Near the beginning of the Book of Numbers (from roughly 3:39 to 3:51), G-d commands that all the firstborn Israelite males need to be redeemed via a 1:1 'trade' with a Levite. There were 22,000 eligible Levites, with the remaining 273 Israelite firstborns redeeming themselves via a monetary payment.

Rashi on verse 3:39 questions why weren't there enough Levites, when the counts from the individual Levite families totaled 22,300 Levites. He answers (based on a Gemara in Bechoros) that there were 300 Levites who themselves were firstborn, and therefore inelligible to partake in the redemption of the Israelite firstborn, since they were 'redeeming themselves'.

While the narrative is straightforward, what strikes me as interesting is the ratio between firstborn Levites and 'standard' Levites. With 22,300 Levites and 300 of them being firstborn, that comes out to less than 1 in 70 Levites being a firstborn. That seems like an unusually low number of firstborns to me (or on the flip side, an unusually high number of non-firstborns)! Do any of the commentators address this seemingly unusual ratio?


22,000 was the number of male Levites. A firstborn is only considered a firstborn if there were no children beforehand. it is possible that many families had a female as the first child, so there were less firstborn Levites.

This doesn't fully solve the problem, but it definitely lessens it.

  • 2
    So double each number: 44000 Levites of both genders and 600 firstborns of both genders. How is that less of a problem? – Double AA Jun 4 at 20:34

Genesis 46:8 "And these are the names of the children of Israel who were coming to Egypt: Jacob and his sons Jacob's firstborn was Reuben."1

Israel had 12 sons (from 4 different women) and yet only 1 of these sons were considered "firstborn". So, if a Levite had four wives, and if that wife that bore the firstborn had more sons, and the other wives also had scores of sons, then it is indeed possible to have "an unusually low number of firstborns" as the OP surmises.

  • This assumes firstborn follows the father not the mother. That's not how Pidyon Haben works, at least. – Double AA Jun 7 at 11:26
  • Why were there so many women for them to marry? If the population overall is half women, which men were going spouseless for the Levites to achieve this? – Double AA Jun 7 at 12:07
  • @DoubleAA Back then, our people, even Levites, intermarried with non-Israelites. – ninamag Jun 7 at 13:38
  • @DoubleAA Your first comment was something I was wondering as well. How closely did the Halachos for this Biblical event align with the current Halachos of Pidyon Haben? Clearly it isn't 1-1, since obviously being a Levi or Bas Levi did not disqualify the Leviim from participating, but what about other details like miscariages, c-sections, etc.? Even with all restrictions though, numbers still seem high, at least relative to what I would think (my unofficial survey from what I've seen around town makes me think that current Pidyon Haben numbers seem to be about 1 in 10 boys qualify). – Salmononius2 Jun 7 at 14:37
  • @Salmononius2 judaism.stackexchange.com/q/22549/759 – Double AA Jun 7 at 14:38

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