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Primogeniture is a persistent and widespread institution whose legal, social, and religious features were reflected in the norms of ancient Israelite society. Biblical legislation gave the firstborn male a special status with respect to inheritance rights and certain cultic regulations, The latter, a part of a complex of cultic requirements, also applied to the first issue of the herds and the flocks, which, in the popular consciousness, were considered particularly desirable as sacrifices. Abel pleased God by offering Him firstlings of his flock (Gen. 4:4). The requirements of the cultic codes were based on the notion that the God of Israel had a claim on the first offspring of man and beast, which were to be devoted to Him in some manner. This notion also governed the prescriptions regarding the offering of the first fruits (see First Fruits).

In biblical Hebrew usage the term bekhor, “firstborn [male],” and its derivatives, are somewhat ambiguous. The characterization of the human bekhor as reshit on, “the first fruit of vigor” (Gen. 49:3; Deut. 21:17; cf. Ps. 78:51; 105:36), stresses the relation to the father and adumbrates the first-born’s status of principal heir and successor of his father as head of the family. At the same time, the specification that the bekhor be “the first issue of the womb” (peter reḥem; Ex. 13:2, 12, 15, etc.; cf. Num. 8:16), which reflects the religious significance of the first products of the procreative process in human and animal life, stresses the biological link to the mother. Whereas it was usually possible to ascertain the paternity of human beings, this clearly did not hold true of animals, and there was never any attempt to base animal cultic regulations on considerations of specific paternity.

Two rather distinct conceptions can be made out: a socio-legal one, which assigned exceptional status to the first male in the paternal line; and a cultic one which assigned special status to the first male issue of the maternal line. The socio-legal conception was preserved in legislation governing inheritance. In cultic legislation, the bekhor of the legal tradition was required – in order for the cultic regulations to apply – to be also the first issue of his mother’s womb.

According to Deuteronomy 21:15–17, a father was obliged to acknowledge his firstborn son as his principal heir, and to grant him a double portion of his estate as inheritance. (Pishenayim means “two-thirds” [see Zech. 13:8], but the intention of the text is that the firstborn shall get whatever fraction a double portion may come to; in the case posited in the text, where there are only two sons, it is two-thirds, but where there are three sons, it is one-half, and so on; cf. the correct inference drawn in BB 123a from I Chron. 5:1ff., which expressly terms Joseph’s status as “firstborn” – Joseph received twice the portion of any of his brothers [Gen. 48:5, 22; ef. Rashbam to BB 123a].) This obligation was to apply irrespective of the status of the son’s mother in a polygamous family. This inheritance right is termed mishpat ha-bekhorah, “the rule of the birthright” (Deut. 21:17), and the legal process by which the first-born son was so designated is expressed by the verb yakkir “he shall acknowledge.” Undoubtedly the acknowledgment involved certain formal, legal acts which are not indicated in biblical literature. In a different context, God acknowledged Israel as his firstborn (Ex. 4:22; ef. Jer. 31:8). A son, addressing his father, might also refer to his own status as firstborn son (Gen. 27:19, 32).

It is evident from the composition of biblical genealogies that the status of bekhor was a pervasive feature of Israelite life. In many such lists there is a formula which specifies the status of the first-listed son. For example, Numbers 1:20: “The sons of Reuben, the firstborn of Israel, were…” (cf. e.g., Gen. 35:23; 36:15; Ex. 6:14, and frequently in the genealogies of I Chron.). Even in genealogies which do not specifically indicate the status of the first son listed, it is clear that he is the firstborn. There are suggestions in the Bible that primogeniture carried certain duties and privileges in addition to the estate rights (see Gen. 27; 48:13; Judg. 8:20; I Chron. 26:10, etc.). The second in line was termed ha-mishneh (I Sam. 17:13; II Sam. 3:3; I Chron. 5:12).

The status of the firstborn in royal succession is not clearly defined. The Israelite kings were often polygamous, and the relative status of several royal wives figured in determining a succession, making the Deuteronomic law cited above appear more like an ideal than a reality so far as the king was concerned. A king might, for a variety of reasons, also be disposed to officially reject one of his sons, Accordingly, there were instances where the first in the royal line of succession did not, in fact, succeed his father. It is not known whether the firstborn in families of the high priests had a special status. From the exception noted in I Chronicles 26:10 it is inferable that the firstborn of a levitical clan was normally placed in charge of his brothers. There is some evidence that the first-born daughter (bekhirah) was customarily married off before her younger sisters (Gen. 29:16ff.; I Sam. 18:17ff.).

