By Jonathan Coren
“And all the first-born of man among thy sons shalt thou redeem” Exodus 13:13
“Everything that openeth the womb... shall be thine; however the first-born of man shalt thou surely redeem from the age of one month...” Numbers 18:15–16
Rachel’s waters broke at around 10:00 on Sunday morning. She was not due for another week, but Dr. Efrati had told them that, even in this era of modern medical science, it could not be predicted when the mother’s hormones would trigger off labor. She telephoned Avi on his mobile at the kollel.
“My waters have broken,” she said.
“Oh, boy!” was his reaction. “Telephone Dr. Efrati immediately. I’m on my way home.” He turned to his learning companion Yaakov Cohen. “I have to go, Yaakov.”
“B’hatzlacha,” said Yaakov. “Regards to Rachel.”
Rachel called the doctor. He was treating her privately. Avi’s parents were wealthy, Conservative Manhattan Jews (they still called their son Andrew). He was an only child. They had come to the conclusion that it was preferable that he should have turned in the Orthodox direction rather than in the worrying way, drugs, free sex, etc. which so many of his high school classmates had chosen. He had always been regarded as academically brilliant and could have obtained a place at any Ivy League university. His father had envisaged Andrew as following in his own footsteps in law.
But it was not to be. During the summer after his high school graduation, Andrew decided that he would like to visit Israel on the Birthright program. When he arrived at Ben Gurion airport, surrounded by local Israelis, seeing the Hebrew signs, and hearing ivrit spoken, he was spiritually overwhelmed. He returned to New York and informed his parents that he was emigrating to Israel. He knew that this was a shock for them, but he pleaded for their understanding. His first aim was to develop his Judaic knowledge at one of the yeshivot established for young men like himself. They tried hard to dissuade him but his mind was made up.
As time went by, his parents developed a quiet pride in his determination. His father said that he should not hesitate in requesting reasonable financial support.
He spent two years in Jerusalem in a yeshiva and soon earned a reputation as a special scholar.
He was always guided by Zionism, so that before entering a kollel to become immersed in deep Torah learning, he registered for the nachal charedi. He was in this army unit for eighteen months, making a joke of the fact that he was most probably the worst rifle-shooter in the Israel Defense Forces and God forbid if ever he were to be relied upon to defend the State!
He entered a kollel with other English speaking students, where he soon teamed up with Yaakov Cohen. He loved more and more the deep and varied learning , and harbored the wish that when he had attained the required standard, he would enter the “open world” and disseminate to others the knowledge he had obtained.
Avi (this was the name by which he was known in Israel) matured into a good-looking 23-year-old young man with a trimmed red beard. The head of the kollel was well aware of Avi’s erudition. He had him in mind for his own 21-year-old daughter Rachel. Although Avi’s father had donated generously to the kollel, this was not the reason for his thoughts about a possible match. The most important consideration was that Avi be a talmid chacham (a wise student). He discussed this with his wife, who agreed that Yaakov (who was already married with a baby daughter) should broach the subject with Avi. When Yaakov put the suggestion to Avi, the latter felt very humble. He had seen Rachel and she was very attractive.
During his high school years in New York, Avi had been friendly with more than one female contemporary, so he was not overcome with shyness at the idea of having a first stroll with Rachel. She was most probably a little more nervous than he, although she had already been introduced to a couple of other young men. Avi and Rachel both knew that they would be allowed four outings together, and then a decision had to be made. On the evening of their first stroll , he dressed himself in a smart suit with a black yarmulke on his head and rang the bell at the head of the kollel’s front door. After a few minutes, Rachel opened the door.
It was a calm Jerusalem summer evening. Avi suggested that they walk around the nearby park. Rachel nodded. From the first moment, their conversation flowed naturally. They spoke about their future wishes. An hour passed as if in a minute. Avi said that he ought to accompany her home, whilst asking her if she would like to meet him again on the following evening. Rachel agreed.
After the fourth meeting, they both knew that a bond had been formed between them. For the first time, they sat together on a park bench. Avi looked into her clear blue eyes and asked her to marry him. Rachel said, “Of course.”
They sat in silence for a few moments, very close to each other. Then Avi said, “I think we should tell our parents.” She laughed. “Let’s put a stop to their worrying.”
