First Born

Biblical legislation gave the firstborn male a special status with respect to certain cultic regulations and inheritance rights. Along with the first fruits of the soil and the first male offspring of herd and flock, the firstborn son was considered sacred, the exclusive possession of God. If in the popular consciousness, the first issue of herds, flocks, and first fruits were considered particularly desirable as sacrifices or offerings, it was natural that where human sacrifice was practiced, the firstborn was considered the most desirable sacrifice to its deity; for example, the king of Moav, on the verge of defeat, sacrifices his eldest son.[1]

In Biblical Hebrew usage, the firstborn male of human beings and animals is usually called bekhor, and less frequently peter rehem. The animal "firstborn" is always that of the mother, while for human beings, bekhor can be either of the mother or the father. In most instances, however, the firstborn is of the father. (See Lowin's article on the Hebrew root-word b-kh-r.)

According to Deuteronomy[2], a father was obliged to acknowledge his firstborn son as his principal heir, and to grant him a double portion of his estate as inheritance, i.e., a double portion of his fraction of the inheritance depending on the number of sons. It is evident from the composition of biblical genealogies that the status of bekhor was a pervasive feature of Israelite life. Nonetheless, we see primogeniture disregarded in the transmission of the early Hebrew clan's unique religious belief; Abraham, Isaac and Jacob all pass by (and sometimes banish) the firstborn in favor of the son deemed more suited to carry on the clan line and belief (see Nahum Sarna's article on this subject).

Following the dramatic story of the tenth plague inflicted upon firstborn Egyptian males, God acquires title to the firstborn of man and beast in Israel, for having spared them in this plague. According to the priestly tradition, the Levites were devoted to cultic service in substitution for all the firstborn Israelites[3]. The laws governing the redemption of the firstborn from this cultic service[4] suggest that at one time firstborn sons were actually devoted to cultic service as temple slaves; subsequently, other arrangements were made for supplying "cultic personnel" (i.e., the Levites).

The firstborn could thus be relieved of their sacral status and cultic destiny through redemption. Rabbinic sources discuss at length methods of exchange and redemption, which take place in a ceremony known as pidyon ha-ben (lit. "redemption of the firstborn"), in the presence of a kohen (descendant of the priestly family) and other guests.

From the collection of the Sir Isaac and Lady Edith Wolfson Museum
(Hechal Shlomo, Jerusalem)

This brass plate was used for the pidyon ha-Ben ceremony. Many plates of this type were made by silversmith Dornhelm of Lvov in the early 19th century for decorative purposes, and were then used to carry the infant during the pidyon ha-Ben ceremony. While the subject of the central panel varies, they are all in the folk style popular among 18th to early-19th century East European Jews. This oval plate is decorated with the zodiac signs and a depiction of the Binding of Isaac in high relief at its center.

[1] Kings II 3:27 [back]
[2] Deuteronomy 21:15-17 [back]
[3] Numbers 3:12 [back]
[4] Exodus 13:15; 34:19, Deut. 15:19 [back]



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