In the Genesis narrative one sees how primogeniture was disregarded in the clan of Abraham. The son most suited to carry on the line of Abraham – with its attendant responsibility for transmitting the clan’s unique religious belief – was acknowledged as the head of the family even if it meant passing by the firstborn; indeed even if it entailed banishing him from the household (Isaac was preferred to Ishmael, ch. 21: Jacob to Esau, ch. 27).

The terminology employed in Genesis, when compared to that of Deuteronomy 21:17, is problematic, and allowance for a degree of inconsistency in technical usage must be made. In Genesis, Jacob contends with Esau over two matters: first, the bekhorah, which Jacob secured from Esau, who despised it, in exchange for a cooked meal (Gen. 25:29–34); and second, the berakhah (“blessing”) which Jacob secured by deceiving his elderly father into thinking that he was blessing Esau (Gen. 27). Of the two terms, the berakhah counted for more, probably because pronouncing the blessing was considered to be the act formally acknowledging the firstborn as the principal heir. Berakhah connotes both the blessing which is to be pronounced and the effects of the blessing, i.e., the wealth transmitted as inheritance. In Deuteronomy 21:17 the term bekhorah refers specifically to the estate rights.

Owing to his favored status, the firstborn was considered the most desirable sacrifice to a deity where human sacrifice was practiced. On the verge of a defeat, Mesha, king of Moab, sacrificed his eldest son and acknowledged successor (II Kings 3:27). In a prophetic passage, the sacrifice of the first-born is singled out as that offering which might be supposed the most efficacious for expiation (Micah 6:7). The importance of the bekhor is dramatized in the saga of the ten plagues God inflicted upon the Egyptians, the last of which struck down their firstborn (e.g., Ex. 11:5; 12:12). This serves as the etiology of the legal-cultic requirement that the male firstborn of man and beast in Israel were to be devoted to God. The Lord acquired title to Israel’s firstborn, human and animal, by having spared them when he struck the firstborn of the Egyptians (Num. 3:13).

The priestly tradition goes on to explain that the Levites, as a group, were devoted to cultic service in substitution for all the firstborn Israelites (Num. 3:12). This would seem to be the historicization of a situation that in fact obtained independently of the particular events surrounding the Exodus. The laws governing the redemption of the firstborn (Ex. 13:15; 34:19, Deut, 15:19) presumably derived from a cultic matrix. At one time firstborn sons were actually devoted to cultic service as temple slaves, Nazirites, and the like; subsequently other arrangements were made for supplying cultic personnel while the erstwhile sanctity of the firstborn was lifted through redemption (cf. Lev. 27:1–8, and see below). This underlies the priestly traditions of the history of the Levites and their selection for cultic service.

In the case of animals, male firstlings unfit for sacrificial use because they bore *blemishes or were of types considered impure could be redeemed by paying the assessed value of the animal, plus one-fifth (Lev, 27:26–27; cf. verses 9–13; Ex. 34:20; Deut. 15:19). The restriction of the requirement to male firstlings may reflect on economic consideration: very few males were needed for breeding purposes. This consideration may also figure in the predominance of male animals as sacrificial victims generally. Devoting firstlings to the cultic establishment served as a means of providing it with revenue (Num, 18:15–18; compare Deut. 15:19–23).


A.S. Hartom, in: EM, 2 (1954), 123–6 (incl. bibl.); I. Mendelsohn, in: BASOR, 156 (1959), 38–40; Redemption of the Firstborn: Eisenstein, Dinim, 43–4, 333–4; H. Schauss, The Lifetime of a Jew (1950), 18, 29, 48–50; N. Gottlieb, A Jewish Child Is Born (1960); Fast:, Das mosaisch-talmudische Erbrecht (1890), 12–14, nos. 16–20; R. Kirsch, Der Erstgeborene nach mosaisch-talmudischem Recht, 1 (1901); Gulak, Yesodei, 3 (1922), 10, 74–76, 78, 84f., 102, 131; Herzog, Instit, 1 (1936), 50; ET, 1 (19513), 4f.; 3 (1951), 276–83; 11 (1965), 37–39; B.-Z. Schereschewsky, Dinei Mishpahah (19672), 353–8. ADD BIBLIOGRAPHY: Elon, Ha-Mishpat ha-Ivri (1988), I, 110, 112, 279, 770, III, 1413; Idem., Jewish Law (1994), I, 124, 126, 329, II, 948, IV, 1683.

Source: Encyclopaedia Judaica. © 2008 The Gale Group. All Rights Reserved.