Avi phoned his parents and scanned them a photograph of Rachel. “You’ll really love her,” he said to them when they spoke. They decided to fly to Israel in order to meet Rachel and her parents.
Avi and Rachel were married three months after the engagement. It was a joyous event. Avi’s parents had arrived again, together with other members of his family. Whilst there, Avi’s father purchased them a small apartment near the kollel. Both Avi and Rachel said to the parents, “There are no words to express our thanks, and for your accepting Avi’s chosen way of life.” Avi’s father drew him aside. He said to him, “Andrew, I know that in your circles there is no question of waiting--certainly not for the first birth, please God. I want you and Rachel to know that if any medical services are required, you should consult the most professional gynecologist available.” Avi put his arms around his father’s shoulders. “Thanks Dad,” he said. “It’s early days yet!”
Six weeks after their marriage, Rachel said to Avi, “Haven’t you noticed the absence of something?” Avi replied, “Well, you don’t seem to have visited the mikveh following the prescribed time after the first night. Am I correct?” She said, “As you know, I always menstruate every four weeks.” He said, “You recall my father’s comment after the wedding about gynecologists. Perhaps you should make discreet enquiries about seeing a doctor. In the meantime, do a pregnancy test although I’d prefer to hear what a doctor has to say.” The test proved positive.
Rachel made an appointment to see Dr. Efrati in his clinic. When the time came to visit the doctor, there had been no sign of a period. Rachel and Avi went to see the doctor together. Rachel described her menstrual history. He asked Avi to wait in the corridor for a few minutes whilst he performed an ultrasound. Avi was recalled into the doctor’s room and Dr. Efrati asked Rachel, “Should you tell him or should I?” Rachel turned to Avi with a glow on her face and said, “I am expecting a baby around July 3rd!” “That’s wonderful,” said Avi. “Thank you, doctor.” “It’s not me you should be thanking,” was the reply. “You know,” said Avi, “at least one of the religious commentators says that it requires a miracle for conception to occur the first time.” “In that case,” said the doctor, “Rachel must be carrying a miracle! I have my own views on the subject. I am a secular Jew (I am sure that is something that will not come between us), but I still marvel every time a healthy baby enters the world.”
Dr. Efrati explained to Rachel that for the time being he wanted to see her once a month. He would only do tests that were considered vital--namely, those to ascertain the mother and the fetus’s general well-being--and not those to diagnose fetal abnormalities. He assumed that they would not under any circumstances consider an abortion. He continued: “The sex of the baby can be established at the twenty-week ultrasound, which would only be a basic one and not a full fetal scan. However, notwithstanding that, and even though you are Orthodox, you should consider a full scan since, if anything is seriously wrong, it is important for the medical staff to be prepared to treat the baby when born. Anyway, in my experience, it is the rabbi’s advice which is adhered to and not mine. If you feel any unusual pains or if there is any bleeding, you should contact me immediately.” In due course, the doctor told Rachel and Avi that the tests he had performed showed nothing amiss, and, if they wished, he could inform them of the sex of the baby. Avi consulted with his father-in-law about this, who said that there was no halakhic prohibition on the doctor revealing the sex; he only qualified this with a remark, that if they decided to be told they should keep the information to themselves. As far as Avi’s parents were concerned, that was a decision for them to make.
Avi and Rachel decided to request that the doctor inform them of the sex of their baby. At the relevant ultrasound session, Dr. Efrati said--pointing to the fetus--“Look, you have a son on the way.”
Avi could hardly restrain himself. “A brit and a pidyon haben,” he said.
Rachel put her hand into Avi’s. The doctor made no comment.
Avi’s parents preferred that it be kept as a surprise. Nobody else was informed.
Following the breaking of the waters, and after Rachel had contacted Dr. Efrati, he asked if she was having any contractions. She said, “No, just a mild backache.” He told her to put a few toiletries in a case, and she and Avi should take a cab to the hospital. He would meet them there in the maternity department. The cab arrived at the same time as Avi. The driver was a religious man with a knitted skullcap. “Is this your first?” he asked. “I’ve got three myself, two girls and a boy. Every birth was different. You’ll be fine.”
