Firstborn (Judaism)

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The firstborn or firstborn son (Hebrew בְּכוֹר bəḵōr) is an important concept in Judaism. The role of firstborn son carries significance in the redemption of the first-born son, in the allocation of a double portion of the inheritance, and in the prophetic application of "firstborn" to the nation of Israel.

Etymology and usage[edit]

The semitic root B-K-R means "early" or "first" in Ancient Near East semitic languages. Classical Hebrew contains various verbs from the B-K-R stem with this association. The plural noun bikkurim (vegetable firstfruits) also derives from this root.[1] The masculine noun bekhor, firstborn, is used of sons, as "Canaan begat Sidon his firstborn" (Genesis 10:15), whereas the feminine noun, and female equivalent, is bekirah (בְּכִירָה), first-born daughter, such as Leah (Genesis 29:26). Derived from bechor is the qualitative noun bekhorah "birthright" (בְּכוֹרָה), related to primogeniture, such as that which Esau sold to Jacob. In the plural this qualitative noun "birthright" can also mean "firstlings", as when Abel brought out the "firstborn" (bekhorot feminine plural בְּכֹרֹות) of his flock to sacrifice (Genesis 4:4).

Hebrew Bible[edit]

The earliest account of primogeniture to be widely known in modern times involved Isaac's son Jacob being born second (Genesis 25:26) and Isaac's son, Esau being born first (Genesis 25:25) and entitled to the "birthright", but eventually selling it to Isaac's second son, Jacob, for a small amount of food (Genesis 25:31–34) A similar transfer is shown by the writer of 1 Chronicles 5:1-2 where, although the tribe of Judah prevailed above their brethren, nevertheless the "birthright", the double portion of two tribal allotments, was Joseph's.

According to the Law of Moses, the firstborn may be either the firstborn of his father, who is entitled to receive a double portion of his father's inheritance (compared to the other siblings), (Deuteronomy 21:17) or the firstborn of his mother. Deuteronomy 21:15–17 provides inheritance rules preventing the husband with more than one wife from leaving property to the son of the favoured wife.

Death of the firstborn of Egypt[edit]

The Egyptians also attached significance to primogeniture and birthright. The death of Pharaoh and the Egyptians' firstborn sons at the first Passover is direct recompense for God's identification of Israel as his own firstborn.

Israel as God's firstborn[edit]

In Exodus, Moses is instructed to say to Pharaoh "Thus saith the LORD, Israel is my son, my firstborn. (Exodus 4:22) This is prophetically attached to Ephraim, the Kingdom of Israel in Jeremiah 31:9.[failed verification]

Animal firstborn or "firstlings"[edit]

Aside from the sacrifice of the "firstlings" by Abel, the Law of Moses also proscribes special distinction of animal firstborn.

The Second Temple and Dead Sea scrolls[edit]

The understanding of Israel as the national firstborn of God is found in the Dead Sea scrolls 1Q/4Q "Instruction," and probably 4Q369 the "Prayer of Enosh",[2] as well as in Ben Sira.[3]

Hellenistic and Diaspora Judaism[edit]

The concept of the firstborn was heavily present in Hellenistic Judaism among the Second Temple Diaspora. In the Septuagint Israel, then Ephraim, are God's prototokos (πρωτότοκος) "firstborn." The use of "firstborn" is taken further along figurative lines. In the pseudepigraphical Testament of Abraham disease is personified as the prototokos "firstborn" of Thanatos, the personification of Death.[4] In Joseph and Asenath the converted Egyptian princess Asenath prepares to marry Joseph as the prototokos "firstborn" of her new god, the God of Israel.[5] Philo of Alexandria comments on the inheritance rites of the firstborn in Deuteronomy, greatly emphasizing and embellishing the superiority of Mosaic Law over Egyptian models.[6]

Rabbinical interpretation[edit]

According to the rite of redemption of the Son, if the father and mother are both Israelites, the firstborn is required to be redeemed from a Kohen.

The firstborn of one's mother is referred to in the Bible (Exodus 13:2) as one who "opens the womb" of his mother. Therefore, the firstborn of the father exclusively, although considered as a firstborn regarding his father's inheritance, is not considered as a firstborn regarding the requirement to be redeemed, as the mother's womb has already been opened by his half-sibling, the firstborn of his mother. Thus, the Shulchan Aruch rules that only a first born of the mother is required to be redeemed.[7]

There is a matter of dispute among the poskim (early Rabbinic authorities) regarding whether a first-born son who is a Jewish convert (whose biological mother is not considered to be his mother) or from a caesarean section has the laws of a Bechor.[8][9]

The firstborn's service to the Jewish people[edit]

Originally, the firstborn of every Jewish family was intended to serve as a priest in the temple in Jerusalem as priests to the Jewish people but they lost this role after the sin of the golden calf when this privilege was transferred to the male descendants of Aaron. However, according to some, this role will be given back to the firstborn in a Third Temple when Messiah comes.[10] Until this time, they say, a firstborn son still has certain other roles. Besides receiving double the father's inheritance and requiring a pidyon haben, a firstborn son is supposed to fast on the Eve of Passover[11] (see: Fast of the Firstborn) and in the absence of a Levite, a Bechor washes the hands of the Kohen prior to blessing the Israelites (see: Priestly Blessing).

