Massekhet Bekhorot focuses on the laws related to “firstborns.” Its placement immediately following Massekhet Ḥullin apparently stems from the relationship between the rules and regulations that apply to firstborn kosher animals – which are the core ideas discussed in this tractate – and the laws of kosher slaughter and priestly gifts that appear in Ḥullin.
The Torah (Shemot 13:12-13) presents three separate situations where the laws of the firstborn apply:
- A firstborn male that must be redeemed by his father,
- A firstborn male animal that is sanctified from birth and is to be sacrificed,
- A firstborn male donkey that must be exchanged for a lamb.
Furthermore, the Torah gives a clear explanation for this mitzva. In the plague of the firstborn in Egypt, God saved the firstborn Hebrews even as the firstborn Egyptians – both people and animals – were being killed. In commemoration of this event, God has a claim on the firstborn people and animals in Jewish homes, and it is incumbent on the Jewish community to sanctify their own firstborn in His Name. Thus, these commandments are part of the ceremonial memorial to the Exodus, even as they serve as examples of those mitzvot whose purpose is to dedicate the first fruits to God (e.g. bikkurim and teruma). In recognition of the kohanim as God’s representatives in the Temple, these firstborn are transferred to the kohanim and are considered part of the set of priestly offerings.
These three different types of firstborns share certain similarities. They apply only to males that are the firstborn from their mothers; their sanctity rests on them from the moment they are born, and they or the money that redeems them must be given to a kohen. Nevertheless, the sanctity of each one differs from the others and therefore its practical application differs as well.
As an unclean animal, a firstborn donkey cannot have intrinsic sanctity; it cannot be offered as a sacrifice. It is not even given to the kohen rather it is exchanged for a lamb. Once the donkey is redeemed and the lamb is given to the kohen, the donkey once again is the ordinary possession of the original owner. The Torah teaches that if this exchange is not made, the donkey’s neck must be broken (see 13:13).
The firstborn of a kosher animal – an ox, a sheep or a goat – stands alone among sacrifices in that it is born with intrinsic sanctity, and it is to be given to the kohen for sacrifice in the Temple immediately following its initial development. If, however, it has a blemish that precludes it from being sacrificed, the kohen can slaughter it and eat it anywhere. Even so, it does not lose its sanctity as a firstborn and could not be used for work or sheared for wool – just like any other sacrificial animal. As opposed to other sanctified animals that can be redeemed if they develop such a blemish, a bekhor cannot be redeemed and its kedusha cannot be removed.
An ordinary Jewish firstborn child – as opposed to the firstborn child of a kohen or a levi – also is born in a sanctified state, but all agree that this does not relate to sacrifice or to a prohibition against benefiting from the child. Rather the sanctity expresses itself in that the father of the firstborn must redeem his son by paying five shekel to a kohen in exchange for him. Redeeming the firstborn – pidyon ha-ben – is obligatory beginning 30 days after the child is born, and the mitzva is usually performed at that time. While this commandment is usually performed by the father, in the event that the father does not perform it, it is incumbent on the person to redeem himself when he can.
As noted, all three types of bekhor are firstborn males that “open the womb” of their mothers. Thus, the baby that is born second will not be a bekhor, even if the firstborn was female. This appears to be a clear definition, but questions remain. If the baby is born by means of a Cesarean section and does not “open the womb” is this a firstborn? If not, will the next baby born be considered a firstborn? What is the status of a baby born after a miscarriage? And what is considered to be a miscarriage? These questions are among those dealt with in this tractate.
It should be noted that the Torah recognizes another type of “firstborn.” While this halakha relates to the firstborn son of a mother, according to Torah law, the firstborn son of a father will receive a double portion (see 21:15-17). Although oftentimes the child is the firstborn of both mother and father, it is possible that a child may be the firstborn only with regard to the laws of redemption or only with regard to the laws of inheritance. Furthermore it is possible that a father may have several sons who must be redeemed (if he marries a number of women), and a mother may have several sons who will receive the double portion of a firstborn (if she is married to a number of different men). This tractate examines both types of firstborn sons and discusses the relationship between them.