When they arrived at the hospital, Avi asked the cab driver (who had introduced himself as Yossi) how much he owed him. “This one is on me,” replied Yossi. “It’s my mitzva.” “On no account,” said Avi. “Please take this,” and he gave Yossi a fifty shekel note. “You’re very generous,” said Yossi. “Look, here’s my card. Why don’t you give me a ring when the birth is over and I’ll take you home. That way I’ll get to see your little baby.”
Avi and Rachel made their way to the maternity department. “You must be Rachel,” the secretary at the desk said. “Dr. Efrati is on the way. Here is Chava, the midwife, who will be assisting at the birth.” A pleasant-looking fiftyish-year-old lady in a green uniform came over. She took Rachel by the arm, saying, “Come with me, Rachel. Have you managed to shower this morning?” Rachel confirmed that she had done so. “In that case,” said Chava, “why don’t you come with me to the admittance room? There’s a bed waiting for you. I understand that the waters have broken but contractions are not coming yet.” Rachel nodded. Chava asked Avi to wait in the visitor’s lounge.
Chava guided Rachel into the admittance room. Rachel was given a bed next to the window. It was a lovely day and the sunshine was streaming in. Chava pulled the curtains around the bed, and handed Rachel a hospital nightgown. You can put your own clothes and personal items under the bed. The doctor will be here soon to examine you. I’ll tell your husband to sit with you. Once you are diagnosed as being in active labor, you will be given your own room.” Chava attached a fetal heart-rate monitor for twenty minutes to assure the fetal well-being.
After Rachel and Avi had waited about thirty minutes, Dr. Efrati entered the room and came over to Rachel. Avi said, “Doctor, it’s so good to see you.” The doctor said, “I would like to examine Rachel, so Avi, if you don’t mind waiting in the lounge, I’ll let you know when you can return.” After Avi had left, the doctor examined Rachel vaginally to confirm that the waters had broken and that the amniotic fluid was clear, without blood or muconium stains. “There’s just a very slight opening,” he said, “and you are not having spontaneous contractions. The baby is engaged and the head is down . We wait six hours before inducing. The fetal heart rate is monitored once every two hours for twenty minutes so long as it is normal. I will ask Chava to attach an intravenous line to your arm and take blood tests, so that if induction is necessary, we can commence the procedure immediately. You will also be monitored for signs of maternal infection, namely chorioamnionitis, since your waters have broken. Nothing to worry about. We do this by taking your temperature every 6 hours, and repeating a white cell blood count twice a day.” The doctor palpated Rachel’s abdomen and looked at the most recent ultrasound report. “Your baby has an estimated weight of 4 kg so you are going to have a hungry little lad to nurse! Rachel, you are an intelligent young woman. I do not need to tell you that babies can be born either vaginally or by a Caesarean section. It’s early days yet.” Rachel said, “Doctor, I should be most grateful if you could have a chat with Avi.”
Dr. Efrati asked Avi to come into his room. He invited Avi to sit down facing him across his desk. The doctor said, “Rachel has asked me to talk to you. I do not know what it is specifically that you would like to discuss.” Avi said, “Doctor, I’m sure it took you a long time to qualify as a gynecologist and I respect you for that.” “Thirteen years, in fact,” said Dr. Efrati. “But I was determined to complete it. I cannot describe how much joy my work gives me notwithstanding my atheism or agnosticism, call it what you will. I lost grandparents in the Holocaust. I see it as a mission to bring live and healthy Jewish babies into the world, whilst maintaining, of course, the good health of the mothers. I have given Rachel a brief summary of the initial steps in the labor procedure, taking into account that it started with the breaking of the waters without contractions. You must both be patient. Now what is it that you wish to say?”
Avi cleared his voice. “Doctor,” he said, “I do not know how much you take into account, regarding the first-born of a Jewish son to its mother.” Dr. Efrati said, “As a gynecologist of many years standing, when treating a mother who is giving birth, I do not relate to any religious ceremonies. My sole duty is to the well-being of the mother and her baby.”
“Doctor,” said Avi, “this is Rachel and my first-born. There is a specific commandment in the Torah, subject to quite a number of exceptions, for a father to redeem such a son from the priesthood. It is called pidyon haben.” Dr. Efrati interjected “Avi, I have of course heard of the pidyon haben but have never attended the ceremony.” Avi continued, “It is a beautiful, simple and comparatively rare occurrence. If either the father or mother are from priestly or Levite families, if the mother has previously miscarried after forty days, or if the baby is delivered by Caesarean procedure, the father’s obligation to redeem his son does not exist. The commandment dates back to the period of the Israelites in Egypt when the Jewish first-born were spared from the tenth plague. As a result, the first-born were hypothetically destined to serve as priests in the Sanctuary and later in the Temple. The fathers are commanded to redeem their son on the 31st day following the birth.” The doctor said, “I understand your religious concern, Avi.”
