At the end of this week’s parasha, Vayeshev, we read that it was “Pharaoh’s birthday” (Genesis 40:20). This is the only place in the Torah that explicitly mentions a birthday, which leads to the question: are birthday celebrations kosher? Where did birthday parties come from, and what is so special about the day of birth anyway?
A Brief History of Birthdays
Most scholars agree that the earliest known historical reference to a birthday is actually in this week’s parasha. There is no older historical or archaeological document (as of yet) that suggests any birthday celebrations. By the Roman era, celebrating the birthday of the emperor was a common practice, and is mentioned in the Mishnah (Avodah Zarah 1:3). The Sages say that it is forbidden to celebrate the day of birth, the day of coronation, or the day of death of a king, since these were idolatrous festivals.
In ancient Egypt, the day a Pharaoh was coronated with considered his true “birth”—the day he transformed into a god, as the pharaohs themselves were worshipped as deities. Therefore, when the parasha mentions Pharaoh’s birthday, it is probably talking about his coronation day, and is certainly referring to an idolatrous festival. The Roman emperors, too, considered themselves demi-gods of a sort, and so participating in their birthday celebrations was forbidden.
Having said that, is it permissible to celebrate the birthday of a regular person? Is a Jew allowed to celebrate his own birthday? Surely, there is no idolatry involved. One can argue that if we carefully commemorate the day of death (yahrzeit and hillula), why should it be forbidden to commemorate the day of birth? Indeed, our Sages speak at great length about the significance of the date and time of one’s birth.
We read, for example, that when Haman cast lots to determine when he should annihilate the Jews, and it came out in the month of Adar, he rejoiced because it was the month that Moses died (Megillah 13b). The Talmud says what he didn’t know is that it was also the month that Moses was born. Although the Talmud has it that Moses died on the seventh of Adar and was born on the sixth, other sources say he was born and died on the seventh, for the righteous tend to die on the same day they were born. In that case, Moses would have been circumcised on the 14th of Adar, and it is in the merit of his circumcision that Jews centuries later would be saved on the 14th of Adar during Purim. (Others hold that Moses was actually born circumcised.)
Elsewhere (Shabbat 156a), the Talmud tells us that the time in which a person is born has a great effect on the person’s character. For example, one born on a Sunday will be either very good or very bad, since both light and darkness were created on this day. A person born on a Tuesday is more likely to become rich, but also more likely to be promiscuous, while one born on a Wednesday has the ability to attain great wisdom, since on this day the luminaries were created. Meanwhile, a person born under the influence of Jupiter (called Tzedek in Hebrew) is more likely to be righteous (tzadkan or tzadik), while a person born under the influence of Mars—that ominous red planet—is more likely to be a spiller of blood or a thief. To prevent this, the Sages say a child born under Mars should be geared towards a profession that will allow them to spill blood in a “kosher” way, such as being a shochet or mohel, and in so doing their negative predisposition could be channeled towards something positive.
That long and intriguing passage in the Talmud concludes with a debate on whether Israel is even subject to such astrological influences or not. Some held that Israel is subject to mazalot, “constellations”, but the majority concludes that ain mazal l’Israel, no constellation has power over Israel. The Sages illustrate this with a description of Abraham’s discussion with God. Abraham argued that he already predicted his own future based on the stars and saw that he wouldn’t bear any children. God told him to “leave your astrology behind, sh’ain mazal l’Israel.” Abraham, of course, went on to have many children.
The conclusion of later authorities is that, while astrological influences are real, Israel has the ability to overcome them. The Vilna Gaon comments on this Talmudic passage that ultimately each person still has free will, and can work on themselves to overcome their predispositions, and make the right choices. (For more on this topic, see “Should Jews Believe in Astrology?”)
Milestones and Spiritual Powers
To return to our original Mishnah, it concludes by stating that if a non-Jew throws a birthday party, it may be okay to participate, as “all depends on that particular day and that particular person”. The Sages permit a Jew to attend the birthday party of a worthy non-Jew, as long as no idolatry or immorality will be at that event. (This confirms the belief among historians that the ancient Romans were the first to hold birthday celebrations for common people, too.) There is no mention of a prohibition for a Jew to celebrate his or her own birthday. On the contrary, we see throughout our holy texts that certain milestone birthdays were indeed commemorated.
