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For the week ending 3 February 2018 / 18 Shevat 5778

Birthdays Part 1: Jewish Sources

by Rabbi Yirmiyahu Ullman - www.rabbiullman.com
Artscroll Library

From: Robert

Dear Rabbi,

Does Judaism place any importance on birthdays, and are any birthdays considered to be more important than others?

Dear Robert,

This is a commonly asked question which applies to everybody and is thus worth exploring in more than one installment. Thus, in this first installment, I’ll discuss the Torah sources about birthdays, and if according to Judaism they should be commemorated and/or celebrated. In the next installment I’ll explore whether certain birthdays are more important than others, and what may be uniquely Jewish ways to observe birthdays.

While births are certainly recorded in the Torah and considered significant, the only mention of actually commemorating a birthday is regarding Pharaoh, the wicked ruler of Egypt: “Now it came about on…Pharaoh’s birthday that Pharaoh made a feast for all his servants.” (Gen. 40:20) Since Pharaoh’s behavior is hardly exemplary, this alone would suggest that it’s not a Jewish thing to commemorate birthdays (Sefer Otzar Kol Minhagei Yeshurun).

Furthermore, the Talmud (Eruvin 13b) teaches that it would have been better for a person not to have been born. Based on this, Sefer Divrei Torah (5:88) writes that the anniversary of one’s birth is no cause for celebration, since he’d be better off not having been born in the first place.

However, Tosafot notes that this teaching in Eruvin seems to contradict a teaching in Avoda Zara (5a) requiring gratitude to our forefathers for being born. Tosafot reconciles the two sources by explaining that the former refers to a “regular person” who, lacking merit, would have been better off not being born; whereas the latter refers to a “tzaddik” who, because of his righteousness, is certainly better off having been born.

This is consistent with the teaching of our Sages (Rosh Hashana 11a) concerning the verse of Moses’ death: “And Moses spoke to Israel saying, ‘I am one hundred and twenty years old today.” (Deut. 31:1-2) Based on the Sages, Rashi paraphrases Moses’ intention to mean: Today my days and years were fulfilled; on this day I was born, and on this day I shall die. This teaches us that Gd fulfills the years of the righteous to the day and to the month, as it is written: “I shall fulfill the number of your days.” (Ex. 23:26) From here we see the significance of the birthday of a person who utilizes his life for good.

In fact, insofar as Rosh Hashana commemorates not the first day of Creation, but rather the day on which Mankind was “born”, and which initiated the purpose of Creation, one’s birthday is a type of personal Rosh Hashana. What’s more, on the verse, “And Abraham made a great feast on the day that Isaac was weaned” (Gen. 21:8), one opinion in the Midrash (B.R. 53:4) identifies this feast as celebrating Isaac’s thirteenth birthday, the day when he was “weaned” from childhood and assumed the responsibilities of a Jewish adult. According to another opinion this feast occurred on his second birthday. (Lekach Tov) Since Isaac was born on Pesach, either way it was a festive birthday celebration.

Interestingly, the Talmudic Sages (Yerushalmi, Berachot 2:4) made yet another correlation between an important birthday and a different “holiday” in the Jewish calendar by stating that Mashiach will be born on Tisha b’Av, which is called a “moed,” a special, appointed time.

Furthermore, the Sages note a special mazal influence which is operative on a person’s birthday. The Yerushalmi (Rosh Hashana 3:8) records that when Amalek battled the Jewish People, they assigned those soldiers whose birthday it was to fight on the front lines. The commentator Korban Edah explains that this is because on the birthday one has a special mazal for success. The Chida (Chomat Onach, Iyov chapter 3) points out that this is rooted in Kabbalistic sources, and that on one’s birthday his mazal is particularly strong.

These sources all indicate the importance of one’s birthday and its special mazal influence, suggesting a reason to commemorate it. In the next installment we’ll examine in more detail how this increased mazal is manifested, and cite various customary practices which define a particularly Jewish way of observing one’s birthday.

  • Sources: A Jewish Perspective on Birthdays, Rabbi Aryeh Lebowitz

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