The Bible Says What? ‘You must buy back your firstborn’

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The Bible Says What? ‘You must buy back your firstborn’

 Rabbi Debbie Young-Somers looks at a controversial passage of Jewish texts and looks at a Reform response

The birth of a first child is an incredibly proud moment for a parent. Anyone would agree it would be cruel to take that child and demand a monetary ransom for their return – yet that is exactly what the Torah tells us to do.

This is a process called the redemption of the first-born. In principle, the first-born child – specifically a son, in the Torah – had a duty to commit themselves to the service of God. 

In the book of Bamidbar, we are told that instead of carrying out this duty, the whole tribe of Levi would take the place of all first-born children. 

They would serve God in the Mishkan (the portable Temple in the wilderness) and later the Temple.

The Levites would not do this automatically though – the child still had to be redeemed from the duty by giving the Levites five shekels of silver. It may seem like a steep price just to keep your own child, but it was the price set and is a ritual that some Jews still practice symbolically to this day.

This redemption process gives an important message about our duty to the community. 

While it made sense for the children of Israel to have a tribe dedicated to the running of the ritual processes the community needed, it was important that everyone else didn’t then think they had no wider responsibility. 

The redemption was an immediate reminder that everyone has a duty to the community. 

We, too, must remember that it is not just clergy or lay leaders who owe themselves to serve the community. 

Our Jewish communities become holy communities when we all do our bit and are there to support one another.

  •  Rabbi Debbie Young-Somers serves Edgware and Hendon Reform Synagogue
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