What’s The Big Deal With Firstborns?

The firstborn child is given a lot of credence over the course of Pesach, and in Jewish life in general. What is so special about being the firstborn son of a family? The child himself obviously had absolutely no say in the matter, so why is he the one who deserved to be killed in Egypt, and why is he the one who gets a double portion of the inheritance forever more?

The first few pesukim of the Torah reading for the eighth day of Pesach commands us to give the firstborn of all of our animals to God as a korban (Deuteronomy 15:19). Mosef Rashi explains that a firstborn is made kadosh by his birth — and from the moment that he's born — thus giving him a special status. One is therefore not allowed to work a firstborn animal (Deuteronomy 15:19). Sforno explains that we give our firstborn animals to God to show that we realize that all our cattle ultimately came from HaShem; He decided to give us a blessing. Sforno further explains that all three of the Shalosh Regalim are all of them holidays for which we thank HaShem for something specific. On Sukkos we thank HaShem for the gathering of all of the produce. On Shavuous we thank HaShem for the harvest, thus we bring the first fruits to the Beis HaMikdash as a korban. The holiday of Pesach is to thank HaShem for taking us out of Egypt, and therefore we bring a korban pesach just as HaShem initially commanded us right before He took us out of Egypt.

The commandments concerning the firsts of these items are clearly to instill hakaras hatov and to remind us, after waiting so long for that “first,” that everything is ultimately from HaShem. In terms of animals and produce, then, it’s hard to understand why a human firstborn receives a special status.

What Constitutes As A Bechor?

Rashi, in reference to who was killed during makkas bechoros, explains that a “bechor” is the oldest child in the house. The implication is that this child was not necessarily the firstborn of his parents, simply the oldest currently in the household. Rashi suggests this based on the otherwise unrealistic event that every house actually had a firstborn male, since the pasuk specifies that every house indeed had a death.

Ramban, however, disagrees and explains that a bechor is actually understood to mean exactly what we generally assume it to mean. The child is either the firstborn to the father, his “reishis ono,” or to his mother, her “peter rechem.” (When it comes to animals it would obviously have to be the mother’s firstborn as there would be no way to know in terms of the father.)

Because the Jewish firstborns were not killed during makkas bechoros, there is a tradition for them to fast on erev Pesach. This fast is once again a proof that due simply to when they were born, bechorim have a special status and laws that go along with that.

In Shemos (4:22), HaShem called Bnei Yisrael His firstborn, thus giving them an elite level amongst the nations of the world. But, once again, why is being the firstborn so great?

The Greatness Of A Firstborn

We see throughout Bereishis that none of the sons that were born to the avos first actually received the “bechora.” Rather, the bechora went to the one who deserved it. Yes, Yitzchak and Yosef were their mothers’ firstborns — and Yaakov bought it fair and square from Eisav — but none of these people actually deserved the bechora based on what Rashi or Ramban explain a bechor to be.

R. David Forman explains that a bechor is someone who gives over the values of his parents to his siblings. The avos chose the sons who they felt could complete such a crucial mission at that particular juncture. HaShem chose Bnei Yisrael to be the bechor of the nations so as to be an ohr la’goyim and spread His name and values to the world. Bechorim today have the same responsibility. Younger siblings naturally look to their older siblings for guidance and that’s why their parents, via the Torah’s commandments, rewards them for fulfilling this pressuring and crucial role with a double portion.

It is not just about the luck of being born first, but about all the responsibility that comes with it, even if you didn't ask for it. As William Shakespeare famously said, “be not afraid of greatness. Some are born great, some achieve greatness and some have greatness thrust upon ‘em.” Bechorim have the unique blessing of being born great.

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