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Thoughts on Birthdays in Jewish Tradition

This Shabbat we will be celebrating a very special birthday of one of our members who has attained the age of 90 this week.  We are grateful that she continues to be a very active member of our congregation and a very busy person in general.  As she enters her tenth decade, we pray that she may go from strength to strength.  We wish her a very happy birthday and the traditional wish of “biz hundert un tzvantzig yor,”  that she may attain the traditional age of 120 years as did Moses.

 

We don’t hear much about birthdays in the Bible though or elsewhere in Jewish tradition.  The only birthday mentioned in the Torah, in fact, is the birthday of Pharaoh, the king of Egypt in the days of Joseph.  There in Genesis we read that on the third day was Pharaoh’s birthday and on that day the dreams that Joseph had interpreted for the butler and the baker who were in prison with him were fulfilled as he had interpreted them.  Otherwise, we do not read of birthdays and celebrations of them.

 

Based on this meager evidence, some prominent Jewish authorities claim that birthdays are not really a Jewish thing; they are customs of “the other nations,” and one should not imitate those non-Jewish practices and not hold celebrations marking them.  Some of these rabbis even point to the statement in Kohelet that the day of one’s death is greater than the day of one’s birth. After all, when we are born, what have we accomplished?  Only later do we demonstrate our true worth in this world.  In truth, many Jews seem more focused on yahrzeit dates than birthdays.  But this is only one opinions and I suspect a minority opinion at that.

 

Thankfully, many other authorities, rabbis and scholars among them, either see no harm in celebrating birthdays or, more often, even  encourage us to take these special days as days of good fortune and utilize them for positive purposes.  Many sages over the years have celebrated the days of their birth and urge us to do the same.  These birthdays, they tell us, should be occasions for offering thanks to the Almighty who has given us the opportunity to complete another year of life.  They encourage us to put on new clothing, taste new fruit, and recite shehecheyanu not only for the fruit and the clothing as is customary all year long, but to include our heartfelt thanks to God who has kept us alive, preserved us, and enabled us to reach this day.

 

Various traditions arose among Jewish teachers, some not unlike those that most other people follow, while other practices seem distinctively Jewish.  We read of rabbis who saw these days as occasions to hold a siyyum, the completion of a sacred text in honor of the day.  As their birthday approached, they would study a Talmudic tractate and arrange to complete it on that day.  A siyyum always is an occasion not only for learning but for a party and a celebration.  Others urge us to use this time for reflection on the past year.  What have we accomplished?  How have we utilized our time?  How have we helped others?  How have we made the world a better place?  They call on us to review our actions.  How could we have improved ourselves?  What could we have done better?  As with any new year, it is considered a time for a din v’cheshbon, a spiritual accounting.

 

However, at the same time, we are called upon not to dwell on the past, not to obsess over past failures or mistakes, but to look to the future.  What might we accomplish in the year ahead?  What plans do we have for the future?  How can we improve ourselves, make our lives better?  We are cautioned to set realizable goals and not to make grandiose schemes that we have no likelihood of accomplishing.  Nonetheless, we should concentrate on the future even though we have no idea what the future may hold.

 

These same rabbis suggest that as part of this special day one should find ways to give tzedakah, single out causes that we want to support and provide charitable gifts in larger measure than we might do throughout the year.  Tzedakah is always a mitzvah, but as a sign of gratitude for reaching another year, they suggest we should be even more generous in our giving.  They urge that we make our birthdays days of renewal of our commitment to others, to our tradition, and to God.

 

All this is very important, very nice, but what about celebration?  Yes, they encourage that as well.  There is nothing un-Jewish about having a party and celebrating the day of our birth.  They call on us to Invite friends and family to mark the occasion, particularly a milestone birthday.  They say that one should enlist one’s associates, friends and family in one’s plans for the future.  Encourage them to be part of your vision for the days ahead.

