Pidyon Nefesh is a very special and powerful prayer and blessing that has the spiritual strength of a sacrifice in the Bet Hamikdash to atone for sin and to mitigate severe judgments. The bigger and more pious the tzaddik, the more effective the “pidyon”, which literally means “redemption”, where one’s money is literally a sacrifice for one’s body and soul. The pidyon money “redeems” the nefesh, or soul, in other words, “Pidyon Nefesh.” This is used when a major salvation is needed, such as in the case of a dangerous illness, a severe court case, or as a rescue from trouble or danger. Rebbe Nachman of Breslev says that Pidyon Nefesh is the “sweetening”, or mitigation of harsh decrees and serves as a salvation from any trouble, for the main cure and solution of sickness is the pidyon (see Likutei Moharan II:3).
The word pidyon is usually translated as “redemption,” referring to an exchange, whereby one exchanges money for something else. There are a number of different types of pidyon mentioned in the Torah including pidyon shvu’im (redemption of captives), pidyon haben (redemption of the firstborn male), and pidyon peter chamor (redemption of the firstborn donkey). Our topic, pidyon nefesh (redemption of the soul), refers to the redeeming of a person from the suffering he is going through. Through the giving of a pidyon to an appropriate person, it is possible to exchange one’s suffering on to the redemption money.
When a person gives money to the Tzaddik, he receives daas (understanding) in return. A person works very hard to earn money, in order to have it to spend, and then he goes and does exactly the opposite with it, he gives it away. But by giving it to the Tzaddik, to someone who has no desire for money at all, this brings the person back to his belief in Hashem. And the Tzaddik takes the money and uses it to weaken the dinim, thereby weakening the person’s yetzer hara, which enables him to chozer b’tshuva.
Any amount is acceptable, but for a Pidyon to be especially effective, one should give with dedication. One cannot hope for a major salvation without giving to the limits of one’s capability. We might just mention that all the above applies equally to Jew and non-Jew alike.
It is highly recommended to give a Pidyon to a true tzaddik before Rosh Hashannah.