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The Birthday in Traditional Jewish Thought

ויהי ביום השלישי יום הלדת את פרעה ויעש משתה לכל עבדיו וישא את ראש שר המשקים ואת ראש שר האפים בתוך עבדיו

The sole reference to a celebration of one’s birthday in the Torah is found in Parshas VaYeshev. I would like to analyze the tradition of this celebration in Jewish thought and how it applies in both law and custom.

There are many events that we mark with special occasions: The creation of the world on Rosh Hashanah; the judgment of trees and plants on Tu B’Shvat; the dedication of the Beis HaMikdash on Chanukah, the creation of fire on Motzei Shabbos, and the anniversary of one’s birth.

We see many sources for the birthday celebration throughout Chazal.

Rav Chaim Dovid Halevy1 explains that the original Torah source for the celebration of one’s birthday is from Pharaoh, however, it originated as a custom of kings to celebrate their birthdays in public festivities and eventually individuals also began to have private birthday festivities in their homes2.

It seems that this is a non-Jewish source for the birthday celebration, as evident in the Talmud Avoda Zara, where the birthday of a gentile is listed  as one of the days that it is forbidden to have business dealings with a non-jew.  However, the reason for this is the prevalence of a custom amongst the ancient gentiles to bring sacrifices to their gods on their birthdays. Therefore,  Rav Halevy explains, although we see that this custom has roots in Avoda Zara, it is not prohibited to celebrate one’s birthday the proper way; rather the prohibition Chazal referred to was specifically the sacrifices brought to the idols.

The Talmud Yerushalmi3 expounds on the pasuk , “veyavo amalek”. Rebbe Yehoshua ben Levi said that Amalek gathered all the men whose birthday was that day and lined them up against Klal Yisrael and said “It will not be so easy for a man to fall (die) on his birthday.” The Korban Ha’eda explains that on one’s birthday his mazel is stronger and helps him with everything.

The Midrash4 quotes R’ Menachem bar Shimon who said “Most people cherish the day they were born and they are happy on that day and they make a party.”

Chazal say that the birthday of Yitzchak Avinu  was always a day of great celebration. Ironically, there is a machlokes as to the exact date. Was he was born in Kislev, 11 Tishrei  or 15 Nissan?

Reb Tzadok in Divrei Chalomos5 says that the day of a persons birth is the day of his mazal and he has nothing to fear on that day every year.  He explains the Gemara in Kiddushin 38a where it states that tzaddikim die on their birthday, to mean that by the tzaddik, death is a manifestation of use of his mazal to reach greater heights; as he is taking off the physical clothing and replacing it with the spiritual clothing which will enable him to ascend to the higher worlds.

The Rivevos Ephraim says that we see from many midrashim that the birthday is a day of happiness and celebration.

Customs and laws associated with the celebration

The Lubavitcher Rebbe zt’l explained that the day of one’s birth is a special day because one’s mazel is stronger and helps him. In addition, on this day a special light shines from the roots of one’s neshama and gives a person special strengths to accomplish things which they are interested in doing.  The birthday is like a sample of Rosh Hashanah on an individual level, therefore it is a good time to make a cheshbon hanefesh and to make good resolutions in order to increase the good in his life for that year. The Rebbe continued, that on one’s birthday a person should meditate and think of all the things he did in the past year, and he should do teshuva and be metaken that which needs tikkun. With this in mind,the Chabad rebbes identified ten minhagim that one should do on one’s birthday  which are parallel to the ten sefiros6.

The Ponovezher Rav once told the Chofetz Chaim that it was his birthday that day. The Chofetz Chaim told him that a birthday is a day of tefila and bakasha as we see in the pasuk in Tehillim (82;7,8) ‘ani hayom yaladticha’.

It is related that Reb Moshe Feinstein remembered the birthday of each of his grandchildren and made sure to call them and give them brachos and chizuk on their birthdays7.

The Ksav Sofer would make a siyum on a masechta every year on his birthday8.

It is said that the Ba’al Shem Tov  would make a seuda every year on the 18th of Elul and say over divrei torah. We find other gedolei yisrael did this as well.

In the Sefer Yabia Omer9 Rav Ovadia Yosef Zt’l writes that it is a siman yafe to make a seudah on one’s birthday, and that is the minhag in his home.

The Yeshuos Moshe said that the birthday is the time to make a cheshbon hanefesh.

The Card:

The Shu’t Aparkasta D’Anya10 brings that the Tiferes Yisrael would make his children write mazel tov cards to each other on their birthdays.

