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What is a Pidyon Nefesh?

Updated: Apr 14, 2023

There are few rituals in Jewish life as mysterious as Pidyon Nefesh.

Commonly translated as the “redemption of a soul”, the ritual does seem as

strange as its name. Yet, it is part of Jewish Tradition as much as any other

Mitzvah and we find many places in literature where Jews engaged in such

practice.

The ritual is very simple: someone in need of a salvation puts up 160 coins

(in whatever currency of the country he’s in) to the person conducting the Pidyon,

who’s at the very least a learned individual and knows the appropriate prayers. In

doing so, the point of the transaction is to annul the decree the person who paid

is now facing and bringing in salvation.

So, you might be wondering: what is the mechanism behind a Pidyon

Nefesh? Well, read on to find out!



Seals of Clay and Seals of Blood

One of the most difficult concepts to understand is that, at any given

moment, there are a near infinite amount of judgments happening in Heaven.

Either Hashem himself is judging it alone or with any amount of Tzadikim to

“deliberate” how events should play out. Of course, much of our prayer also has

tremendous effect in what happens Above.

Most of these judgments are soft, like forgetting one’s car keys somewhere

at home, because there’s a complex system of “compassion barriers” that

mitigate them before coming into being in our physical world. It’s noteworthy

also that Hashem judges His creations at appointed times. There’s a judgment

every hour, one every day, one every month and, of course, every year on Rosh

Hashanah, besides other special times. The commentators of the Zohar teaches

us there are 2 types of seals for every judgment: seals of clay and seals of blood.

The difference between them is very simple: If the judgment is sealed in

clay, it can be reverted. However, if it’s sealed in blood then nothing can change

it. This is why, the Zohar teaches us, the judgment of Purim was able to be

transformed; for it was sealed in clay. Rebbe Nachman teaches us in Likutey

Moharan that one who is tremendously happy for a Mitzvah can indeed see these

judgments in order to take action.


The Kabbalah behind Pidyon Nefesh

Actually, there’s a Mitzvah from the Torah that exemplifies the concept of

Pidyon Nefesh very well. And that’s the optional Mitzvah to donate one’s amount

or “erech” (the stipulated monies) to the Temple treasury. In a way this is a

means of “redeeming” oneself from decrees as the money goes for a very holy

endeavor.

In Hebrew, the word for “blood” (which comes from the Sephirah of

Gevurah) is Dam (דם). Not surprisingly, one of the words for money is the plural

Damim (דמים) and the connection is clear: one pays money in order not to pay in

blood. This type of exchange is also seen in the Mitzvah of Tzedaka, except that

with Pidyon Nefesh, the money is ideally given to a Tzadik, or at least a righteous

Torah Scholar. The power of the Tzadik is much greater than average people and,

without a doubt, the effect of Pidyon Nefesh is greater. The amount of 160 coins

is equivalent to the numerical value of the word Kessef (כסף) and this is also one

of the words used for “money”. However, it literally means silver, which


throughout Kabbalistic literature comes from the Sephirah of Chessed

(Lovinkindness). In a way, the money we are giving is then rectifying, or

“sweetening”, the harsh Gevurot (“severities”) symbolized by the harsh decree.

Currently Kabbalists generally use the Pidyon Nefesh as taught by Rabbi

Shalom Sharabi (the Rashas”h) with the mystical intentions (kavanot) that he

wrote. However, many great Tzadikim also use the simplified version written by

Rebbe Nachman of Breslov. One of the main aspects of the Pidyon Nefesh is that

the money be given to an outstanding scholar, the greater the better, since

helping him is in a sense helping elevate the fallen “Shekhina” (which is constantly

together with said individual).

The effectiveness of Pidyon Nefesh cannot be overstated. Many

“miraculous” stories are told by people with all sorts of difficulties in any area we

can think of, who were saved after giving money to Tzadikim such as Rabbi

Mordechai Sharabi, Rabbi Kaduri, Rabbi Kook (from Tveria), the

Ben Ish Chai, the Chida and countless others.

May we merit to have all our decrees overturned to good and merit to have

the salvations we need! Have any cools stories about Pidyon Nefesh? Share them

in the comments below!


If you would like a Pidyon Nefesh performed for you or a loved one, click here.

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