Happy birthday? How grown are you now?
“Happy birthday to you…” is a jingle we’ve all grown up on. But what’s the Jewish view of birthdays? Is it a day deserving of celebration? How should we be marking our birthdays?
The only mention of a birthday in the Torah is Pharaoh’s birthday. Pharaoh used his birthday to pass judgment on the members of his court, punishing the baker and reinstating the butler. For this reason, many argue that birthdays aren’t a Jewish concept.
However, we do find a number of instances in the Gemara that mention the power of a birthday. The Mishkan was completed on the 25th of Kislev, but Hashem waited to inaugurate it in the month of Nissan, the month Yitzchak Avinu was born, to connect these two occasions.
The Gemara in Megillah teaches that Haman was overjoyed his lottery fell out on Adar, the month that Moshe Rabbeinu died, thinking this would be a propitious month to carry out his evil plan. The Gemara adds that Haman wasn’t aware that Moshe Rabbeinu was also born on that day. Rashi explains that Moshe Rabbeinu’s birthday was a source of protection for the people. The Gemara (Kiddushin 38) explains that HaKadosh Baruch Hu “memalei shenoseihem shel tzaddikim miyom l’yom — fills the years of tzaddikim from day to day,” and that many tzaddikim die on the day they were born. Shavuos is both the birthday and yahrtzeit of Dovid Hamelech.
In Rav Tzaddok HaKohein’s Kuntres Divrei Chalomos, he notes that a person’s mazel is stronger on his birthday. The Yerushalmi (Rosh Hashanah 3:8) mentions that Amalek would send soldiers to the front lines on their birthdays, since their mazel was stronger.
Rav Dovid Hirsch Frankel, in Korban Ha’eidah, adds that this stronger mazel affords a person an added dimension of protection. Rav Alter Mordechai Shmuel Mandelbaum, in Mizmor L’sodah, explains that the increase of mazel influences a person’s chiyus, vitality, for the whole year.
The Hebrew date of a person’s birthday is clearly a powerful time. (Note, some mark the anniversary of their bris milah as the day for celebration.) Rav Gavriel Tzinner, in Nitei Gavriel, offers insights on how to capitalize this auspicious time. His two primary focuses are introspection and tefillah. While Pharaoh used the day to judge others, we should use the day for personal reflection.
Just as Rosh Hashanah is the birthday of mankind, our individual birthdays are a mini-Rosh Hashanah for us. It’s a time to evaluate how we spent the past year, think about where we’ve stagnated, and what we need to improve. Similar to Rosh Hashanah, when one takes on a small kabbalah, a birthday is a good time to add something small so we can be considered a “holech,” a person continuously growing.
A birthday is also an opportune time for intense tefillah. We should daven with greater kavanah, focusing on the brachah of asher yatzar and Elokai neshamah, thanking Hashem for the body and soul He created on this day. Some have the custom to say the entire sefer Tehillim.
A person’s birthday is auspicious for making requests from Hashem and having Him respond, based upon the consecutive pesukim in Tehillim perek beis: “Ani hayom yelideticha — on this day I birthed you” and “She’al mimeni v’etnah… — Ask of Me and I will give…” It’s recommended to recite the second perek three times and then make one’s requests.
Rav Nosson Meir Wachtfogel ztz”l told his talmidim to say chapters 13 and 103 on their birthdays. There’s also a custom to say the perek Tehillim of the year you’re entering; those who say a perek of Tehillim a day according to their age will recite that perek the entire year. (For example, on your 56th birthday, you say perek 57.) In Eretz Yisrael, many go to the Kosel or the graves of tzaddikim to daven for the Jewish People.
Some have the custom to stay awake all night and learn Torah. This is the prevalent custom for boys turning 20 years old, who are now punishable on a higher level. Some have the custom to learn the 23rd idea in the Ohr HaChayim Hakadosh’s commentary on the first pasuk in parshas Bechukosai.
Rav Chaim Palagi, in his sefer Tzedakah L’Chaim, notes that it’s a day for giving increased tzedakah, and this has a positive effect on one’s personality. Some have the custom to give an amount of tzedakah commensurate with their age before davening Shacharis and Minchah.
In general, it’s good to increase your acts of chesed on this day. This is based on the Gemara (Eiruvin 13b) that discusses whether it was better or not that man was created, and the Gemara’s conclusion that since man was created, he should involve himself in Torah and good deeds. Arvei Nachal adds that a person who works on a particular middah on this day will be graced with added siyata d’Shmaya.
Ginzei Yosef suggests we eat a new fruit or wear a new garment that would necessitate the blessing of shecheyanu, and have the birthday in mind as well.
Since this is a day of higher kochos, a person has the ability to give brachos on this day. It’s also a time for a person to receive brachos as well. The appropriate brachah to give to the birthday boy or girl is they should have “orech yamim and shenos chayim,” rather than the standard “mazel tov.”
You can celebrate this day with friends and family in a modest way, with divrei Torah and hoda’ah to Hashem. Rav Steinman ztz”l felt that publicly announcing your birthday invited ayin hara.
“Mah ashiv laHashem, kol tagmulahi alai,” is a song suited to the day as an expression of thanks to Hashem. Blowing out candles on a cake is a non-Jewish practice and shouldn’t be followed. Some give presents to their family members as a reflection of their gratefulness for the gifts Hashem has bequeathed upon them.
Parents should teach their children to look at their birthdays as a time of reflection and gratitude. They should encourage their children to take on something small. For example, a child of five or six could start saying the brachah of asher yatzar, feeling it as a privilege now that they’re so big! Parents could use their child’s birthday as a time to refocus their efforts on this child’s chinuch. Many have the custom to say a perek Tehillim for their child for the year they’re entering as well.
Birthdays to Remember
The three auspicious birthdays in adulthood are 20, 60, and 70. At 20 one becomes punishable by Hashem. Many people are noheig to fast on their 20th birthday.
Sixty celebrates that you’ve passed the age of kareis. There are those who say, without Sheim Hashem, “Baruch shepatrani mei’onesh kareis shel shanim — blessed is the One Who has exempted me from the punishment of kareis in years.” Many make a seudas mitzvah, and some finish a masechta so they can make it a seudas mitzvah.
Seventy is a time of awakening and refocusing all one’s efforts to the service of Hashem, now that you’ve reached the age of “ziknah.” These birthdays are equally applicable to men and women.
Even those who argue that Pharaoh is the only birthday mentioned in the Torah, thus it isn’t a Jewish practice, will acknowledge that Yosef Hatzaddik’s salvation came from Pharaoh’s birthday. The key is to utilize this day to increase your avodas Hashem and see glimmers of inner redemption in your life.
(Originally featured in Family First, Issue 765)
Oops! We could not locate your form.