The Jewish Attitude Towards Birthdays (This section is based on Alexander Kohut, Sefer Arukh Hashalem, Vol. 2, Vienna-New York, 1878 ff., pp. 322-323; Samuel Krauss, Griechische und lateinische Lehnworter etc., Vol. 2, Berlin, 1899, p. 180; Jewish Encyclopedia, Vol. 3, pp. 221-222, s.v. Birthday; Otzar Yisrael , Vol. 5, p. 112, s.v. Yom Huledet ; Samuel Krauss, Parass V’romi Batalmud Uvamidrashim , Jerusalem, 1948, pp. 72-73; H. J. Zimmels, Ashkenazim and Sephardim , London, 1958, pp. 165-166; Chanokh Albeck, Shishah Sidrei Mishnah , Vol. 4, Jerusalem-Tel Aviv, 1959, pp. 325, 487; Emil Schurer, The History of the Jewish People in the Age of Jesus Christ , Revised English Edition, Volume I, Edinburgh, 1973, pp. 346-348 in note 26; S. D. Goitein, A Mediterranean Society , Vol. V, Berkeley etc., 1988, pp. 27-28; Rabbi Murray Stadtmauer, My Father’s Century , Bayside, New York, 1999, pp. 70-72; Yisrael Ta-Shema, Zion 67/1 (5762), pp. 19-24; Ivan Marcus, The Jewish Life Cycle , Seattle and London, 2004, pp. 39-41).
Jews, traditionally, do not celebrate birthdays. In the Biblical and Second Temple periods, only kings – especially non-Jewish kings – celebrated birthdays.
The only biblical reference to a birthday celebration is found in Genesis (40:20-21) regarding Pharaoh:
On the third day – his birthday – Pharaoh made a banquet for all his officials, and he singled out his chief cupbearer and his chief baker from among his officials. He restored the chief cupbearer to his cup bearing, and he placed the cup in Pharaoh’s hand; but the chief baker he impaled – just as Joseph had interpreted to them. (Cf. Wilkinson, Ancient Egyptians , Vol. 3, p. 368, quoted in James Hastings, ed., Encyclopedia of Religion and Ethics , Vol. 2, Edinburgh and New York, 1909, p. 665).
The New Testament (Mark 6:21ff; cf. Mathew 14:6 ff.) tells the story of King Herod Antipas’s birthday celebration in the days of Jesus:
Herod for his birthday made a feast for his lords and military commanders and the magnates of Galilee. And his daughter Herodias came in, danced and pleased Herod and his guests. The king said to the girl: “Ask of me whatever you want and I will give it to you. up to half my kingdom”. So she went out and said to her mother: “What shall I ask for?” and she said: “The head of John the Baptist”. (Mark 6:21-24, according to Joel Marcus, Mark 1-8 , The Anchor Bible, New York etc., 2000, p. 392).
Josephus writes about the birthday of King Agrippa I, Herod’s grandson, who reigned from 41-44 c.e. King Agrippa quarreled with his general Silas, sent him to his homeland and had him imprisoned. After a while, his anger abated:
In consequence, when he was celebrating his birthday and all his subjects were participating in the joyous festivities, he recalled Silas at a moment’s notice to share his table. (Josephus, Jewish Antiquities 19, 7, 1, parag. 317-325, translated by Louis Feldman, Volume 9, London and Cambridge, Mass., 1965, pp. 363-367. Regarding this episode, see Daniel Schwartz, Agrippa I: The Last King of Judaea , Jerusalem, 1987, pp. 41, 146 (Hebrew)).
Thus we see that in ancient times a king celebrated his birthday, as did his subjects. On that day, the king would reward his friends and punish his enemies.
Indeed, the Sages were well aware that Greek and Roman kings celebrated their birthdays with great fanfare. In rabbinic literature, there is frequent reference to the yom genusia/genesia or birthday of the king, which the Sages considered an idolatrous practice. (Regarding yom genusia, see Kohut, Krauss, Jewish Encyclopedia, Otzar Yisrael, Krauss, Albeck, and Schurer (above, note 1)).
- D. Goitein, one of the leading experts on the Cairo Genizah, notes that at certain periods birthday celebrations were held for the Fatamid caliphs. Yet Goitein did not find any reference in the vast Genizah corpus to good wishes for a birthday celebration, even though Jews did record the exact date when a child was born according to the Jewish and Muslim calendars. He thinks that Jews avoided celebrating birthdays because “numbers were ominous, attracting the evil eye”. (See Goitein (above, note 1)).
Even though Jews as a rule do not seem to have celebrated birthdays, we do find a few references to birthday celebrations, especially of significant birthdays such as 60, 70 and 80.
