Jacob buys the birthright from Esau. (Shutterstock/Illustrative) (Shutterstock/Illustrative)
Jacob and Esau

There are differences between the firstborn of a father and the firstborn of a mother. The importance of a firstborn extends to animals and even to fruit.

By Rabbi Ari Enkin, Rabbinic Director, United with Israel

The Torah portion of “Toldot” (Genesis 25:19–28:9), tells the story of the Jacob and Esau fiasco.

To make a long story short, Esau is born first and is technically entitled to the firstborn rights. However, Jacob notices that Esau is incredibly irreverent and sacrilegious and is not deserving of serving God in the manner that the firstborn historically served.

As such, he proposes that Esau sell the birthright for a bowl of soup to which Esau readily agrees, celebrating the fact that he would now be absolved of a religious lifestyle. The trade is made and the rest is history.

In this article we are going to discuss the role, rights, and privileges of the firstborn in Judaism.

The firstborn son is an important person in Judaism. The firstborn in many cases must undergo a redemption ceremony (more about that soon), receives a double portion of inheritance, is supposed to fast on the eve of Passover (though common custom is for the firstborn to exempt themselves from the fast by participating in a religious celebration of some sort), and in the absence of a Levite, a firstborn washes the hands of the Kohen prior to the “priestly blessing,” which takes place in the synagogue daily in Israel but only on holidays outside of Israel.

It should also be noted that the Jewish people are known as “God’s firstborn son.”

As we will, see there are differences between the firstborn of a father and the firstborn of a mother. The importance of a firstborn extends to animals and even to fruit.

Originally, the firstborn were meant to serve in the Holy Temple. Following the Exodus from Egypt and the sin of the Golden Calf, however, the priesthood was taken away from the firstborns and given to the Tribe of Levi, who make up the “Kohanim” (priests) and the “Levites.” As it says, “And behold I have taken the Levites from among the children of Israel instead of every firstborn… And the Levites shall be Mine” (Numbers 3:12–13).

However, according to some sources, this role will be given back to the firstborn in the Third Temple when the Messiah comes.

One area where the firstborn status is prominent concerns inheritance law. Secular (civil) inheritance law and Jewish inheritance law are very different. Among the differences is that civil law does not give any precedence to a firstborn son, while the Torah says that a firstborn gets a double portion. For example, if there are five sons, the estate is divided into six portions, and the firstborn gets two of the six.

In other words, the firstborn son is equal to two sons, and receives two portions.

However, the firstborn rights only apply when inheriting from the father. A firstborn does not get a double portion when inheriting from the mother.

A firstborn (for the purpose of inheritance law) is defined as the first child, born to his father in a natural manner, who is a male. If the firstborn was delivered through a cesarean section, then neither he nor any subsequent child has firstborn status.

If he is firstborn to his father, then he is considered to be firstborn no matter how many children his mother has had. The firstborn must be born while the father is alive in order to receive firstborn status.

Loopholes Preventing Family Conflict

Although it is extremely commendable to comply with the Torah arrangement of inheritance  there are a number of loopholes that enable deviation from the laws mentioned above. This allowance is partly due to the recognition that social norms nowadays do not look favorably on the Torah method of division, and complying with it could cause tremendous tension and feuds even in observant families.

Such arrangements are permitted as long as some money is left behind as an inheritance to be distributed as halacha (Jewish law) requires; in fact, some authorities encourage it.

There are contractual ways to accomplish this, and perhaps the simplest method is to give away most of one’s assets to the children (or anyone else for that matter) as “gifts” before dying — again, leaving behind a small amount of money to be divided according to the strict letter of the law.

Many firstborns will be subject to a “pidyon haben” (redemption of the firstborn) ceremony. If the father and mother are both “common Jews” – neither Kohanim nor Levites –  the firstborn is required to be redeemed by a Kohen. The firstborn of a mother is referred to as one who “opens the womb” of his mother.

Therefore, the firstborn of the father exclusively, although considered a firstborn regarding  inheritance, is not considered a firstborn concerning the requirement to be redeemed. Only the firstborn of the mother must be redeemed.

There is far more to talk about regarding the status of the firstborn but for now, we must suffice with the above.

For more insights from Rabbi Enkin on this week’s Torah portion, click on the links below: