Do You Need a Koheinto Perform a Pidyon HaBen?

Rabbi Avrohom Sebrow

There is an oft repeated story involving Rav Moshe Feinstein, zt”l. Rav Moshe was attending a bris. There were two cartons of chalav Yisrael milk in front of him, from two competing brands with different hechsherim. Rav Moshe picked up one of the cartons, only to put it down and choose the other carton instead. Onlookers noticed, and word spread that Rav Moshe preferred one brand and its hechsher over the other brand. Someone decided to find out why and asked Rav Moshe for an explanation. Rav Moshe was baffled, as he had no idea what the person was referring to. “But at the bris, people saw you look at the container and return it to the table!” “I put the container back down because it was empty!” Rav Moshe replied. Unfortunately, misunderstandings can occur when people try to interpret actions of gedolim. Sometimes, people misinterpret the words of rabbanim. There is a brochure that has been circulating in our area that bemoans the dearth of knowledge about the laws of mikveh in a certain city in Eretz Yisrael. There was a story quoted about the rav of that town. He was speaking on the topic of men using the mikveh on erev Yom Kippur or erev Shabbos. He said that if a mikveh was unavailable, a man may take a shower using nine kavim—roughly six gallons—of water. A man went to the rav the next week to thank him for his good idea. It was very cold outside, so he told his wife to take a shower instead of going to the mikveh. The rav was horrified to hear that his ruling had been terribly misapplied to the use of mikveh by women. The leniency of nine kavim is solely applicable for men (and it also may be used by the chevra kadisha). Many years ago, the Chasam Sofer was likewise astounded to hear that a nice quip that he uttered had been taken for halacha. First, some background is in order. The Torah says, “And the foreleg, the jaws, and the stomach shall be given to the kohein” (Devarim 18:3). These parts of a slaughtered animal are some of the matnos kehunah, the gifts given to kohanim.

The Gemara states that Ulla used to give his animal parts that were matnos kehunah to a daughter of a kohein as opposed to the kohein himself. Rashi comments that even if this daughter married a Yisrael, she could still receive these animal portions. As opposed to terumah, which has innate sanctity, these animal parts do not. They must be given to a kohein, but they can be consumed by anyone. There is no problem of the bas kohein sharing the meat with her Yisrael husband. Therefore, Ulla would even give his matnos kehunah to a daughter of a kohein who was married to a non-kohein. Rav Kahane took this one step further. His wife was a daughter of a kohein and he would accept these matnos kehunah directly from Yisraelim on behalf of his wife. Though his name was Rav Kahane, which was a name typically used by kohanim, he was evidently not a kohein. (Tosfos kiddushin 8a) (My cousin is named Cohen but he is a Levi. His full name is Chaim Yisrael HaLevi Cohen!) Now, back to the story with the Chasam Sofer. A family was celebrating fulfilling the mitzvah of pidyon ha’ben. The lavish seudah was over, and it was time to bentch. The ba’al simcha honored one of the guests to lead the zimun. After the zimun leader finished bentching, one of the other guests asked him, “Why didn’t you start bentching with ‘Birshus haKohanim’?” (It is respectful if you are leading the bentching and not a kohein to humbly announce that you are only leading the bentching with the consent of the kohanim present.) The zimun leader answered, “How was I supposed to know that there was a kohein here?” The guest retorted, “We’re at a pidyon ha’ben! Of course, there’s a kohein here.” The zimun leader did not have an answer. At this point, the Chasam Sofer interjected: Maybe the husband of a bas kohein performed the pidyon ha’ben. The Gemara in Kiddushin states that Rav Kahane accepted an item of value in the performance of pidyon ha’ben. How is that possible?

Rav Kahane was not a kohein! Tosefos suggests that he may have been using the same method mentioned in the Gemara in Chullin. He accepted the redemption on behalf of his wife. So perhaps there is no male kohein here who can lead the bentching, but only a Yisrael who is married to a bas kohein who accepted the pidyon on behalf of his wife. It was a nice lomdishe retort by the Chasam Sofer to try to reduce the embarrassment of the zimun leader for not realizing that a kohein was present at a pidyon ha’ben. Subsequently, the Chasam Sofer heard that he was being quoted as saying that the husband of a bas kohein may perform pidyon ha’ben. He was horrified. The Chasam Sofer wrote a teshuvah explaining that while in theory according to one answer in Tosefos it is, in fact, true, Tosefos himself and other Rishonim offer another simple explanation of how Rav Kahane was able to perform a pidyon ha’ben. He was in fact a kohein! The sage mentioned in Kiddushin was not the same Rav Kahane as the one mentioned in Chullin. The one mentioned in Chullin was not a kohein, while the one mentioned in Kiddushin was! Therefore, there is no basis to assume that a Yisrael married to a bas kohein may officiate at a pidyon ha’ben. Nevertheless, the Chasam Sofer notes that if no kohein is around when the day to perform pidyon ha’ben comes, the husband of a bas kohein may temporarily fill in. However, when a male kohein is located, the baby will have to be redeemed again.

Rabbi Avrohom Sebrow is a rebbe at Yeshiva Ateres Shimon in Far Rockaway. In addition, Rabbi Sebrow leads a daf yomi chaburah at Eitz Chayim of Dogwood Park in West Hempstead, NY. He can be contacted at ASebrow@

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