Never too late for redemption
Never too late for redemptionIsrael news photo

A young father returned to his home kibbutz to redeem his first-born son - and two other never-redeemed first-borns joined in as well. Residents don't remember ever seeing a Torah-mandated redemption ceremony, known as a Pidyon HaBen, in their kibbutz since it was founded in 1942.

The idea was that of Rabbi Shlomo Ra'anan, head of the Ayelet HaShachar (Morning Star) outreach organization. "I had been studying with a young man named Noam, a resident of Kiryat Sefer who had just become the father of his first child, a son," Rabbi Ra'anan recounted. "Noam grew up in the very secular Kibbutz HaHotrim, near Haifa, and he was wondering where to hold the festive Redemption of the First-Born and perform the special commandment of redeeming his baby."

Rabbi Ra'anan, no stranger to imaginative initiatives that bring Judaism and Jews closer together, had an idea for Noam: "Why don't you have it in your secular kibbutz - and not only that, let's see if there are other first-born boys there who might never have had a pidyon (redemption), and they can do it as well! And don't worry: I'll bring the Kohen - and the music!"

The idea took off, and Tuesday evening, Jews of various stripes and persuasions from all over the country began streaming into the kibbutz dining hall: hareidi-religious, knitted-yarmulke, and many for whom it was their first time at a Pidyon HaBen.

After the strictly kosher meal began, it was the baby's turn first. The Kohen (descendant of Aaron the High Priest, brother of Moses), a young man from the hareidi-religious community in Zichron Yaakov, explained clearly and with good humor what was about to transpire: "The tribe of Levi, which is the tribe of Kohanim, was the only tribe that did not take part in the Sin of the Golden Calf - and so, the Kohanim were designated to carry out the Temple service from then on. However, the original plan had been for the first-born in each family to serve this function - so it became necessary for each first-born to 'redeem' his status by paying five silver coins to a Kohen and, in a sense, buy himself back."

He continued: "It is a Torah commandment for a father to redeem his wife's first-born son in this manner [provided neither of the parents are themselves Kohanim or Levites, and that the baby was born naturally] after the baby is 30 days old. I hope I won't have to pay Re'ut [the mother] for the babysitting she has so kindly provided for 'my' son over the past month," he jokingly added. "Hmmm, let me see. I myself have five daughters and no sons, so maybe I won't actually redeem this one..."

Israel news photo: Rabbi Ra'anan, at right, with his eager assistant Yossi Siton

The Kohen had brought with him five silver coins for the occasion, which he sold to the young father for a nominal price. The father then recited the appropriate blessings and gave the coins to the Kohen, who passed him back the baby. Noam then watched proudly as the Kohen waved the coins over the baby's head and pronounced him "redeemed."

After a round of singing, led by guitarist Ephraim Tov, brought in for the occasion from Bnei Brak by Rabbi Ra'anan, the father announced that the ceremony was not over yet. To the happy surprise of those present, he announced that an old friend of his, the oldest in his family, had never been redeemed according to Torah law, and that he was anxious to do so now. The ceremony then repeated itself, but this time the place of the baby was taken by a strapping young man in his 20's. His father recited the blessings, handed over the coins that he had acquired just minutes earlier (at no cost), and the newly-redeemed son recited the blessing on the wine. Once again, Ephraim led the guests in a round of familiar Hassidic tunes.

But that was still not all. Another father-son pair from the secular kibbutz also wanted to take part, and once again the ceremony was repeated - and a young teenage Jewish boy suddenly found himself "redeemed" according to Torah law and tradition.

The Start of Something Big

Proudest of all, it appeared, was the "father" of the ceremony, Rabbi Ra'anan. "This is the start of an amazing project," he bubbled, "that we plan to do in many other places around the country."

Interestingly, Rabbi Ra'anan was less focused on "fixing" the unredeemed state of first-borns, and more on the effect the happy ceremony would have on the participants and their guests. "This is a great way of bringing Judaism into people's lives," he said. "They'll taste it and realize it's good!"

Rabbi Ra'anan has much experience with sparking Jewish interest where there has been no Judaism before. He and his organization have built synagogues in secular communities, organized literally thousands of telephone study-pairs (chavrutot) between religious and secular Jews, and sponsors Torah programming and classes in places that have never seen the likes of it before. But he was particularly enthusiastic about the triple Pidyon HaBen event he had just orchestrated: "There used to be a suspicious, 'anti' approach to Judaism in these places, but did you see what happened here? They were all interested and happy. It's really a beautiful thing, and I hope to continue it elsewhere, very soon."

See also: "Synagogues Flourishing in Secular Kibbutzim