When the (Secular) New Year rolls around, two people in my house begin to get very excited, namely, Aviyah and Matan. Both of them have birthdays close to the beginning of the new year. We probably, as we have for most years of the lives of our children, have some kind of fun-centered celebration with them and a few friends (playing games, doing an art-and crafts activity, etc.), and then conclude with a most peculiar ritual. Inevitably, we will seat everyone around a table, dim the lights, and then bring out a cake covered in fiery candles (one candle per year and one to grow on), and then place the cake in front of the birthday child. After singing a well-known song (which is owned by the estate of Michael Jackson), we ask the child to make a wish and to blow out the candles, all in one breath, hopefully without adding any of their bodily fluids to said cake.
I am sure that this ritual rings very familiar to almost every reading this. The question that the kids ask (not every year, but some years) is: Why is there not a Jewish celebration of a person’s birthday? We do people say kaddish on the anniversary of a person’s death and not on their birthday? (Ok, that second question is not from the kids, but is a good question anyway.)
The only birthday mentioned in the Torah, where the phrase “Yom Huledet” appears once and one time only, is for the birthday of Pharaoh (Joseph’s Pharaoh to be precise). It is on this birthday “celebration” that Pharaoh releases his cup-bearer from prison, restoring him back to his former position, and executes the baker, restoring him into a considerably less life-life state. In this case, the birthday celebration becomes an opportunity for a king to exercise his power to mete out life and death. It may then not come as a surprise to us that the Rabbis generally thought of a birthday celebration as a non-Jewish custom, and thus did not think highly of celebrating the day of one’s birth. To further explain why, let me share a rabbinic parable.
There is a newly built ship about to set sail on a long voyage, and there are people gathered at the docks celebrating the ship’s launch. As the ship slowly leaves the shore, all the builders and family members of the crew are celebrating. However, amidst the celebration, there is one person who stands there not partaking in the celebration. After the celebration has died down a bit, someone notices the man just standing there, and asks him why he is not joining in the celebration. After all, is the building of such a fine ship and the start of a long voyage not a cause for celebration? The man replies, “Actually no. The beginning of a sea voyage is certainly a moment of note, but who knows what may happen along the way? The seas can be calm, but also stormy. A port can bring adventure, but also danger. I will save my celebration for when the ship returns to port after the journey has come to an end.”
This is why the Jewish people celebrate the life of friends and loved ones on the yahrtzeit/anniversary of their deaths, on the day when the journey has come to an end, and we can look back on the entire voyage, both the moments of joy and moments of challenge and sorrow. That said, most American Jews today, myself included, celebrate their birthdays in some way. During our weekly Shabbat Torah Service, we often hear people sharing during the good news of a milestone birthday of a relative or for themselves. But the date that we use to remember the entire life is the final day of their life, because that is the date that reveals the full journey of a person’s life.
This was not begun a piece to give another rationale why it is important to attend services at a synagogue. That said, coming to a service (be it Friday night, Saturday morning, or weekday) to remember the life of a friend or loved one in the company of a congregation is a fitting way to honor that person’s life and the impact that it had on us.
At every service we have, at least one person, if not a dozen, stands up to say kaddish for someone. We do this, not out of a morbid holding on to the past, but because we stand up to affirm the good that has come from that person’s life, from the way that their life impacted up, and how their life moved the world a little bit from the way it was to that way that it ought to be.
At the end of this month, my family will be celebrating one more complete trip around the sun for both Aviyah and Matan, but we all know that, God willing, their journeys are far from over.