Birthdays

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I never really understood the point of celebrating birthdays. Sure, everyone needs a time to reflect on the accomplishments and failures of the previous year and make decisions about the year to come. But for us, that’s Rosh Hashanah not your birthday.

The Torah (Bereishis 40:20) tells us of Pharoah’s birthday celebration and on that verse the Midrash Sekhel Tov states that standard practice is to celebrate one’s birthday, but is it referring to standard Jewish practice? I don’t think so.

R. Matis Blum, in his Torah La-Da’as vol. 6 p. 260, tries to find sources for a Jewish practice of celebrating one’s birthday. He notes that the Ben Ish Hai records such a practice in two places – Ben Yehoyada, Berakhos 28a and Ben Ish Hai, year 1 Re’eh no. 17. He states that some, including his family, have the practice of treating a birthday as a personal holiday. But it seems to me that a 19th century record of such a practice lacks authority.

R. Blum also notes that the inimitable R. Moshe Kolodny showed him a newspaper clipping that describes the celebration in Jerusalem of R. Shmuel Salant’s 93rd birthday in 1909 (R. Hayim Berlin sent him a big cake).

I still don’t get it. There are certain milestones that indicate significant achievement, such as reaching the age of mitzvos (12/13), the age beyond premature death (60; cf. Mo’ed Katan 28a), old age (70; cf. Responsa Havas Ya’ir no. 70) and strength (80). I can see celebrating those. But the age of 24, for example, why celebrate that birthday? Unless you are looking for reasons to have a party. That is not how I approach life.

About Gil Student

Rabbi Gil Student is the Publisher and Editor-in-Chief of TorahMusings.com, a leading website on Orthodox Jewish scholarly subjects, and the Book Editor of the Orthodox Union’s Jewish Action magazine. He writes a popular column on issues of Jewish law and thought featured in newspapers and magazines, including The Jewish Link of New Jersey, The Jewish Echo and The Vues. In the past, he has served as the President of the small Jewish publisher Yashar Books and as the Managing Editor of OU Press. Rabbi Student recently served on the Executive Committee of the Rabbinical Council of America and currently serves as Director of the Halacha Commission of the Rabbinical Alliance of America. He also serves on the Editorial Board of Jewish Action magazine and the Board of OU Press. He has published five English books, the most recent titled Search Engine volume 2: Finding Meaning in Jewish Texts -- Jewish Leadership, and served as the American editor for Morasha Kehillat Yaakov: Essays in Honour of Chief Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks.

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