The end of Leviticus speaks about different forms of redemption in the legal sense. It mentions the rights — or even commandments — of the impoverished and their extended family to “redeem” property sold out of desperation, and bring it back to the family. This applies to a field, a house of residence, or a person sold as a slave (Lev. 25:25-55). Moreover, the Torah also teaches us about the halachic mechanisms for redeeming consecrated animals, houses, or fields (Lev. 27:9-34). The word used for redeeming in these contexts is sometimes goel and sometimes podeh.*The noun forms of those verbs are geulah and pedut/pidyon, respectively. What is the difference between these two different words for redemption and what can we learn from these words?
To better understand the words for redemption, we look to the quintessential act of redemption: the Exodus from Egypt. The Vilna Gaon, Rabbi Eliyahu Kramer of Vilna (1720-1797), explains that the Exodus consists of two parallel redemptions. The pidyon (which occurred on the night of Passover) was a form of salvation whereby G-d traded Jewish firstborns for the Egyptian firstborns, saving the former and annihilating the latter. Almost concurrently, the geulah was G-d’s way of saving the Jews by way of sheer brute force. In this way, pidyon implies salvation which comes about through an exchange, while geulah connotes a form of rescue which is done without any type of remuneration.
Rabbi Chaim Soloveitchik of Brisk (1853-1918) explained the difference between pidyon and geulah by using the classical Yeshivish cheftza-gavra (object-person) construct. He explains that the term pidyon focuses on the object of redemption, and denotes a change in the object’s personal status, while the term geulah focuses on the owner of the object, and denotes redemption as a change in the ownership of said object.
Rabbi Moshe Sofer (1762-1839), known as the Chatam Sofer, writes that pidyonrefers to negative redemption — that is, simply being saved from whatever calamity confronts him — while geulah refers to positive redemption — that is, not just being saved from something bad, but being raised above one’s circumstances and becoming greater. A similar explanation is recorded by Rabbi Menachem Mendel Hager of Kosov (1768-1825) who writes that pidyon offers temporary relief for whatever ails him, while the term geulah implies a more comprehensive, everlasting form of deliverance.
Along these lines, Malbim explains that the term pidyon denotes redemption as the fact of salvation. On the other hand, the word geulah denotes redemption that is born of closeness between the redeemer and redeemed. That closeness serves as the impetus for the redeemer’s feeling of responsibility in saving the redeemed. When one’s relative is murdered, one has a status that may, under certain circumstances, perhaps allow avenging the death. The relative who is named as having this status of carrying out this act is called by Numbers 35:19, goel hadam (“redeemer of blood”). In this context, the word goel alludes to the avenger’s kinship with his murdered brethren.
Rabbi Shmuel Tuvia Stern (1920-2004), the late Rabbi of Miami Beach, explains that pidyon refers to taking something which is holy and redeeming it from its holy status by transferring the holiness, effectively consecrating something else instead. Geulah, on the other hand, applies to the idea of taking something that is of the unholy/non-holy and redeeming it by shaking off those non-holy associations, allowing it to enter the domain of the holy. Alternatively, Rabbi Stern explains that pidyon refers to redemption on a case-by-case basis (i.e. the redemption of the individual), while geulah refers to mass redemption (i.e. redemption of the public, or nation, at large).
*NOTE: While the word podeh is generally spelled PEY-DALET-HEY, in one place (Iyov 33:24), the Bible replaces the HEY with an AYIN. Rashi (there) and Nachmanides (to Ex. 21:14) explain that the AYIN and HEY are interchangeable letters, so this word is the same as podeh. However, Rabbi Yonah Ibn Janach, Rabbi Menachem ibn Saruk, and Radak, in their respective lexicons of roots in the Hebrew language, have separate entries with a HEY and with an AYIN, implying that they understand the latter is a separate word from the former.To this effect, Malbim writes that podeh with an AYIN may be related to a similar-sounding Arabic word which means “removal”.