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Your Jewish birthday has dual significance: a) According to Jewish tradition, your mazal (good fortune) is dominant on your birthday. b) As a nation we celebrate those dates when special events that affected our destiny occurred, a.k.a. holidays. As individuals we celebrate those dates that have personal significance—and what is more significant than your birth? It is when the Creator said, "Here, I am giving you a body, a soul, and a divine mission. I have absolute trust in your ability to pull through for Me."
In 1988, the Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, of righteous memory, inaugurated a "Jewish Birthday Campaign." He asked that we all utilize this most special day of our lives to its utmost. A day to recommit to the mission that G‑d entrusted to us—bettering and sanctifying ourselves and the world around us.
What’s so great about a birthday? Wasn’t it more comfy inside the womb?
But the day you were born was the day you became your very own person—no longer just a watermelon in your mommy’s tummy. That’s why it’s a day to ponder: What have I accomplished by being here? Did the world change because I left that womb?
So, when the Hebrew calendar comes back around to that wonderful day you were born, try some of these great customs:
- Find an enclave in time and space to think about the past year: what went right, what went not-so-right and what can be fixed.
- Take your life to a new level with a new mitzvah.
- Give some extra charity today. Best just before the morning and afternoon prayers. If your birthday falls on Shabbat or a Jewish holiday, then give before the day begins and after it’s out.
- Spend more time on your prayers. Say some extra Psalms. (Yes, Psalms are Jewish—King David wrote them.) Your mazel shines extra strong on your birthday, so ask for the right things.
- Every year of your life has a corresponding Psalm. It’s your age + 1. Learn it today, and say it each day for the coming year.
- Add to your Torah study time. Share whatever you learn with friends.
- Farbreng. That’s when friends sit together, make l’chaim and encourage each other to be better Jews. It’s also a great way to publicly thank your Creator for creating your life.
- Eat a new seasonal fruit on your birthday, just so you can say theShehecheyanu blessing, thanking G‑d for granting you life.
- For men: Get an aliyah on the Shabbat before your birthday. If the Torah is read on your birthday, get an aliyah on that day too.
First and foremost, a birthday is a day to feel grateful. It's a day for parents to be grateful to G‑d for the precious gift He granted them. A day for the Jewish nation to be grateful for the addition of a new member of the nation-family. And, of course, it is a day for the birthday celebrant to express gratitude to G‑d for the gift of life.
This is the day when you were given the mandate to change the world. The day when G‑d entrusted you with the mission to challenge a world that is hostile to spirituality and transform it into G‑d's private sanctum. And in accomplishing this goal, you, too, were given the ability to achieve incredible spiritual heights—heights unimaginable to the soul before it was dispatched from its lofty heavenly abode to inhabit a physical body.
Celebrating a birthday is thus also a demonstration of confidence. Confidence that you are and will continue to be worthy of G‑d's trust. No matter the obstacles, you will persevere and live up to G‑d's expectations of you.
This day takes on additional significance if you are above the age of bar or bat mitzvah. The word "mitzvah" means commandments, but is also related to the word "tzaveta," which means "connection." Fulfilling G‑d's commandments is the vehicle through which we connect to G‑d. Until bar and bat mitzvah, mitzvot are primarily an educational experience—the commandment element kicking in upon adulthood. That means greater responsibility, but an infinitely greater connection, too. Your birthday is also the anniversary of that momentous occasion. Another reason to be grateful...
Time is like a spiral. Annually, on the anniversary of any momentous event, we have the ability to tap into the same spiritual energy that originally caused that event (hence the concept of Jewish holidays).
When you were born, G‑d invested within you a soul abounding with talents and qualities. Your mazel was shining and at full strength. That same energy is present once again every year on the anniversary of that date. On this day you have the ability to accomplish that which would perhaps be very difficult on another day.
