Originally published in Masorti 3
The very brief entry ‘Birthday’ in the Encyclopaedia Judaica (vol. iv, p. 1054) simply states: ‘The celebration of birthdays is unknown in traditional Jewish ritual. A comparatively late exception, however, is the bar mitzvah and the bat mitzvah. The only reference to a birthday in the Bible is that celebrated by Pharaoh (Gen. 40: 20). In Reform and Conservative synagogues special prayers of thanksgiving are recited on the occasion of significant birthdays (e.g. 50th, 70th, 80th etc.) and at silver and golden wedding anniversaries.’ (It might be noted, prayers for these occasions are recited, too, in the Orthodox United Synagogue of London.)
This statement is far too sweeping. There are references in the Jewish sources to the celebration of, at least, particular birthdays. The Talmud (Mo’ed Katan 28a) records that the Babylonian teacher, R. Joseph (d.333) made a feast for the scholars on his 60th birthday because he had been spared the penalty of karet (cutting off), understood as death before reaching the age of sixty.
Joseph b. Moses, disciple of the famous German authority, Israel Isserlein (1390-1440), records in his Leket Yosher (ed. A. Freimann, Berlin, 1903-4, section Yoreh De’ah, p. 40) that his master, Isserlein, made a feast when he had completed the study of a talmudic tractate ‘and he invited two elders in order to release him, at the same time, from the meal of sixty’ (i.e. from the obligation to celebrate, as above, his sixtieth birthday). Freimann, note 3, refers to the passage in Mo’ed Katan and points also to the indirect reference in the Jerusalem Talmud, Bikurim 2: 1, 64c-d).
Relevant to the inquiry is responsum no. 70 in the responsa collection Havot Ya’ir (first published in Frankfurt am Main in 1699) by the German Talmudist Ya’ir Hayyim Bacharach (1638-1703). A questioner had put the following query to Bacharach. In the penitential season the questioner had undertaken, as a penance, never to participate in a public feast that was only optional (se’udat reshut) as opposed to a religious feast (se’udat mitzvah). Uncertain as to which type of feast qualifies as a se’udat mitzvah he turns to Bacharach for guidance. Bacharach supplies a list of feasts that might qualify as a se’udat mitzvah and which do not; an engagement party, for instance, does not qualify. In the list, a seventieth birthday celebration features but Bacharach states of this that although it is the custom to recite the Sheheheyanu benediction (‘who has kept us alive to reach this season’) on such an occasion this does not necessarily mean that the celebration qualifies as a se’udat mitzvah. It does qualify, however, if there is an exposition of the Torah during the festivities.
From Bacharach’s casual reference it appears that it was an established custom in 17th-century Germany to hold a seventieth birthday celebration, perhaps as an extension of the sixtieth birthday celebration referred to by the earlier German authority, Isserlein. (Reuben Margaliot, in his commentary Mekor Hesed to the Sefer Hasidim (Jerusalem, 1973, p. 197 note 1), suggests a source for the seventieth birthday celebration but this is very uncertain and the origin of the seventieth as opposed to the sixtieth celebration remains obscure).
After the Emancipation, Jews tended increasingly to adopt Western practices and customs and many of these aroused the ire of the traditional rabbis on the grounds of aping Gentile customs (hukat hagoy). This concept is notoriously difficult to define. How does one determine which practices fall under this heading and which do not? (See the sources quoted in my A Tree of Life, OUP, 1984, pp. 94-8). The celebrations of birthdays was held to fall under the scope of the prohibition by a number of authorities since these certainly seem to have been introduced under the influence of Western life and were unknown in Jewish life in the past, except for the references, as above, to the celebration of the sixtieth and seventieth birthdays. The same objection would apply to the celebration of wedding and other anniversaries.
