Bekhorot (Hebrew בכורות, “First-born”) refers to the first-born human, or animal according to the Hebrew Bible in which God commanded Moses in the Book of Exodus to “consecrate to Me every first-born; man and beast, the first issue of every womb among the Israelites is Mine.” It is from this commandment that Judaism forms the foundation of its many traditions and rituals concerning the redemption of the first-born son and ritual slaughter.
In addition to several references found in the Hebrew bible, Bekhorot is considered a Seder Kodashim (Hebrew קדשים), or “Holy Thing” hence it is found under the fifth order of the Mishnah titled Kodashim, tractate four, Bekhorot. The primary focus of the tractate relates to the ritual sacrifice, or slaughter, of the first-born of both human and animal. An exemption is made for the first-born son through the “ritual of redemption” in which the son is redeemed from the Kohen for the traditional sum of five shekels of silver (ch.vii). Donkeys must also be redeemed from the Kohen, or killed (ch. i). However, according to the Kodashim, all other first-born animals (calf, lamb, or kid), pending priestly inspection of purity, must be sacrificed to God or presented as a gift to the Kohen (ch. ii-vi). Priests were required to inspect the first-born for blemishes prior to consecration. These blemishes are enumerated in both the Mishnah and Tosefta. The Tosefta, very similar in function and chapter placement to the Mishnah, differs in its “enumeration of the blemishes and their names.” In addition to names of blemishes, the Tosefta expands on different scenarios in which a Kohen may find himself when determining the status of a first-born, for example when a creature gives birth to an animal resembling another species.
Biblical exegeses concerning Bekhorot are not found in the Palestinian Talmud; however, they are found in the Babylonian Talmud which comprises the third place among the Holy Scripture hierarchy. The Babylonian Talmud includes further commentary concerning purity of the first-born. In addition to the common theme of purity, the Babylonian Talmud expands on the exemption of the first-born offspring from the Tribe of Levi, or from the priestly body of the Kohenim. The child of a Levite mother, or Kohenim, regardless whether or not the father is a Levite or Israelite, is automatically exempt from the “toll.” This exemption is due to the notion that first-born males are already born in the service of God thus redemption is not needed.
- The Jewish Encyclopedia. Funk and Wagnalls Company. New ed. Vol. II. pp. 649–650.
- Encyclopaedia Judaica. MacMillan Reference USA. 2nd Ed., Vol III.
- The Oxford Dictionary of the Jewish Religion. Oxford University Press. 1997.
- The Jewish Encyclopedia. Funk and Wagnalls Company. New ed., Vol. II.
- Encyclopaedia Judaica. MacMillan Reference USA. 2nd Ed. Vol. III.
- The Jewish Encyclopedia. Funk and Wagnalls Company. New ed., Vol II.
- Fine, Lawrence (2001). Judaism in Practice: From the Middle Ages through the Early Modern Period. Princeton University Press. p. 102. ISBN 0-691-05786-9.