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According to Talmudic tradition, the first-born acted as officiating priests in the wilderness, until the erection of the Tabernacle, when the office was given to the tribe of Levi (Num. iii. 12, 13, 45-51; Zeb. 112b; compare Onḳelos to Ex. xxiv. 5). In consequence of the deliverance from the tenth plague, when "the Lord slew all the first-born in the land of Egypt" but spared the first-born of the Israelites, the following commandment was given: "Sanctify unto me all the first-born, whatsoever openeth the womb among the children of Israel, both of man and of beast: it is mine" (Ex. xiii. 2), which is explained in greater detail in verses 12-15. The first-born of clean beasts were thus made holy and were unredeemable, while the first-born of unclean beasts and of man had to be redeemed from the priests (Num. xviii. 15-18; Deut. xv. 19-22; compare Neh. x. 37).


The first-born male of a clean beast had to be brought to the Temple as a sacrifice; its blood sprinkled on the altar; its fat burned; and its flesh given to the priest, who had to eat it with the same sanctity as other sacrificial meats. If it had some physical defect, through which it became unfit for sacrifice, it lost its holy character, and the priest to whom it was given might eat it outside of Jerusalem, and even an ordinary Israelite might partake of it. It was not necessary for the owner to dedicate the first-born, as was the case with other sacrificial animals, although it was considered proper to do so. The first-born became holy at its birth, and had to be offered on the altar (Bek. 13a; Maimonides, "Yad," Bekorot, i. 7). The Rabbis recommended that the owner should keep the first-born in his possession for some time (small cattle 30 and large cattle 50 days) before giving it to the priest, so that the priest be spared the trouble of attending to it during the early days of its life. It had, however, to be given away and sacrificed during the first year of its birth (Deut. xv. 20; Bek. 26b; Maimonides, l.c. i. 7—15.)


This law is valid for all lands and all times, even since the destruction of the Temple, when all sacrifice ceased; according to the Rabbis the first-born is still holy and must be given to the priest, who, however, may not make any use of it until it has suffered some physical defect. To cause a defect in the body of the animal, or even to expose it to the danger of receiving such a blemish, is strictly forbidden. No work should be done with it, nor should its wool be shorn or any other benefit derived from it (Deut. xv. 19). If, however, it receive a blemish which a scholar or three prominent Israelites declare to be of the kind which would make it unfit for sacrifice, the animal becomes profane, and even an Israelite may eat of its meat. However, it should not be sold in the shop like other meat, and the scholar who examines it and permits its use may not, for obvious reasons, eat any of it (Beẓah 27a; Ḥul. 44b; Bek. 25a; Maimonides, l.c. i. 5, iii.; Shulḥan 'Aruk, Yoreh De'ah, 306-320).


The first-born of an ass had to be redeemed with a sheep or a lamb, and if it was not redeemed its neck had to be broken (Ex. xiii. 13). The sheep or lamb with which it was redeemed had to be given to the priest, who might use it in any way he desired. At the redemption the owner pronounced the blessing, "Blessed art thou who . . . commandeth us concerning the redemption of the first-born of an ass." If he had no sheep or cattle with which to redeem it, he might redeem it with money, the smallest amount being three zuzim, and the largest one sela' (Bek. 11a). If he did not wish to redeem it, he had to break its neck, and even after its death he might have no benefit from its body, but had to bury it. Although the Scriptural passages in this connection use the general expression "unclean beasts," the Rabbis made the law apply only to the first-born of an ass. The law is valid for all times and places. The priests and Levites, however, are excluded from the obligation (Bek. 5b; "Yad," Bikkurim, xii. ; Yoreh De'ah, 321; compare Lev. xxvii. 27 and Rashi ad loc.).

III. Men.

Every Israelite is obliged to redeem his first-born son thirty days after the latter's birth. The mother is exempt from this obligation. The son, if the father fails to redeem him, has to redeem himself when he grows up (Ḳid. 29b). The sum of redemption as given in the Bible (Num. xviii. 16) is five shekels, which should be given to the priest. This sum may be given either in money or in valuables, but not in real estate, slaves, or promissory notes. The priest may afterward return the money to the father, although such practise is not recommended by the Rabbis. At the redemption the father of the child pronounces the blessing, "Blessed art thou . . . and commandeth us concerning the redemption of a son," and then also the blessing of "she-heḥeyanu." It is customary to prepare a feast in honor of the occasion, at which the ceremony is made impressive by a dialogue between the priest and the father of the child.

This law applies to the first-born of the mother and not of the father. Hence the husband of several wives would have to redeem the first-born of each one of them, while the husband of a woman who had had children by a previous marriage need not redeem her child, although it was his first-born. Not only priests and Levites, but also Israelites whose wives are the daughters of priests or Levites, need not redeem their first-born. Any doubt regarding the primogeniture of a child is decided in favor of the father (Mishnah Bek. viii.; Maimonides, l.c. xi.; Yoreh De'ah, 305).

Scenes At Redemption Of First-born.(From Bodenschatz, "Kirchliche Verfassung," 1748.)

For the same reason as that which underlies the sanctification of the first-born—i.e., the deliverance from the tenth plague—the first-born are required to fast on the day preceding Passover (Soferim xxi. 3; compare Yer. Pes. x. 1; Shulḥan 'Aruk, Oraḥ Ḥayyim, 470). As long as the first-born son is too young to fast, his father must fast for him; and if the father is also a first-born, some authorities are of the opinion that both mother and father must fast—he for himself, and she for her son. See Inheritance; Patriarchal Family.

  • Hamburger, R. B. T. s.v. Erstgeburt;
  • Saalschütz, Das Mosaische Recht, Berlin, 1853.
S. S. J. H. G.
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