The earliest reference is probably Abraham’s big party when Isaac was weaned: “And the child grew and was weaned, and Abraham made a great feast on the day that Isaac was weaned.” (Genesis 21:8) The Sages say this was either when Isaac turned two or three years old. The Mishnah (Avot 5:21) adds various other milestone ages:
At five years of age [one is ready for the] study of Scripture. At ten, the study of Mishnah. At thirteen, one is bound by the commandments. At fifteen, to study Talmud. At eighteen, marriage. At twenty-four, pursuit [of a livelihood]. At thirty, the peak of strength. At forty, wisdom. At fifty, one is able to give counsel. At sixty, old age. At seventy, fullness of years. At eighty, the age of “strength” [or restraint]; At ninety, a “bent body”. At one hundred, as if one is dead and gone, and nullified from this world.
On that last point, the Lubavitcher Rebbe explained that when a person turns 100, it does not mean they are literally like a corpse and have no life left to live. This can’t be true, for Abraham had a child at this age, and Moses was 120 at his death, yet “his eye was not dim, nor his vigour abated” (Deuteronomy 34:7). Rather, the Rebbe explained from a mystical perspective that when one reaches 100, it is as if their yetzer hara (or “evil inclination”) is dead, and they are now more like an angel that is “out of this world” (Likkutei Sichos I, Vayera). Similarly, the Vilna Gaon comments on this statement by simply bringing a verse from Isaiah (65:20), that in the Messianic age “the youngest shall die a hundred years old, while the sinner who is a hundred years old shall be accursed.” The righteous may still feel youthful at a hundred, while a sinner will be ill and hopeless.
Based on the teachings above, it has become customary to make a large celebration when a child turns three, and when a child is bar or bat mitzvah. One might argue that perhaps we should hold similar celebrations at the other milestone ages mentioned in the Mishnah. For a grown adult, it might be too much to make a big deal out of every single birthday, but certainly those special milestone years are worth commemorating.
Those milestones represent specific spiritual changes within the soul and destiny of a human being. We find that many of our ancient leaders experienced tremendous events in those years. For example, Joseph became the viceroy of Egypt when he was 30, and David became the king of Israel at that same age (thirty being the time one attains peak “strength” according to the Mishnah). Meanwhile, Rabbi Akiva and Hillel the Elder both became scholars at age 40 (that being the age one attains “understanding”).
Finally, we see that on every birthday a person has certain spiritual channels opened up for them. One place that illustrates this is the Talmud Yerushalmi (Rosh Hashanah 17b), where we read how Amalek would choose soldiers based on their birthdays. The Amalekite army only sent soldiers to battle if it was their birthday on that day, for “one does not fall quickly on his birthday”. This is why the Amalekite army was so strong when they came out to fight the Israelites following the Exodus. Recall that Moses raised up his hands to the Heavens during the battle, and the Torah states that as long as his stands were up, the Israelites would win, but if his arms weakened, the tide would turn in favour of the Amalekites (Exodus 17:11). What was going on? Amazingly, the Talmud explains that what Moses did was “mix up the constellations” so that the Amalekite soldiers would no longer have their birthday mazal assisting them! Moses was spiritually “pulling apart” the Heavenly constellations with his bare hands.
We can learn from this that there is definitely a special “flow” coming down to a person on their birthday. Fittingly, we wish a person mazal tov, which literally means “good flow”. (The word mazal shares a root with nozel, “liquid”.) Therefore, a birthday is a great time to receive blessings, and to bless others. It is a particularly auspicious time for self-reflection and introspection. The Ketav Sofer (Rabbi Avraham Samuel Wolf Schreiber, 1815-1871, son of the Chatam Sofer) would actually lock himself up in a room on his birthday and spend the time in thought and meditation. The Lubavitcher Rebbe wrote in HaYom Yom (for the entry on his own birthday, Nissan 11) that “On one’s birthday, a person should meditate, recall and contemplate their past, and correct and repent that which requires correction and repentance.”
There is an old saying attributed to Rebbe Nachman of Breslov (1772-1810) that “The day you were born is the day that God decided the world couldn’t exist without you.” One should take the time on their birthday to seriously think about this. How am I fulfilling my God-given mission in this world? How will this year be better than last year? As we’ve seen, on one’s birthday there is a special “flow” coming in to give the person a spiritual boost and help to make their new year better. Perhaps this is where the idea of a “birthday wish” comes from. There is a force of potential coming from Above on a person’s birthday to assist them in realizing their wishes. So, let’s make the most of our birthdays, and ensure on that day that the year ahead will be even better than the last.