The Rishonim and Achronim (from the Sforno and Gra, to Rishonim at the start of Kiddushin) have a general machlokes about the nature of pidyon haben; what exactly is this transaction thing? Some hold that pidyon haben is simply one of the presents due to the Kohannim. Just like Terumah must be given to the Kohen when one has produce, as does a firstborn donkey/its replacement sheep, so too when one has a firstborn baby boy (conditions apply) one must give a certain amount of money to the Kohen. Thus, like all other mattanos keuhunah, pidyon haben ensures that we recognise the work of the Kohannim and support them for their working in the Mikdash and teaching Torah to the people, thus also maintaining our all-important social structure. Others, however, hold that piydon haben is a form of real transaction whereby the child is bought back from the Kohen. Before the pidyon haben, the baby has a certain connection to the Kehunah - one which might even result in various restrictions on the baby doing certain things (if the pidyon does not take place) - but the pidyon haben sees him bought back to his parents to become a normal non-Kohen Israelite.

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