Birthdays – Jewish Customs

From: Robert

Dear Rabbi,

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

Dear Robert,

In the first installment, we saw that according to Torah sources, birthdays generally can, and perhaps should, be commemorated and celebrated. In this installment, I’ll explore whether certain birthdays are more important than others, and what may be uniquely Jewish ways to observe birthdays.

Based on the aforementioned special mazal influence which is operative on a person’s birthday, the great Sephardic Chacham, Rabbi Chaim Palaggi writes that one should give extra tzedaka on his birthday because the increased mazal of the day will increase the impact of good deeds on his personality and character (Tzedakah L’chaim). The Arvei Nachal (Parshat Shemini) writes that when a person focuses his efforts on a particular positive character trait on his birthday, G‑d provides extra help to perpetuate that effort (Sefer Minhag Yisrael Torah p. 264).

Several sources mention various birthdays of special significance. The Chatam Sofer (Torat Moshe, Parshat Vayera) claims that Avraham made an annual celebration for Isaac on the anniversary of his brit milah. In fact, the Ben Ish Chai (Re’eh 17) composed a special prayer for this occasion.

The 12th and 13th birthday of a girl or boy, respectively, marking the commencement of mitzvah observance, are also singled out for celebration. True, regarding the bat mitzvah, Rav Moshe Feinstein states that it is merely a glorified birthday party and thus only a seudat reshut (Iggrot Moshe, O. Ch. 1:104). However, Rav Ovadia Yosef, in addressing this comment of Rav Feinstein, writes that a bat mitzvah is indeed a special occasion where we celebrate a person’s obligation in mitzvot. Furthermore, he writes that even if it were nothing more than a birthday party, it would still be a seudat mitzvah if words of Torah are recited (Yabia Omer, O. Ch. 6:29).

The Talmud (Moed Katan 28a) relates that the Sage Rav Yosef made a celebration upon attaining the age of sixty because he “outlived” the age of karet. Since this indicates that a 60th birthday is a cause for celebration, the Kaf HaChaim writes that one should recite the she’hechiyanu blessing on a new fruit in honor of this milestone birthday. Similarly, Chavot Yair (Responsa 70) writes that one should make a special meal and recite she’hechiyanu on his 70th birthday since he has reached what the Talmudic Sages consider to be a full life. Indeed, it is told of Rav Yakov Yosef Herman ztz”l that he celebrated turning 70 for this reason.

The Ben Ish Chai (Re’eh 17) records the custom to celebrate a birthday every year, accompanied by Torah learning and mitzvah observance, and comments that it is a good custom that he followed in his own family. Rav Moshe Feinstein reportedly insisted that each of his grandchildren call him on his birthday to wish him well. Ginzei Yosef (4) writes that it is a good custom to recite a she’hechiyanu over a new fruit or a new garment on all of one’s birthdays. Rav Ovadia Yosef also notes that on any of one’s birthdays it is appropriate to have a special meal accompanied by words of Torah, and that such a meal would be a seudat mitzvah (Yabia Omer, O. Ch. 6:29).

The K’tav Sofer considered one’s birthday to be a time for strengthening Torah learning and for personal reflection. On his 50th birthday, he celebrated by making a public siyum on Tractate Pesachim and “thanking G‑d for bringing me to this point in my life, and for giving me the strength to learn and teach Torah” (Yoreh Deah 148). On his 54th birthday, a student found him despondent because, as he explained, he then began to “judge” himself (the Hebrew word for “judge”, dan, has a gematria of 54), and felt that he had not accomplished what he should have at that point in life (Kuntrus Ohel Leah, printed at the beginning of K’tav Sofer on the Torah).

Rav Shemuel Salant, in honor of his 70th and 80th birthdays, donated the number of coins corresponding to his age to tzedakah (Sefer Hakatan v’Hilchotav, ch. 84). A birthday is also a special opportunity to respect others and show them that they are appreciated. In this light, the Tiferet Yisrael insisted that his children write notes of mazal tov to each other on their birthdays (Aparkasta d’Anya 123). The modern-day version of this would be to send a birthday card and thereby fulfill the mitzvah of “loving others as oneself”.

Sources:

  • A Jewish Perspective on Birthdays, Rabbi Aryeh Lebowitz
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