 The Cake:

There is a famous custom to make a round cake and put candles according to age, and after making a wish to blow them all out in one breath. This custom stems from Avoda Zara and is actually practiced in churches.

Based on this, one should not place candles on the cake, however if one does, you should make sure the cake is not round.

Kabbalistically, it is a great danger to blow out a candle with your breath, therefore it is advisable to put them out in some other fashion. This is the reason why we put out the candle with wine at havdala.

The Greeting 

There is a popular custom to bless one another that they should live till 120. The source for this comes from the end of parshas Bereishis where Hashem declared the days of man to be 120 years. We see that some very great personalities in Jewish history lived 120 years: Moshe Rabbeinu; Reb Akiva; Reb Yochanan ben Zakai, Hillel Hazaken.

However, we also see that the Avos and many people after the birth of Yefes lived more than 120 years.

It is important to note that there is a large movement not to wish this blessing of 120. Reb Moshe Feinstein, Reb Yaakov Kamenetzky and Rav Chaim Soloveitchik amongst others were very against wishing ‘ad 120’.

The Nadvorna and Kretchnif Chassidim have a minhag to bless each other to live until 160.

There is a popular minhag to wish someone they should be 100 like 20, as we see from Sarah Imeinu.

Special Birthdays

When Reb Shmuel Salant turned 70 years old he donated 70 Napoleons to the poor of the city. The story is told that no one knew the birthday of Reb Shmuel Salant until he turned 70. On that day, the second of Shevat, Rav Yosef Rivlin went to visit Rav Salant. He was starting to raise money and make arrangements for everyone to have proper food and Matza for Pesach. Reb Shmuel, who knew of the dire situation in Jerusalem,  turned to him and said ” Reb Yosi ,Reb Yosi, here is 7,000 Grush, please use this for matzos” Rav Rivlin took the 7,000 Groschen which was really 70 gold napoleons. Rav Shmuel was trying to hide the fact that it was his birthday so he said that he is giving the equal amount of 7,000 Turkish Grush. Rav Yosef was smart and upon seeing the 70 gold coins realized that the Rav must have covered up the fact that it was his age. Rav Yosef proceeded to wish Rav Shmuel a l’chaim and many brachos.

On the 80th birthday of Rav Shmuel Salant he again gave 80 napoleons to the tzedakah fund. This time everyone knew that it was his birthday, and all the leaders of Yerushalayim came to wish him a happy birthday, and arichos yamim.

On his 90th birthday , the leaders of Yerushalayim organized a birthday party for the Rav and founded a chesed organization in his name “Otzar Hachesed Keren Shmuel”11

3

Upsherin

Many have a minhag to wait to cut the childs hair until the 3rd birthday. It is also a minhag to take the child in a tallis to the local cheder and make a board with the letters of the Alef-Beis drawn in honey and have the child eat it so he can taste the sweetness of torah.

13

Bar Mitzvah

This signifies that the thirteenth birthday for a young male Jew is the day that we are chayav in mitzvos.

90

The Chofetz Chaim finished writing his sefer ‘Beis Yisroel’ on the day he turned 90. On that day,  11 Shevat 5688, he invited a few of his relatives and exclaimed that in merit of his sefer “Chafetz Chaim” he was zoche to Arichus Yamim and and instilled in everyone to be careful regarding Shmiras Halashon.

70

When the Chofetz Chaim was 70 years old, he called in his two closest talmidim, Rav Elchanan and the Ponovezher.  He gave them some mezonos and schnapps and proceeded to make a shehechiyanu on a new garment that he had set aside for the occasion.

The Steipler  said that every day after 70 is a special gift from Hakadosh Baruch Hu, and we need to give a special hoda’ah for that. (Toldos Yaakov page 286)

The Chavas Yiair says that when one reaches the age of 70 one should make a shehechiyanu, however the Ben Ish Chai argued and said not to make a shehechiyanu unless you also have a new beged or fruit and have in mind your age.

The Ben Ish Chai said that there are those who have a nice minhag to make a seudah on their 70th birthday. He continues that there was a custom in Baghdad, that on the 70th birthday one would dedicate a new Sefer Torah to the shul, and on shabbos they would make a big seuda at night for all the relatives and friends. In the middle of the seuda, the baal simcha would put on a new garment and make  a shehechiyanu and have in mind the sefer torah. In the morning, they would dance the sefer torah to the beit knesset.

