Insights Into Pidyon HaBen

V’chol bechor adam b’vanecha tifdeh (Shemos 13:13)

The plague of the slaying of the first-born didn’t distinguish between paternal first-born Egyptians and maternal firstborns, as both were killed. If the mitzvah of Pidyon Haben commemorates the fact that the Jewish firstborns were spared from this plague (13:2), why is it performed only with a maternal firstborn and not also with a paternal first-born?

The Avnei Shoham answers by comparing Pidyon Haben to the mitzvah of bikurim. After a farmer puts in so much effort into plowing and planting, it seems quite natural that he should enjoy a good harvest. Bringing bikurim to the Temple combats his instincts to take credit for the products of his labor and forget about the Divine assistance which made it possible. The Torah reminds him Who is really responsible for the crops by requiring him to bring the first fruits to the Temple.

Similarly, when a couple gets married, it seems natural that within a few years the wife should give birth to a child. To prevent the parents from taking this process for granted, the firstborn son must be redeemed from the Kohen. This reminds them that what appeared natural is actually miraculous.

However, a reminder is necessary only when the birth would have otherwise appeared natural, such as a maternal firstborn. In the event of a paternal firstborn, meaning that the mother has previously been married, or a child born by C-section or one following the loss of an unborn child, it is already clear that the traditional order of events isn’t being followed, and no reminder is necessary.

Alternatively, Harav Akiva Eiger and Harav Yosef Chaim Sonnenfeld answer by questioning why it was necessary for the Jews to place the blood of the korban Pesach on their doorposts to protect them. If Hashem slew the firstborn, couldn’t He differentiate between the houses of the Jews and the Egyptians?

It is also difficult to understand whether the firstborn were slain by Hashem, as the Haggadah emphasizes that this plague was performed exclusively by Him, or by a destructive angel, as the Jews were told to place blood on their doorposts to protect them from the destroying angel (12:23).

To resolve both difficulties, they suggest that a maternal firstborn can be easily distinguished, while a paternal firstborn is harder to identify. The destroying angel slew the maternal firstborns where there was no room for error, while Hashem killed the paternal firstborns who required additional recognition.

In light of this explanation, we now understand that it wasn’t miraculous that the paternal firstborns were saved, as Hashem knew their identities and they were never in danger of an error. The maternal firstborns, however, required a miracle to be saved from the destroying angel, as the Gemara (Bava Kamma 60a) teaches that once permission is given to this angel to destroy, it doesn’t differentiate between the righteous and the wicked. Because Hashem had to miraculously protect them, they became holy for all generations and require redemption from a Kohen.

Q: Who was Pharaoh’s firstborn child, and was s/he killed in the plague of the slaying of the first-born?

Q: How were the Jews able to fulfill the mitzvah of wearing tefillin (13:16) during their 40-year sojourn in the desert when they are invalid without all four sections of the Torah contained within, and two of the required sections weren’t even taught by Moshe until the book of Devarim, in the last year of their travels through the wilderness?

 A: The Midrash relates that Pharaoh’s daughter, who saved Moshe from the river when he was a baby, was a firstborn. She was saved in the merit of the prayers of Moshe, who remained grateful to her for saving his life. This is alluded to in the verse in Eishes Chayil (Mishlei 31:18): “Taamah ki tov sachrah lo yichbeh ba’laylah neirah.” Because she saved Moshe, who was called tov — good (2:2) — therefore her light (i.e., her soul) wasn’t extinguished ba’laylah — on “the night,” a reference to the night of the slaying of the firstborn.

 A: This question is raised in the commentary on Menachos ascribed to the Rashba, who answers that even though at this time the Torah portions they had received only contained two of the four sections which are placed in tefillin, Moshe orally taught them the other two sections so that they could be written in their tefillin throughout their 40-year sojourn in the wilderness. Harav Gedaliah Schorr adds that the four portions which are written in tefillin are not written as copies of the sections which appear in the Torah. Rather, they are four sections which

we were commanded to write in our tefillin which happen to also be in the Torah, which explains why they could be written even before the corresponding section was given as part of the Torah. However, the Chavatzeles Hasharon notes that the Brisker Rav argues and maintains that the four portions written in tefillin are in fact merely copies of parallel sections which appear in the Torah, in which case the Rashba’s answer would be difficult to understand. The Panim Yafos in fact writes that the Jews did not wear tefillin in the wilderness until they received the final two portions, and this is also the opinion of the Raavan, although the Chavatzeles Hasharon cites two Midrashim which explicitly state that the Jews wore tefillin in the wilderness. The Malbim suggests that the question of whether the Jews wore tefillin in the wilderness is dependent on a Talmudic dispute (Gittin 60a) between Rav Yochanan and Reish Lakish regarding whether the Torah was given to the Jews all at once at the end of Moshe’s life or in partial segments throughout their sojourn in the wilderness.


Originally from Kansas City, Rabbi Ozer Alport graduated from Harvard, learned in Mir Yerushalayim for five years, and now lives in Brooklyn, where he learns in Yeshivas Beis Yosef, is the author of the recently-published sefer Parsha Potpourri, and gives weekly shiurim. To send comments to the author or to receive his Divrei Torah weekly, please email