Shabbat Parashat Vayikra| 5765
Ask the Rabbi
Question: I am my parent’s firstborn son, and my father recently told me that my planned pidyon haben (redeeming of the firstborn by a kohen) was delayed because of my illness and was never done. (My parents were not fully observant.) Is there something I should do now?
Answer: It sounds like you require a pidyon haben, as the mitzva does not expire. However, first we have to try to determine if you definitely require it, and then we can discuss how to do it in this situation.
First it pays to check if your father was right in planning the pidyon haben. The main exemptions are as follows: either of your parents is the child of a male kohen or levi; if your mother had a miscarriage prior to your birth; if you were born in a Caesarian delivery. Also ascertain from your father if, after all these years, he is sure that there was no pidyon haben. It is possible that the rabbi/kohen who was to have done the pidyon did so in a quick, halachic procedure that your father may have forgotten, while he remembers the fact that the party was cancelled. If there is uncertainty, get back to us, as we cannot give one blanket rule in advance.
Assuming that you need a pidyon haben, we have to deal with an interesting, relevant dispute among halachic authorities. A father is required to redeem his son. However, if he fails to do so, the son becomes obligated to redeem himself once he is bar mitzva (Kidushin 29a). The question, though, is whether only the son is obligated at that point or whether the father’s obligation remains. If the grown son does the pidyon haben the matter is certainly taken care of, but the difference among the opinions is in a situation where the father is now interested in doing the mitzva which was delayed for whatever reason.
The Rashba (Shut II, 321) says that as the mitzva of pidyon haben creates a monetary obligation on the father’s property from the outset, there is nothing to removes the obligation, and the father remains obligated. The gemara (ibid.) says that if one has enough money to redeem only himself or his son, he should redeem himself, because the mitzva that relates directly to himself has precedence. The Rivash (Shut 131) infers from there that the son’s obligation to redeem himself is the primary obligation, and the father’s practical responsibility to redeem his baby is due only to the fact that a small child is incapable of performing the pidyon haben himself. When the child grows up, he alone is obligated. Many later authorities have debated the matter, and it is difficult to say that one approach is more accepted or acceptable than the other (see Pidyon Haben K’hilchato 1:(16)).
We would suggest as follows. As you know your father better than we, try to determine if he would want to be involved in the pidyon haben or not. If you think that he wouldn’t mind, there is no problem doing it yourself. Ifhe wants to do it, there is a way to devise a system whereby the right person will end up doing the mitzva. You can physically give the money to the kohen and make the appropriate blessings and statements but do it on condition that if your father should rightfully be doing it, then you are doing it is as his agent. The process is only slightly complicated, and since few kohanim have done a pidyon haben in a case where a person is doing it for himself you will anyway need a very learned kohen and/or a rabbi to make the appropriate adjustments in the text of the blessings and statements. We would be happy to explain whatever needs to be explained to such a kohen.
In any case, it is both important (a full Torah law) and not as complicated as it might sound to do the pidyon haben. While it is customary to have a minyan present (Otzar Pidyon Haben 18:2), it can be done privately to avoid embarrassing your father.
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