Rav Chaim Palaji, the Rav of Izmir, wrote a sefer in honor of his 80th birthday called Kol Hachaim with different tefillos and limmudim, and he wrote that when one reaches 70 years old they should read the sefer on their birthday every year.

The Beis Yisrael paskened that one should not celebrate one’s 70th birthday at all because of ayin hara.

It is bought down that there were gedolim who would make a birthday party every year starting from 70 years old12

60

The Gemara in Moed Katan13 says that the punishment of death by Kares takes place between the ages of 50 and 60. The Gemara relates that  Rav Yosef made a Yom Tov for all the rabbanim on his 60th birthday, as a celebration of the fact that he was not chayav kares. We see very clearly that the celebration was with talmidei chachamim, and not with friends.

50

The Ksav Sofer made a shehechiyanu when he reached 50 and made a siyum on Masechta Pesachim as was his custom on every birthday14

54

One year the birthday of the Ksav Sofer coincided with the Congress HaYehudi in Budapest. The Rav asked his shamash not to let anyone see him on that day. However, there was one talmid, a chashuva rav, who bypassed the shamash. He found his rebbi in tears. Upon being asked why he was crying, the Ksav Sofer said that “Today is my 54th Birthday and 54 is דן, so I am judging myself in what I involved myself in for the last 54 years, with what i wasted my precious time…. and therefore i cry” – (Ohel Leah)

The view against the celebration

Rav Lau15 explains beautifully the view why not to celebrate one’s birthday. He brings a mashal from Chazal of a port city that had two boats in the port, one of the boats was leaving the port amidst great celebration, while the other was arriving very quietly. A wise man passed by and exclaimed: “You should be acting in just the opposite way, you should be happy with the boat that just arrived and completed a long and arduous journey successfully. As for the departing boat, you should accompany it with worry as it still has many challenges ahead.  Rav Lau explains and  likens the birth of  a child  to the ship going out to sea, where it faces many potential dangers and pitfalls, and we do not know if it will be able to withstand them. So too, if a person goes on his way, in a perfect world and a great family etc… he cannot be sure that he will be able to travail through the ups and downs of life. Therefore, the birth of a person is celebrated very quietly, as we do not know what will be, however when a person dies, then we can celebrate his birth and his journey.

The Aderet (Nefesh Dovid) was very against birthday wishes and celebrations as the only mekor is from Pharaoh . However, as noted above, there are various sources for birthdays in Jewish literature.

Rav Chaim Kanievsky argued with the Lubavitcher Rebbe and said that the concept that one’s mazel is stronger is only said in reference to non jews. However, he said that one should celebrate their 60th Birthday as they passed the years of Kares.

The Gemara in Eruvin 13b says that it is better off that a person not be created then created, based on this the Steipler, Arugas Habosem, Minchas Eliezer, Rav Shach and  Chasam Sofer amongst others ruled that one should not celebrate his birthday.

The Ben Ish Chai16 amongst other poskim17 said that perhaps one should celebrate the day of his bris instead of the birthday, as we see Avraham made  a seudah on the day of Yitzchak’s bris.

It is said over that Reb Yisroel of Ruzhin’s wife made a surprise birthday seuda for the Rav. when he came home, he saw a seuda and asked, ‘What is the occasion?’ The Rebbetzin replied that she made a seuda in honor of his birthday, at which the Rav became very upset at his wife and dismissed all the attendees18.

Although the prevalent custom is to celebrate birthdays, it should be done within the context of the attitudes taken by the Torah. According to all opinions, it should be a day of both gratitude and introspection.

 

 

Happy Birthday!!


1. Sefer Aseh Lecha Rav
2. Avoda Zara 1;2 and Pnei Moshe ibid.
3. Yerushalmi Rosh Hashana 3;8
4. Sechel Tov Bereishis 40;20
5. 20
6. See Sefer Yom Holedes
7. Igros Moshe Vol. 8 page 28
8. Hakdama Ksav Sofer al HaTorah
9. (Rav Ovadia Yosef zt’l) V6 OC29)
10. 123
11. Sefer Otzar Hachesed Keren Shmuel
12. Sefer Sameach Nefesh – Meareches Shin; Rav Chaim Palaji, Ginzei Chaim 10;16
13. Moed Katan 28b
14. YD Teshuva 148
15. Yachal Yisrael Perek 4 Page 262
16. Shana Alef Parshas Reeh #17
17. Chasam Sofer, Toras Moshe Valera
18. Avnei Chen, page 189
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