Updated: Apr 14
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
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
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.