We read in Parashat Bamidbar (3:40-51) of the process whereby the Leviyim were designated as God’s special tribe at Mount Sinai, assigned to minister in the Mishkan, in place of the firstborns. The firstborns had been consecrated for this role by virtue of their having been saved during the plague of the firstborn on the night of the Exodus, and God now chose to substitute them with the tribe Levi (3:11-13). Rashi (3:12), citing the Midrash, explains that the Leviyim earned this privilege by being the only tribe that did not participate in the worship of the golden calf.
The Torah relates that at the time the substitution was made, there were 22,000 male Leviyim, and 22,273 firstborns. The 22,000 Leviyim assumed the place of 22,000 of the firstborns, and the remaining 273 firstborns needed to “redeem” themselves by paying five shekels to the kohanim. Rashi (3:50), based on the Gemara (Sanhedrin 17a), writes that lots were drawn to determine which 273 firstborns were required to pay for their redemption. This process resembles the pidyon ha-bein “redemption” payment which every father must make to a kohen after the birth of a firstborn son, as the Torah mentioned already earlier, in Sefer Shemot (13:13), and repeats later in Sefer Bamidbar (18:16).
A number of poskim pointed to the redemption of the firstborns at Sinai as proof to the fact that a pidyon ha-bein may be performed before the infant is circumcised. Circumcision, of course, is performed on a child’s eighth day, whereas the pidyon ha-bein is to be conducted when the boy is one month old (Bamidbar 18:16). If the child is unwell, such that the circumcision must be delayed, the question arises as to whether the pidyon ha-bein is also delayed until after the berit can be performed. A number of poskim note that the two mitzvot are not linked in any way, and thus the inability to perform the berit mila has no effect on the obligation of pidyon ha-bein on the thirty-first day. The Tzemach Tzedek (128) and Chida (Chayim Sha’al 1:31) suggest drawing proof to this conclusion from the initial redemption of the firstborns at Sinai. The verse in Sefer Yehoshua (5:5) states explicitly that all the infants born in the wilderness, after Benei Yisrael left Egypt, did not undergo berit mila, and the Gemara in Masekhet Yevamot (72a) explains that the hot desert conditions made the procedure of circumcision unsafe. Undoubtedly, the 22,278 firstborns who were redeemed at Sinai included those who were born over the previous year, after the Exodus, and were thus uncircumcised. The fact that they were nevertheless redeemed appears to prove that pidyon ha-bein may be performed even for an infant who had not yet undergone circumcision.
Chida concedes that one might refute this proof. First, it is possible that the firstborns who were born since the Exodus were included in the 22,000 firstborns who were substituted by Leviyim, such that they did not require redemption. As such, they do not prove that a pidyon ha-bein may be performed for an uncircumcised child. Secondly, one could certainly argue that this situation was exceptional, as God foresaw that Benei Yisrael would spend many years in the desert without the opportunity to perform berit mila. Therefore, this was an extraordinary circumstance which does not necessarily prove that generally, a pidyon ha-bein may be performed for a child who had yet to be circumcised. Nevertheless, Chida concludes that the mitzva of pidyon ha-bein is unrelated to, and hence independent of, the mitzva of berit mila.
Chida distinguishes between this question and the case addressed by the Ra’anach (79) where a firstborn became medically fit for berit mila on the 31st day – the day when the pidyon ha-bein is performed. The question arises in such a case as to which of the two mitzvot – which are being done on the same day – should be performed first. On the one hand, we might assume that as the pidyon ha-bein is meant to be performed on this day, it should be performed before the berit mila. On the other hand, perhaps the berit mila should be performed first, as the child is already “late” for this mitzva, which normally would be performed several weeks earlier. In any event, the Ra’nach ruled that the berit mila should be performed first, since berit mila signifies one’s submission to God’s authority, and thus takes precedence over other mitzvot. Chida writes that this line of reasoning requires performing berit mila before pidyon ha-bein when both are being performed on the same day, but it does not suffice to delay the mitzva of pidyon ha-bein beyond the child’s 31st day so he can first be circumcised.