Rabbah said, “Death between the ages of fifty and sixty is the death of karet (expiation).” When Rav Yosef reached his sixtieth birthday, he prepared a festive seudah for the Torah scholars. He reasoned, “Now that I have reached the age of sixty, I see that I was not liable to receive the punishment of karet.”
The other day, for some reason, I found myself thinking about my upcoming birthday. I briefly pondered the Torah perspective of birthday observance/celebration. Of course, the thirteenth one was important since it was my Bar Mitzvah. However, I realized it to not be really a celebration of birth, but rather a celebration of being obligated in mitzvahs according to the Torah. As we learn, “Gadol ha’metzuveh v’oseh m’she’eino metzuveh v’oseh — Greater is one who is obligated in a mitzvah and fulfills it than one who is not obligated in a mitzvah and nevertheless does it.”
I continued to wonder if there is anything in the Torah about birthday celebrations or whether they are exclusively a non-Jewish practice (even on the Jewish birthday date). In the Torah, the only birthday celebration I recall seeing is that of Pharaoh: “Now it came about on the third day, on Pharaoh's birthday, that Pharaoh made a feast for all his servants.” (Ber. 40:20)
And then, as I was reviewing Daf Yomi, I was reminded of the festive seudah that Rav Yosef made in celebration of his sixtieth birthday. But then again, I realized that this was not a “pure birthday party” but a celebration of reaching an age which precluded him from dying early as a result of the Heavenly punishment of karet.
It is nowadays a widespread custom to make a festive meal to celebrate on one’s sixtieth birthday, as we see was the practice of Rav Yosef on our daf. However, since a variety of Torah commentaries explain karet differently than Rav Yosef (e.g. Rambam, Ramban, Abarbanel), the Poskim write that one should try to make a siyum on that birthday to assure that the festive meal is a seudat mitzvah. Others add that it is an admirable practice to have a new fruit at the meal in order to say the she’hechi’yanu brachah.
In respect to other birthdays, there is much discussion regarding how to view the day from a Torah perspective. Some commentaries and authorities encourage some type of celebration, while others claim it is a non-Jewish practice and discourage any special celebration.
The Jerusalem Talmud seems to indicate that one’s birthday is a “lucky day” for the person. When the Amalekites attacked the Jewish People after the Exodus, they chose soldiers whose birthday was on the day of the battle. They perceived that a person's birthday is a lucky day for him and he would therefore be successful in battle.
The Ben Ish Chai (Rabbi Yosef Chaim of Baghdad) writes that some people celebrate their birthday because the day is a good sign for that person. He personally celebrated birthdays in his home. Rabbi Yisrael Lifshitz (author of the Tiferet Yisrael commentary on the Mishna) instructed his children that when one of them has a birthday, the others should visit and bless him. Similarly, distinguished members of Jerusalem's Jewish community were accustomed to visit Rabbi Shmuel Salant on his birthday and offer him their blessings. I have heard that the Chafetz Chaim made a point to publicly celebrate his birthday in his later years in order to show that people who “guard their tongue” are rewarded with long life.
Others emphasize the more serious side of birthdays. Rabbi Avraham Binyamin Sofer (author of the Ktav Sofer responses) would sequester himself on his birthday to “soul-search.” On the day a person is born, he receives the most precious gift of all — life! Therefore, it is a day for introspection, a day for asking, “Am I using this gift of my life to its utmost potential?”
- Sources: Ben Ish Chai, Parshat Re'eh 17; Talmud Yerushalmi, Rosh Hashana 3:8; Iggeret Tiferet Yisrael 6; Sefer Mayim HaHalacha; Sefer Chut HaMeshulash
- Mo'ed Katan 28a