The tractate of Moed Kattan (28a) says that a person who reaches the age of 60 has passed the age of karet , of being “cut off”, which is a common penalty mentioned in the Torah (Genesis 17:14; Exodus 12:15, 19; 31:14 and frequently). Therefore, Rav Yosef (Babylon, ca. 300) celebrated his 60 th birthday, saying “I have passed the age of karet !”. (Regarding this topic, see Yerushalmi Bikkurim 2:1, fol. 64c-d. Also cf. the Chinese who celebrated the 61 st birthday – Hastings (above, note 2)).
Rabbi Menachem be Shlomo (Italy, 12 th century) refers to our topic in his Midrash Sekhel Tov to the passage in Genesis 40:20 quoted above: “Most people like their birthday.and rejoice on it and make a party”.
Rabbi Yozl of Hoechstadt (15 th century) relates that his beloved teacher Rabbi Yisrael Isserlein (Austria, 1390-1460) made a siyyum to celebrate the completion of a tractate of Talmud on his sixtieth birthday “in order to also absolve him from the banquet which he was supposed to make on his sixtieth birthday” ( Leket Yosher , Part II, Berlin, 1904, p. 40).
Rabbi Yair Hayyim Bachrach (Germany, died 1702), refers to our topic in a lengthy responsum regarding se’udot mitzvah (mitzvah feasts) (No. 71):
“.or a feast for a seventy-year-old. There is doubt even if the seventy-year-old blesses the sheheheyanu blessing” whether this is a se’udat mitzvah, and therefore one should deliver a sermon to ensure that it is a seudat mitzvah.
Rabbi Yosef Hayyim of Baghdad (d. 1909) relates three different customs related to our topic. He says that a person who reaches the age of 60 or 70 should recite sheheheyanu over a new garment or a new fruit but also intend that the blessing refer to his birthday. He adds that some people celebrate every birthday as a festival “and this is a good sign and this is the custom in our home”. He also says that some make a feast every year on the anniversary of their brit “and this is a nice custom” which he adopted by reciting a special prayer every year on the anniversary of his brit. ( Rabbi Yosef Hayyim of Baghdad, Ben Ish Hai , Shanah Rishonah , Jerusalem, 1985, Re’ey , parag. 9, 17, pp. 346, 348-349).
In our own day, Rabbi Murray Stadtmauer relates that his father Simchah Asher Stadtmauer (1899-1997), who was born and raised in Eastern Europe, would not celebrate his birthday, saying: “Jews in the old country did not have birthdays”. Rabbi Stadtmauer tried to convince his father for years – to no avail.
But not long thereafter, I came upon a short biography of [the] Chofets Chayyim, who died in 1933 at the age of ninety-six. As I scanned the book, I read an account describing how, after his eightieth year, Chofets Chayyim began to hold a se’udat mitzvah. each year on his birthday!
Asked by his disciples to explain, Chofets Chayyim said: “The Tehillim [Book of Psalms] promises us a life of seventy years or, at most, eighty years (Psalms 90:10). So if you live beyond eighty, it is a special gift of God. For such a gift, one should give thanks each year”.
Excitedly, I rushed to see my father and told him this story, concluding with a challenge: “Dad, are you a greater tzaddik than the Chofets Chayyim?”
“Of course not.”
“Then let’s celebrate your next birthday with a se’udas mitzvah.” Dad was then close to ninety-three.
“Okay,” he smiled, “but you owe me thirteen birthdays.” (Stadtmaur (above, note 1), pp. 70-71).
Thus we see that there is precedent in our tradition for celebrating a birthday, especially if one adds a dvar torah!
- II) “At Fifty for Counsel”
There are two passages in rabbinic literature which emphasize the importance of some specific ages or milestones in life.
The first is in Kohelet Rabbah (to Kohelet 1:2, ed. Vilna, fols. 1c-1d):
Rabbi Shemuel bar Rav Yitzhak taught in the name of Rabbi Shimon ben Elazar: The seven “vanities” ( havalim ) mentioned by Kohelet correspond to the seven worlds which a person sees. (For the seven ages of man, cf. Shakespeare, As You Like It , Act II, Scene 7).
A one-year-old is like a king in a carriage – all kiss him and hug him.
A two-and-three-year-old is like a pig, which puts its hands in the gutters.
A ten-year-old skips like a kid.
A twenty-year-old neighs like a horse, adorning himself and looking for a wife.
When he marries, he is like a donkey.
When he has children he is brazen like a dog to bring them bread and food.
When he grows old, he is like a monkey.
A similar, though much more famous list, appears in a beraita appended to the fifth chapter of Pirkey Avot: (This beraita is missing in many manuscripts and was unknown to many rishonim (early authorities). See Shimon Sharvit, Massekhet Avot L’doroteha , Jerusalem, 2004, pp. 213-222).
He used to say:
At five – [one is fit] for Bible.
At ten – for Mishnah,
At thirteen – for mitzvot
At fifteen – for Talmud
At eighteen – for marriage
At twenty – for pursuing
At thirty – for strength
At forty – for wisdom
At fifty – for counsel
At sixty – for old age
At seventy – for gray hairs
At eighty – for heroism ( gevurot )
At ninety – to bend over
At one hundred – it is as if he died and passed away from the world.