The doctor paused. “How much does the redemption cost?” he asked. “The historical value of five shekels from the Temple,” answered Avi. The doctor continued, “You mean that the father must choose between the money and his son entering the priesthood.” “You might say that,” said Avi, “although the sages tell us that redemption must take place.” Dr. Efrati laughed. “Sorry,” he said, “but it reminds me of that old American comedian, Jack Benny, who was portrayed in his T.V. shows as a very miserly man. He was, in real life, very wealthy and generous. Anyway, in his most famous sketch, he is held up by a robber who points a revolver at Benny, threatening, “Your money or your life.” The comedian puts on his famous poker face and does not reply. “Come on,” repeats the robber, “Your money or your life.” Jack Benny says, “Wait a minute. I’m thinking.” Both Avi and the doctor burst out laughing.
Avi said, “I hope I have made myself clear about this impulse I have to redeem my son.” Dr. Efrati looked seriously at Avi. He said, “Avi, I am an experienced gynecologist. I have one duty, and one duty only, and that is the well-being of expecting mothers and their babies who are in my charge. I hope you understand that. Now why don’t you return to Rachel and give her some moral support?”
Six hours passed and there were no signs of contractions. Rachel had been moved into the delivery room. Avi and Rachel could see their son’s heart beating away on the monitor, appearing to them to be that of a healthy baby.
Dr. Efrati came in to examine Rachel. He told Chava to begin the gradual administration of the synthetic hormone oxytocin, injecting an ampule of 10 units into a bag of 1,000 c.c. normal saline, via an intravenous drip at the rate of 10 drops per minute, increased every 15 minutes until a rate of 80 drops per minute was reached. Ten minutes after the commencement of the infusion, the fetal heart rate seemed to slow down significantly. Chava entered and turned off the infusion. An hour later, still with no contractions, the oxytocin was restarted on a lower dosage of 4 drops at a time.
Gradually, after three hours on the oxytocin, contractions began, becoming regular every five minutes. They were quite painful and Rachel was offered an epidural. The anesthesiologist was called in, and it was decided to stop the oxytocin because the pain became very difficult for Rachel to bear. The anesthesiologist pricked Rachel in the back, and she felt a strange sensation in her legs. He monitored her blood pressure for fifteen minutes in case it dropped. Rachel gradually stopped feeling the contractions and she was surprised that they were still appearing on the monitor.Dr. Efrati examined Rachel again. He was not satisfied with the extent of the dilation of the cervix, which was only 2.5 cm. The rate and magnitude of the contractions were reasonably satisfactory. Suddenly, there was a dramatic deceleration in the fetal heart rate, down to sixty beats per minute, lasting five minutes. It then improved gradually with the doctor varying the administration of the oxytocin. Rachel had a slight temperature of 37.9°. Dr. Efrati was now accompanied by an assistant surgeon, Chava and a nurse. He frowned.
Dr. Efrati said quietly that they were approaching a situation where he would wish to perform a Caesarean. There were early signs of infection and he was worried about the fetal health. He reminded Rachel that the Caesarean would be by regional anesthetic, and the epidural might suffice after she was given an extra bolus of medication.
Avi noticeably looked meaningfully at Dr. Efrati. The doctor said that he would examine Rachel one more time in the operating theatre and if, unexpectedly, it transpired that there was full dilation he would attempt a vaginal vacuum delivery.
Rachel was wheeled into the operating theatre, accompanied by Dr. Efrati and his entourage. Avi was asked to remain outside the door. Rachel said to him, in between contractions, “Avi, we must follow the gynecologist’s instructions. Have faith.”
When they had entered the theatre, Avi put his head in his hands, leaned against the wall, and wept like a little child. The power of prayer seemed to have left him. Inside the theatre, Dr. Efrati examined Rachel vaginally. To his surprise, he found that she was fully dilated. He decided to give one attempt at a vacuum delivery. He gently attached the plastic cup to the baby’s head, raised the pressure on the vacuum machine, Rachel shrieked and bore down with all her might, as the doctor gently eased the baby out.
