the first born or not then no redemption is necessary (Ibid 305.22 ff). We should also note that the duty of redemption falls upon the father and if for some reason he fails to do so it is up to the son to redeem himself at maturity (Kid 29a; Shulhan Arukh Yoreh Deah 305.15). In time it became customary for some other male relative or perhaps a bet din to act in lieu of the father and to redeem the child.
Five shekels is the sum set by the Bible (Num 18.16) for the redemption and according to tradition it had to be presented in coinage (Shulhan Arukh Yoreh Deah 305.14). In some periods of Jewish history special coins were minted for this purpose. In most periods the money was either returned to the child's father or was distributed to the poor (Bek 51b; Shulhan Arukh Yoreh Deah 305.8). The act of redemption may also be used to give money to a poor individual of priestly descent.
The ceremony itself is held on the thirty-first day after birth for by that time tradition found that the child was viable. It may occur even if for health reasons circumcision has not yet taken place (Shulhan Arukh Yoreh Deah 305.11). The ceremony involves a simple Aramaic or Hebrew formula in which the father presents his son to the priest and the priest asks whether he wishes to redeem it and the father replies and the coins change hands; it concluded with a blessing over a cup of wine as well as the priestly benediction (Shulhan Arukh Yoreh Deah 305.10). In some periods special beautiful trays of silver have been fabricated for use during this ceremony.
Whether a male son is actually the first born depends on the testimony of either the midwife, the mother or the father. This question, of course, arises principally during multiple births (M Kid 4.2; 65d; Yeb 47a Kid 74a; Shulhan Arukh Even Haezer). As stated at the beginning the ceremony is not necessary but optional.