Much has been written about every item in this list. Indeed, Rabbi Abraham ibn Ezra (1092-1167) composed an entire liturgical poem Ben Adamah based on this Mishnah, (Y. Levine, ed., Shirey Hakodesh Shel Avraham ibn Ezra , Vol. 2, Jerusalem, 1980, pp. 542-545. It is also quoted by the Abarbanel in his commentary to Avot 5:21 – see below). which is recited by Syrian Jews on Yom Kippur eve, after the evening service. (Hayyim Sabato, K’afapey Shahar , Jerusalem, 2005, pp. 116-118). We shall zero in on “fifty for counsel”, which is what interests me this year.
The Hebrew says “ben hamishim l’eitzah “.” Eitzah “is a common word in biblical and rabbinic Hebrew which means “counsel” or “advice”. (Eliezer Ben-Yehudah, Milon etc. Vol. 9, Jerusalem, 1931, s.v. Eitzah , pp. 4636-4638). The Second Book of Samuel, Chapters 15-17, tells a long story about “atzat Ahitofel “, the counsel or advice of Ahitofel which was not followed. “For Torah shall not fail from the kohen , nor eitzah (counsel) from the wise, nor oracle from the prophet” (Jeremiah 18:18). “Many are the thoughts in the mind of man, but the advice ( eitzah ) of God shall stand” (Proverbs 19:21). “When Rabbi Joshua died, good advice (eitzot tovot ) and good thoughts departed from Israel” ( Yerushalmi Sotah 9:17, fol. 24c).
But why is fifty the age of advice or counsel? Rashi and many other commentators to Pirkey Avot refer to a passage about the Levites:
We have learned from the Levites, about whom it is said (Numbers 8:25): “but at the age of fifty they shall retire from the work force and shall serve no more”. But what shall he do? “He shall assist his brothers” (v. 26) with the eitzah (advice) he gives them. (Rashi to Avot , Chapter 5 in Peirushei Rishonim L’massekhet Avot , Jerusalem, 1973, p. 40. Cf. Peirushei Rabbenu Yonah al Massekhet Avot , Jeruslem, 1969, p. 95; Mahzor Vitry , Berlin, 1889-1897, p. 551; R. Shimon Ben Zemah Duran, Magen Avot , Jerusalem, 1961, p. 212; R. Ovadia of Bartenura to Avot 5:21; R. David Zvi Hoffmann, Mischnaiot , Teil IV, Berlin, 1924, p. 359; R. Joseph H. Hertz, Sayings of the Fathers , New York, 1945, p. 102).
In other words, when a Levite retires from active service in the Temple at age fifty, his job is to assist the younger Levites by giving them advice, or, according to Rabbeinu Yonah (Spain, 13 th century), by teaching them the laws of the Temple service. (See previous note).
Don Isaac Abarbanel (Spain, Portugal, Italy, 1437-1508) in his Nahalat Avot commentary to Pirkey Avot (ed. Jerusalem-New York, 2004, p. 372) has a different explanation for “counsel at fifty”:
And he attributed eitzah to age fifty because eitzah requires yishuv hada’at (deliberation, peace of mind) and much knowledge in experience of things, and this he will acquire entirely at age fifty, not before.
In other words, advice is based on peace of mind and experience and one only acquires both these things at age fifty.
A similar idea was expressed by Simcha Pietrushka of Montreal (1893-1950), in his Yiddish commentary to the Mishnah (Vol. 4, New York, 1966, p. 479):
“A man who is fifty, to ask him for advice”: because by then he has already seen a lot in life and he already looks at life and at all events with yishuv hada’as (peace of mind).
Finally, we have the words of Rabbi Menahem Hameiri (Provence, d. 1315) in his commentary to Pirkey Avot (Bet Habehira to Avot , ed. Pereg, Jerusalem, 1964, p. 102):
“Fifty for counsel”, in other words, his counsel is worthy because counsel requires two things, one.intelligence and [two].experience, as the ethicists said: “the years will refine wisdom”. (For this proverb, cf. Israel Davidson, Otzar Hameshalim V’hapitgamim , Jerusalem, 1957, p. 95). And when he reaches fifty, he has already seen many experiences, and he still possesses his full intellectual power, i.e. his intelligence has not begun to wane, so his advice is purified by its two necessities.
Modern western society worships youth. Pirkey Avot and the Meiri remind us that we have much to learn from the middle-aged who can give us much good advice and counsel, based both on intellect and on years of experience.
Prof. David Golinkin is the President of the Schechter Institute of Jewish Studies in Jerusalem. Feel free to reprint this article in its entirety. If you wish to abbreviate the article, please contact Rabbi Golinkin at:mailto:firstname.lastname@example.org.
The opinions expressed here are the author’s and in no way reflect an official policy of the Schechter Institute.