Animal firstborns[edit]

In the Hebrew Bible, the feminine plural noun bechorot is used to describe "firstlings" of a flock. In rabbinical Hebrew, the masculine noun bechor is also used of the first born animal to open the womb of its mother. The animal "firstborn beast" (Hebrew bechor behema בכור בהמה) is listed as one of the twenty-four priestly gifts. Today, when there is no temple in Jerusalem, most Jewish believers do not give first-born animals to Kohanim. Instead it is customary to sell the mother animal to a non-Jew before it gives birth to the firstborn, and then buy back both the animal and its firstborn.[12]

Other Abrahamic religions[edit]

The importance of the literal firstborn son is not as greatly developed in Christianity and Islam as it is in Judaism.

  • Christianity applies the concept of firstborn to Jesus of Nazareth as "firstborn from the dead",[13] and adopts the Septuagint terminology prototokoi (plural) to describe the church as "firstborns."[14]
  • Muslim scholars traditionally consider Ishmael as the firstborn of Abraham mentioned in Qur'an 37.103. However, Islamic law contains no preference for the firstborn son.[15]


  1. ^ Theological Dictionary of the Old Testament 2 p121 G. Johannes Botterweck, Helmer Ringgren - 1975 Article BEKHOR, section FIRSTFRUITS
  2. ^ Religion in the Dead Sea scrolls - Page 22 John Joseph Collins, Robert A. Kugler " "firstborn son" of 4Q369 (Prayer ofEnosh)"
  3. ^ The self-understanding of the Dead Sea Scrolls Community Page 97 Paul Swarup - 2006 "'show mercy to the people called by your name; Israel, whom you established as your firstborn'. Likewise in 44.23b Ben Sira alludes to the recognition that God gives an inheritance to Jacob/Israel as the
  4. ^ Abraham meets death: narrative humor in the Testament of Abraham - Page 99 Jared W. Ludlow - 2002 "The disease, which eventually will lead to death, is referred to as 'the firstborn of Death', and, as one dies, ... and the 'firstborn of Death', or personified disease,13 is the actual agent of death."
  5. ^ The Old Testament pseudepigrapha and the New Testament Page 136 James H. Charlesworth - 1985 "She is prepared to marry Joseph, God's first-born son. Her new beauty is hers forever (21:4), and her parents are astounded by the change (20:5)."
  6. ^ Philo, Josephus, and the Testaments on Sexuality Page 240 William Loader - 2011 "Philo then turns to the inheritance rights of the firstborn, expounding Deut 21:15-17. Unlike the biblical text which speaks simply of a loved second wife and a hated first one who produced the firstborn, Philo greatly embellishes the ."
  7. ^ Kitzur Shulchan Aruch. Translated by Rabbi Avrohom Davis. Metsudah Publishers, 1996. P. 717
  8. ^ See Yaakov Reischer Chok Yaakov 470:2; Kaf Hachayim[which?] 470:3.
  9. ^ "Archived copy". Archived from the original on 2010-08-18. Retrieved 2010-07-28.CS1 maint: archived copy as title (link)
  10. ^ Sefer Or HaTorah, Parshas Mikaitz (page 688 (shin daled mem)). Sefer Halikutim Beis page 305.
  11. ^ "Archived copy". Archived from the original on 2010-08-18. Retrieved 2010-07-28.CS1 maint: archived copy as title (link)
  12. ^ Zeʾev Grinvald Shaarei Halachah: A Summary of Laws for Jewish Living 2001 Page 384 "Firstborn male animals are one of the twenty-four gifts which were given to Kohanim. Many halachos apply to firstborn animals (e.g. one may not slaughter them, eat their meat, etc.). Today, when there is no Temple, and we do not give first-born animals to Kohanim, it is customary to sell the mother cow, sheep, or goat to a non-Jew before she gives birth to her firstborn, and then buy back the mother and the firstborn."
  13. ^ The Cambridge History of Judaism: The late Roman-Rabbinic period p265 William David Davies, Louis Finkelstein, Steven T. Katz - 2006 "He is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, so that he might come to have first place in everything. ... Undoubtedly this appeared to many as compromising the monotheistic faith of Judaism. ..."
  14. ^ Three Views on the New Testament Use of the Old Testament ed. Stanley N. Gundry, Kenneth Berding - 2009 "Hebrews 12:23, however, uses the plural “firstborn ones.” "
  15. ^ Theological Dictionary of the Old Testament 2 p123 G. Johannes Botterweck, Helmer Ringgren - 1975 Article BEKHOR, section FIRSTBORN "It seems reasonably certain from the material presented by Henninger that the pre-Islamic Arabs showed no preference for a firstborn son, at least as far as a right of succession was concerned. The Islamic law reflects nothing different"