Yesterday, we noted the discussion among the commentators regarding the “redemption” of the firstborns among Benei Yisrael at Mount Sinai, which the Torah describes in Parashat Bamidbar. We read that the firstborns had initially been consecrated as God’s attendants in the Mishkan, but were replaced by the Leviyim. However, as the number of firstborns exceeded the number of Leviyim, it was necessary for the extra firstborns – 273 in number – to “redeem” themselves by each of them paying five shekels to Aharon and his sons. The Panim Yafot commentary claimed that this money was divided into three equal portions – each consisting of 91 payments of five shekels – and each of the three kohanim – Aharon and his two sons – received one portion. The distribution had to be done this way, the Panim Yafot wrote, because each firstborn had to make a complete payment to one kohen. If the firstborns’ payments were divided into two equal portions (as other commentators claimed), with one going to Aharon and the other to his sons, then the 273rd firstborn would have had to divide his payment among the two groups, which was not allowed.
As we mentioned, later writers questioned the Panim Yafot’s comments in light of the Gemara’s explicit ruling in Masekhet Bekhorot (51b) that the obligation of pidyon ha-bein – “redeeming” one’s firstborn son from a kohen – may be fulfilled even by dividing the required sum of money among several kohanim. The Panim Yafot clearly assumed that the payment must be made in full to one kohen, seemingly in direct contradiction with the Gemara’s ruling.
One answer that has been proposed to reconcile the Panim Yafot’s comments with the Gemara’s ruling is that the Panim Yafot understood the Gemara as referring only be-di’avad – after the fact. In his view, perhaps, although one fulfills the mitzva of pidyon ha-bein even if he divided the required payment among several kohanim, optimally, the payment should be made in full to a single kohen. Indeed, the Panim Yafot’s most illustrious disciple, the Chatam Sofer, writes in one of his responsa (Y.D. 297) that pidyon ha-bein should preferably be paid entirely to one kohen. Quite possibly, this was the view of the Panim Yafot, and he therefore insisted that each of the 273 firstborns in the wilderness needed to pay his redemption money to a single kohen. It should be noted, however, that the Chokhmat Adam (150:2) disputes the Chatam Sofer’s ruling, and maintains that even le-chatekhila (optimally), one may divide the pidyon ha-bein payment among several kohanim.
This entire question works off the assumption that the redemption of the 273 firstborns in the wilderness was subject to the same rules and guidelines that apply to the usual pidyon ha-bein performed for every firstborn. One might argue that the redemption of the firstborns at Sinai, at the time when their status of distinction was formally transferred to the Leviyim, stands separate and apart from the eternal obligation of pidyon ha-bein, and it is therefore not bound by the same detailed guidelines. Accordingly, Rav Meir Dan Platsky, in his Keli Chemda (Bamidbar 2:2), writes that in the view of the Panim Yafot, the special redemption required of the firstborns in Sinai could not be divided among several kohanim, and this in no way contradicts the Gemara’s explicit ruling that the regular pidyon ha-bein payment may be divided.
(See Rav Chaim Shaul Kaufman’s Mishchat Shemen, vol. 1, pp. 314-316.)