The ceremony of Pidyon Haben (redemption of the first born son) is generally performed on the thirtieth day of a Jewish child’s life. The boy is “redeemed” symbolically from service in the temple. There are several explanations for the origin of this ceremony. It is thought to be a commemoration of the saving of Jewish first born when the Lord struck down the first born of Egypt. It is also explained as a punishment for worship of the golden calf. Originally all first born were to serve as Kohanim (priests) in the temple. However, because the Jews worshipped the golden calf, only the Levites, who had refrained from this worship, were permitted to serve in the temple, while others were excused from this service on payment of a “ransom.” The obligation to present the first born to the Lord is mentioned first in the Old Testament book of Exodus, verses 13:2 and 3:13, and the redemption of the first born is described in Numbers 18, verses 15 and 16
NUMBERS 18:15 Every thing that openeth the matrix in all flesh, which they bring unto the LORD, whether it be of men or beasts, shall be thine: nevertheless the firstborn of man shalt thou surely redeem, and the firstling of unclean beasts shalt thou redeem.
NUMBERS 18:16 And those that are to be redeemed from a month old shalt thou redeem, according to thine estimation, for the money of five shekels, after the shekel of the sanctuary, which is twenty gerahs.
The children who must be redeemed are first born males, provided that they are not descendants of Kohanim or Levites, were not born by Ceasarean section and provided that the mother had not had a miscarriage after 40 days of pregnancy. The ceremony is not performed by Reform or Reconstructionist Jews.
Counting the first day of life, the ritual of Pidyon Haben is usually performed on the thirty first day. If this day falls on a Sabbath, the Pidyon Haben ceremony must be postponed, since it involves exchange of money. The Pidyon Haben ceremony is done by a Kohen (a Jew person named Cohen or Kahn or Azulai or several similar names is considered to be a descendant of the Kohanim). Though Orthodox Jews permit only male Kohanim to perform the ceremony, in Conservative Judaism it is permitted for female Kohanim to perform Pidyon Haben.
The Pidyon Haben is done for a symbolic payment of five silver coins or objects of silver, usually five silver dollars in the United States. These coins are no longer minted. The Israeli government has minted special silver shekels for this purpose. Since the proper coins are not readily available outside of Israel, Kohanim who engage in Pidyon Haben often keep such coins for the purpose and sell them to the parents. Usually, a minyan of ten male witnesses should be present.
During a Pidyon HaBen ceremony, the father recites two blessings, praising God for commanding the redemption and thanking God for giving us life and bringing us to this occasion. The Kohen asks the father if he would rather have the child or the five silver shekels. The father replies that he prefers the child over the money, and then he recites a blessing. The father then gives the money to the Kohen.
The Kohen holds the money over the head of the baby and recites, “This instead of that, this in commutation for that and this in remission for that.” The Kohen then prays for the child and recites the traditional priestly prayer. Usually the coins are returned as a gift after the ceremony of Pidyon Haben. A festive meal in celebration (seudat mitzvah) is often held to celebrate the event.