Avi could not say how much time had passed. Rachel’s labor cries had ceased. With his ear against the door, he thought he could hear people speaking quietly, and then he heard—quite distinctly—a baby’s cry.
The door to the operating theatre opened slightly and Chava peered out at him. “Mazal tov!” she exclaimed. “You have a beautiful baby son. And Rachel is fine, although rather tired. In just a couple of minutes you can come inside. Dr. Efrati managed with a vaginal vacuum delivery.” She closed the door behind her.
Avi started to think about the rebuilding of the Temple. Most of the sages, Maimonides in particular, were of the opinion that the only animal sacrifice that was destined to be reinstated was that for thanksgiving for a bounty from the Almighty. That was what he wanted to offer up now.
Chava ushered him into the theatre and he looked at Rachel holding to her chest a
baby, with a mop of reddish hair, wrapped up in a blanket. “Just look at our son,” said Rachel. “Have you ever seen anything so wondrous?” Avi was speechless and felt that he wanted to cry again. Dr. Efrati was busying himself at one end of the room. He faced Avi. “Turned out okay in the end,” he said, “although I was really tempted to perform a last-minute Caesarean. Not sure why I went for a vacuum delivery. Professional intuition, I suppose. Anyway, Mazal tov to you both. Enjoy your son! Now if you’ll excuse me, Chava and the others can tidy up. Rachel, I assume you are planning to nurse the baby. Chava will help you.” The doctor left the room.
“May I hold the baby?” Avi asked Chava. “Of course,” she said. Avi and Rachel gazed at each other. There was nothing to be said. Avi told her that he would immediately telephone both sets of grandparents on his mobile. They would be ecstatic at the news.
Half an hour later, Avi hesitatingly knocked on the door to Dr. Efrati’s office. The doctor called out, “Come!” Avi entered and found Dr. Efrati sitting at his desk working on his laptop. “So how is the new father?” asked the doctor kindly. “I suppose you wait until the brit mila to give a name to your son.” “That’s correct,” said Avi. “Dr. Efrati, I can see that you’re busy but I just wanted to apologize if I made too much fuss today and also to thank you for everything you have done.” “No need,” said the doctor, with a wave of his hand. “In fact, I’m just making some notes regarding the delivery--it was somewhat unusual--whilst it is fresh in my mind. You see, Avi, we all learn by experience. And, of course, you have taught me something about the pidyon baben.”
Avi asked, “Is there anything more about it you would like to know?”
“Well,” asked Dr. Efrati, “who takes part?”
Avi answered, “The father, the Cohen, and of course the baby boy. Put simply, the Cohen asks the father if he would prefer the child or the money. The father opts for the child. Various blessings are made, and the assembled guests sit down to a festive meal just like at a brit. There you have it in a nutshell. The dialogue between the father and the Cohen is traditional and printed out so that no errors occur. You are of course invited to attend, Dr. Efrati.”The doctor paused. He said to Avi, “Purely for your information, and for no other reason whatsoever, my father is a Cohen, my grandfather who--I think I mentioned to you was a victim of the Holocaust--was a Cohen, and I suppose that tracing the family back to the High Priest Aaron, we are all descendants of Cohanim, so I imagine that makes me a Cohen. The surname has of course been changed over the ages. I would define myself, Avi, as a non-practicing Cohen. I have never given a priestly blessing to anyone!” Dr. Efrati reclined in his chair. He and Avi regarded each other in silence.
The doctor returned to typing on his laptop. “Thank you again, Dr. Efrati,” said Avi and he left the room.
Shortly afterwards, Avi returned. He sat down facing the doctor.
“Doctor Efrati,” said Avi, “I have just spoken to Rachel. I told her that you are a Cohen. We both agree that it would be the greatest honor for us if you performed the role of the Cohen at our son’s pidyon haben. Please, doctor, do not give me an answer now. There is plenty of time to think about it. We are both of the opinion that, after what you did for us today, there can be nobody more suitable than yourself. I know that my learning companion Yaakov, whom I would normally have asked, after I have described to him the details of our son’s birth, will wholeheartedly agree. Please give the matter some thought. We can meet for the purpose of my going over with you the simple and moving dialogue between the father and the Cohen. Perhaps I could telephone you after the brit, at least to let you know what we have decided to call our son, and to discuss the matter of the pidyon haben further.”
