Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Jews getting ready to eat a baby — or, pidyon ha’ben

To an untrained eye, this scene may look like a bunch of religious Jews fixing to eat a baby (Christian blood for matza is not enough, huh?), but in fact it is pidyon ha’ben — a ceremony of redeeming a first-born from a kohen (thanks to Hirshel Tzig for the picture). It is one of the few ceremonies that descendants of the Jewish priests still perform, while we are waiting for the Beis HaMikdosh to be rebuilt (may it happen speedily in our days), which would allow them to start their duties in the Temple. Actual coins are supposed to be used, so the rabbi digs out his real silver coins and “sells” them to the parents of the baby, who then redeem the baby with them.

For those that don’t know, modern-day kohanim know that they are descendants of the Jewish priests (through patrilineal descent) only according to tradition passed down generations. In 1997, Dr. Karl Skorecki and colleagues published in Nature an article giving more empirical support to the tradition. From biological point of view, it makes sense that all true kohanim today should have a copy of Y-chromosome of the first kohen, Aaron, Moses’s brother. If this is so, all (or most) of kohanim must share have a genetic marker on their Y-chromosome (a result of some random mutation in non-coding part of the chromosome that must have happened around Aaron’s generation and then was passed down with his Y-chromosome’s copies down generations). This marker would be significantly more common amongst kohanim than amongst other Jews.

Dr. Skorecki found exactly such a portion of kohen Y-chromosome, which he called “Cohen Modal Haplotype”. Read more about this on Wikipedia or in the article itself.

Of course, simply having a kohen gene does not make somebody a kohen according to Halacha; nor does not having it bar one from being considered a kohen (a presence or absence of tradition of one being a kohen stemming from the times when one’s family was religious is enough), but the study does give more credulity to the story of modern-day kohanim being descended from a single male ancestor and disputes the ridiculous claim that modern-day Ashkenazic Jews descend from Khazars rather than Jews of the Second Temple Era (a claim only an ignoramus oblivious of Jewish history — both national and literary — can make).

Some trivia: during the Rosh HaShanah services this year, my rabbi thought that we had a fake kohen. Perhaps a blood test would settle his worries, one way or another. Another time when silver coins are used by a rabbi is on Purim, when tzdaka in the form of two coins is supposed to be given (people usually “buy” the coins from the rabbi with real money and then give coins to tzdaka back to the rabbi). Last Purim, somebody accidentally took (let’s hope this is what it was) my rabbi’s silver coins, perhaps mistaking them for usual one-dollar coins and needing some change for his tzdaka.

Misha, you made a mistake at 2:36.


Anonymous said...


Crawling Axe said...

Chopin himself played this faster.