Rosh Hashanah is so special because it is the birthday of humankind—it is the day when Adam and Eve were created. Your birthday is your personal Rosh Hashanah—utilize it to its utmost!
The First Birthday
The first individual to celebrate a birthday was Adam. Well, considering that he wasn't "born," the stickler will argue that he didn't really have a "birthday"; but nonetheless, his first day on earth was quite eventful.
Adam was created on the first Friday, the sixth day of creation, after G‑d finished setting the cosmic birthday table with the heavens and earth; sun and moon; plants and trees; beasts, foul and fish. Shortly after Adam's creation, still on the same Friday, G‑d formed and breathed life into Eve.
Though there is no record of them partaking of a birthday cake, they celebrated by partaking of another delicacy—the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge. The results were considerably worse than a bad stomach ache.
We celebrate the birthdays of Adam and Eve every year. Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, isn't observed on the day when the world was created, but six days later, on the anniversary of the creation of Adam and Eve. That is the day when everything truly began; the day when the Creator's vision of dwelling in a human-crafted home went into motion.
An Intimidating Guest
"And Abraham made a great feast on the day that Isaac was weaned" (Genesis 21:8).
According to one opinion expressed in the Midrash, this feast celebrated Isaac's thirteenth birthday; the day when he was "weaned" from childhood and assumed the responsibilities of a Jewish adult. According to another opinion, this feast occurred on his second birthday. Either way, it was a birthday celebration.
According to tradition, Isaac was born on Passover. As such, the "great feast" must have featured matzah and kosher for Passover cuisine. But the cuisine wasn't the main attraction—it was the distinguished guest list that included all the who's who of the time.
One of the VIPs was Og, the king of Bashan, a gargantuan man with superhuman strength. He condescendingly commented: "Why is everyone fussing over this child? With my pinky I can end his life!"
G‑d wasn't too pleased with this hubris. "Just wait. You will live to see hundreds of thousands of this boy's descendants. In fact, your end will be at their hands..."
Israelite armies.And that's precisely what happened—years later when he was vanquished by the Moses-led
A "Memorable" Birthday Party
The first scriptural reference to a birthday party is in the Book of Genesis. Pharaoh hosted a grand birthday party for all his ministers. During the course of the party he remembered two of his chamberlains, his chief butler and baker, whom he had incarcerated because of their negligence while on duty. Exactly as a Hebrew youth, Joseph, had foretold three days earlier, Pharaoh pardoned the butler and restored him to his post. The baker, on the other hand, was sent to the gallows.
Until 120 Years Old... Really!
A common Jewish birthday wish is, "May you live until 120." In the Torah we find a personality who lived until 120—on the nose. We're talking about Moses, the greatest prophet of all time, who was born and passed away on the same date—the 7th of Adar.
Centuries later, when Haman wished to exterminate the Jews, he threw a lottery to determine the most propitious month to implement his nefarious plan. Haman was elated when the lottery chose the month of Adar, "this is the month when Moses, the Jews' savior, died!"
But Haman didn't know that Adar is also the month when Moses was born. And the auspiciousness of a birthday offsets any negative qualities associated with death. The rest is history...
A Mournful but Ultimately Joyous Birthday
9th of Av, the date when – among other tragedies – both holy temples were destroyed, leading to our nation's exile from the Holy Land. Nevertheless, our sages tell us that despite the sadness and pain, this is the birthday of Moshiach, our future redeemer:The saddest day on the Jewish calendar is the
"On the day that the Holy Temple was destroyed, a Jew was plowing his field when his cow suddenly called out. An Arab was passing by and heard the low of the cow. Said the Arab: 'Jew, Jew! Unyoke your cow, free the stake of your plow, for your Holy Temple has now been destroyed.' The cow then lowed a second time. Said the Arab: 'Jew, Jew! Yoke your cow, reset the stake of your plow, for the Redeemer has now been born...'"
The redeemer, and with him the potential for redemption, was born the moment after the destruction.