The doctor was silent for a few moments. Then he spoke. “Avi,” he said, “knowing myself as I do, I cannot think of anyone less suitable for performing what is certainly for Rachel and yourself a holy task. Perhaps you yourselves should give the matter some more thought.” Avi replied, “Let’s all do that. I’ll call you, after the brit.” “Okay,” said Dr. Efrati, “I’ll await hearing from you.”
Rachel and the baby were discharged from the hospital two days after the birth. Avi had called Yossi, the cab driver, to come for them. He was very pleased with the invitation. Rachel’s mother had set up the baby’s nursery at home. Both sets of grandparents were thrilled with the news and Avi’s parents flew over for the brit.
The brit mila was held on time at the kollel. The learning stands were moved away, tables were set up with a partition dividing the men and the women, Rachel’s family and the kollel wives prepared a lovely meal and everything proceeded like clockwork. Avi’s father held the baby during the brit, and Rachel’s father made the blessing over wine (whilst Yaakov held the baby). Avi and Rachel named their son David, after Rachel’s paternal grandfather. In their circle, he would most probably be referred to as Dovid.
A day after the brit, Avi telephoned Dr. Efrati. “Doctor,” he said, “we have named our son David after Rachel’s grandfather.” “Well,” said the doctor, “that’s a name fit for a king.” Avi laughed. “I have no ambitions for my son in that direction; I just want him to be a good Jew.” There was a pause. Then Avi continued: “We were wondering if you had given any more thought to our invitation that you be the Cohen at the pidyon haben.”
Dr. Efrati said that he was expecting that question. “I’m not sure how to deal with this,” he continued. “Look, doctor,” Avi said, “why don’t I fax to you the dialogue between the father and the Cohen, and you can see what you think?”
“Okay,” said Dr. Efrati, after a pause. “Why don’t we do that?” “That’s fine,” said Avi.
A couple of days later Dr. Efrati telephoned Rachel. Avi was studying at the kollel as usual. He told Rachel that he had discussed with his wife their request that he be the Cohen at the pidyon haben, and he would accept. He would just need to meet with Avi to go over the prescribed dialogue. He suggested that Avi call to see him at a pre-arranged time at the hospital for that purpose. Rachel was delighted and immediately telephoned Avi at the kollel.
Avi met Dr. Efrati at the hospital a few days later. They reviewed the dialogue. Before Avi left, Dr. Efrati handed him a small parcel saying that it was a gift for David from his wife and himself. When Avi returned home, Rachel opened up the parcel to find a beautiful blue and white baby outfit with a matching little hat. She immediately telephoned the doctor. “It is so kind of you,” she said, “and quite unnecessary. The real gift is your agreeing to take part in the ceremony.”
The day of the pidyon haben arrived. Avi’s parents had come for the ceremony. The party was to be held in the kollel in the same way as the brit. Dr. Efrati was to sit with Avi, his father and the rabbi.
The ceremony was scheduled to commence at nine in the morning. The ladies had prepared a festive dairy meal. Avi asked the doctor if he could arrange to arrive by 8:45 a.m. in order to have a final short talk, and for the doctor to become accustomed to the surroundings.
Dr. Efrati arrived promptly dressed in a smart suit and wearing a white satin yarmulke. Avi introduced his and Rachel’s parents to Dr. Efrati. Avi’s parents told him that they had no words to express their gratitude. The rabbi silently shook the doctor’s hand and then, imitating the Sephardi tradition, raised his own hand to his lips. The doctor said he would like to meet Yaakov.
“I apologize for stealing your limelight,” the doctor said, “but Avi was somewhat insistent. Anyway, if I find the task too difficult, you can always take over!” “The pleasure is mine,” replied Yaakov, not taking the doctor seriously. “I’m sure you’ll perform perfectly. Avi has described to me the wonderful way in which you brought Dovid into this world.”
At approximately 9:15, all the invited guests had arrived. Yossi, the cab driver, who had helped with transporting guests and food, was there--just as he had been at the brit--with a wide beam on his face. He was telling people that he had been in on the birth right from the start!