 

Birthday cakes and joyous songs, a toast l’chayim, to life, are all truly part and parcel of the occasion and no one should object.  We all mark the passage of years.  Too many people buy into the culture of youth and do all they can to deny the inevitable approach of old age and pretend that they are younger than their actual years.  Unfortunately, some of us are challenged by illness and debility as the years pass.  We may be slowing down, finding some tasks harder than they used to be.  It is wonderful when we can celebrate with our friends and neighbors as they reach new milestones and thankfully enjoy good health and vigor even in old age. As the Psalmist says, “Baruch Adonay yom yom ya’amos lanu.” “Praise the Lord, day by day, He supports us.”  Every day is a new opportunity to enjoy life, to thank God for keeping us alive and sustaining us.  The end of a year of such days is all the more reason to give thanks and celebrate our birthdays.

 

Perhaps the participants in the Disney version of Alice in Wonderland, joining in the Mad Hatter’s tea party, had a point in celebrating “unbirthdays,” the 364 dates (this year 365) on which we were NOT born, but should celebrate life even so.  That may be the point of the birthday deniers, who feel it is sufficient if we offer thanks every day for the gift of life.  That is all included in our daily prayers.  Why make a fuss once a year?  But it is not really a fuss.  It is a milestone worth marking and setting aside as a special day.  There is nothing wrong with emphasizing the values of our tradition by celebrating and singling out one day as a special day for giving thanks..

 

As I’ve mentioned in the past, there is a list in Pirke Avot of the “ages of man” with characterizations of each stage.  When I got to be 60, I was bit concerned that I had reached “ziknah” “old age,” on this list, but I quickly discovered that some rabbis emphasized that ziknah is a term for elders who have acquired knowledge and experience in life and is not necessarily focused on advanced age. At seventy, they say, we attain seivah, “the hoary head” which is a sign of honor to be recognized by others.  The Torah calls on us to rise before the hoary head and to show honor to our elders..  Eighty is called the age of gevurah, of strength, based on the Psalmist’s characterization, that the years of our lives number 70, or by reason of strength eighty.  Hence age 80 is a symbol of strength. 

 

I was a bit concerned, however, about the statement on the age of 90. I’ve always read the passage as it generally is presented, as Lashuach, that at age 90, one is bent over.  The term ‘lashuach” can even mean beaten down, depressed, disheartened.  The root appears in the L’cha Dodi with that meaning, “mah tishtoch’chi,” “why are you downcast and why do you moan?”  However, when I looked at the commentators, a few of them suggested that one can just as easily vocalize the unpointed text of the Mishnah with the dot on the other side to make the letter “sin” rather than “shin” and to read the word as Lasuach, which has a very different meaning.  Lasuach can mean to converse, as in sicha.  At age 90, then, one is likely to have much to talk about and be able to tell many stories and recount the experiences of life.  The word Lasuach, appears in the biblical story about Isaac and Rebecca’s first meeting.  As Rebecca and Abraham’s servant approach they see Isaac out in the field and we’re told, he had gonet out Lasuach basadeh, “to converse in the field.”  The rabbis assume that he was conversing with the Almighty and out of that verse they associate the mincha, afternoon, service with this second patriarch. Ein sicha ela tefillah, they proclaim, sicha equals prayer.

 

At 90 then, we might expect a greater level of spirituality whether this manifests itself in religious expression through prayer or perhaps simply in recognizing the manifold gifts of creation and nature and appreciating all that is around us.  After all, Isaac went out into the field, out into nature, to converse. Unlike his son Jacob who is described as “yoshev ohalim” a homebody sitting in the tent, according to the rabbis engaging in study.  Isaac, went out to experience nature, to spend time in the field.  He, unlike the other patriarchs who were shepherds, had a deep connection with the earth, with the soil.  He was a cultivator of the earth.  So at age 90, we might look for one to maintain a connection to the world around them and to feel gratitude for every moment of life granted by God.

 

Yom Huledet Sameach!  A happy and joyous birthday and blessings for many more.

 

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