Avi guided Dr. Efrati through the customs of washing the hands and eating a morsel of bread. “Now we are ready to start,” he whispered to the doctor. Avi called for quiet. The entire gathering arose. The men made a passage through which Rachel could pass holding Dovid. She brought him into the men’s section. The baby was lying on a sparkling white pillow, surrounded by jewelry. Dovid was wearing the blue and white baby outfit with the small hat, the gift from Dr. Efrati and his wife. Avi could see emotion building up in the doctor’s face. Something indefinable was clearly moving inside the doctor’s heart--perhaps akin to the feeling which had overwhelmed Avi when he had first stepped onto the tarmac at Ben Gurion airport.
Rachel smiled at Avi. She passed the baby on the pillow to Avi, who passed him over to the doctor. Rachel withdrew to the women’s section.
After a pause, Avi turned to Dr. Efrati and recited in a firm voice: “This is my first-born son, the first issue of his mother’s womb. The Holy One, blessed be He, has commanded us to redeem him...”
Dr. Efrati looked at Avi and then at the assembled guests. He felt that, for no logical reason whatsoever, he was incapable of speech.. He looked at his printed part of the dialogue. He stared at Avi as if to plead “Help me.” Avi could see tears welling in the doctor’s eyes. “It’s okay,” whispered Avi, “everyone understands. Just relax as your patients do between contractions and it’ll be fine. Take your time, doctor.”
The doctor cast a glance at little David, and then after breathing in deeply, he turned to Avi and recited: “Which do you prefer: to give me your first-born son, the first birth of his mother, or to redeem him for five selas as you are bound to do according to the Torah?” The doctor had a fleeting memory of the Jack Benny sketch, but somehow he didn’t seem to find it funny.
Avi responded, “I wish to redeem my son. I present you with the cost of his redemption which I am bound to give according to the Torah. Blessed are You, Lord our God, King of the Universe, who has made us holy through His commandments, and has commanded us concerning the redemption of a son. Blessed are You, Lord our God, King of the Universe, who has given us life, sustained us, and brought us to this time.”
Avi handed the doctor the redemption coins. Dr. Efrati returned Dovid to Avi. The doctor was handed a cup of wine and he recited, “Blessed are You, Lord our God, King of the Universe, who creates the fruit of the vine.” The doctor sipped from the wine. He placed his right hand on David’s head and, with the utmost joy pervading his senses, he blessed him: “May God make you like Ephraim and Manasseh. May the Lord bless you and protect you. May the Lord make His face shine on you and be gracious to you. May the Lord turn His face toward you and grant you peace...”
There was a loud cheer of Mazal tov from the guests. The men burst into song and danced in a circle. Avi returned the baby to Rachel, and pulled the doctor into the circle of dance. “Come on, doctor,” he said. “This is a great occasion. Join in the celebration.” After a few minutes, the doctor found himself dancing fervently in a small inner circle with Avi and the two grandfathers. Something was pounding in the doctor’s body. What words could he use to define it? Something akin to spiritual redemption.
Rachel, clasping her son, watched the enthusiasm of the men, particularly that of Dr. Efrati. She smiled.
Little Dovid was stirring. Rachel felt that he was hungry and her breasts were full. She went into an empty side room, sat down in a comfortable chair, and coaxed her redeemed son into suckling his mother’s milk.
Copyright © Jonathan Coren 2011
Jonathan Coren is a 66-year-old lawyer residing in Jerusalem. He was raised in a small Zionistic community on the northeast coast of England. He graduated in Mathematics from London University. It was in London that he met his wife Brenda (a Mancunian) who was studying at the London School of Economics. They had three daughters in London. Jonathan lectured in Mathematics for some years, and then turned to the Law and qualified as a Solicitor of the Supreme Court of England and Wales. The family made aliya in 1977, following which Jonathan was admitted to the Israeli Bar. Jonathan and Brenda were blessed with a fourth daughter and two sons. Jonathan has always had an interest in literature. During the past year he attended a course on creative writing, given by Judy Labensohn, in the framework of which he has written several short stories, both fictional and non-fictional. “Pidyon Haben” is his first story to be published. (The author thanks his gynecologist daughter, Dr. Tamar Elram, for the medical information in this story, and his wife Brenda for assisting with the editing.)