For instance, R. Hayyim Eleazar Spira of Munkacs (1872-1937), a fierce opponent of innovations in Jewish life, remarks in his Divrei Torah (Munkacs, 1933, vol. v, no. 88) that he was called upon to deliver a congratulatory address in the synagogue on the occasion of the birthday of the President of Hungary, a man, says Spira, renowned for his integrity and goodness. Spira was obviously in a dilemma. On the one hand he was obliged to deliver the congratulatory message (and there is no reason to suppose that he was anything but sincerely eager to do so) and yet this might offer encouragement to Jews to celebrate their birthdays. Neatly, though artificially, Spira gets out of it by making a distinction between Jews and Gentiles. It is untraditional and therefore wrong for Jews to celebrate their own birthdays but they are obliged to participate in the birthday celebrations of righteous Gentiles. Spira bases the distinction on the statement in the Talmud (Eruvin 13b) that the rabbis came to the conclusion that it were better for man not to have been created.
R. Samuel Edels, the Maharsha, explains this on the grounds that the negative precepts, of which there are 365, are greater in number than the positive precepts, of which there are only 248. Consequently, life is a risky business in that there are far more opportunities for sin than for virtuous conduct. What place is there, then, for Jews to celebrate their birthdays? Gentiles, on the other hand, are only obliged to keep the seven Noahide laws in order to be considered ‘saints of the nations of the world’ (hasidei umot ha’olam). For these, life is not spiritually risky and they are fully entitled to celebrate their birthdays and, by the same token Jews are obliged to participate in the celebrations when invited! Similarly, A. E. Hirshowitz of Pittsburgh in his Otzar Kol Minhagei Yeshurun (new edn., Israel n. p. 1970, 27: 4, p. 60) objects to the celebration of birthdays on the grounds that it is un-Jewish.
Hirshowitz relates that in his birthplace, Kovno, in the year 1889, the friends and admirers of Rabbi Yitzhak Elhanan Spektor wished to organize a celebration in honour of the illustrious Rabbi’s jubilee in the Rabbinate, but Rabbi Spektor refused to allow it.
Against this is the publication by the disciples of the renowned rosh yeshivah, Rabbi Simeon Shkop (1860-1940), of a jubilee volume (Sefer Hayovel, Vilna, 1936) to mark his golden jubilee as a rosh yeshivah. On page 11 of this volume a letter is published by Rabbi Hayyim Ozer Grodzinsky (1863-1940) of Vilna. Here Rabbi Grodzinsky remarks that a modest scholar like Rabbi Shkop can hardly be pleased to be honoured by a Festschrift ‘and we have never seen venerable rabbis do such a thing’ (i.e. it is Jewishly untraditional) yet, since the proceeds will go to Rabbi Shkop’s yeshiva, in dire straits, and since it will encourage Rabbi Shkop’s admirers to rally round to assist the yeshiva in its need, Rabbi Shkop has agreed to take on the burden of having a Festschrift in his honour on top of all the other burdens he has carried for the sake of the Torah. Thus according to Rabbi Grodzinsky, un-Jewish it is, but worthwhile nonetheless because of the cause it serves. It is hardly likely that Rabbi Grodzinsky would have tolerated it had there have been any real halakhic objection.
It would seem that Sephardi rabbis were more hospitable to Jews celebrating their birthdays. The Sephardi Chief Rabbi of Tel-Aviv, Rabbi Hayyim David Halevi, has a full-scale treatment of the problem in his responsa collection Aseh Lekha Rav (vol. iv, Tel-Aviv, 1981, no. 21, pp.182-5). Halevi first disposes of the objection that the celebration of a birthday offends against the prohibition of hukat hagoy. This prohibition only applies to practices for which there is no reasonable explanation and which, consequently, probably have their origin in idolatrous practices. It is true that in the first chapter of tractate Avodah Zarah it is stated that Jews must in no way participate in the birthday celebrations of the pagan rulers but that is not because of the birthday celebration in itself but because, as Rashi and the other commentators explain, sacrifices are offered to idols on that occasion.
However, Halevi continues, the fact that there is no actual prohibition does not mean that it is advisable to have a birthday celebration. Yet it is worthwhile if during the festivities there are songs and hymns of praise to God. Halevi refers to Bacharach’s responsum but he is opposed to the recital of Sheheheyanu with the divine name since whether the benediction should be recited on attaining the age of seventy is a matter of doubt among the authorities. Halevi then quotes from the work Same’ah Nefesh by Shalom Moses Gagin of Jerusalem (d.1883). This author states that the Sephardi Chief Rabbi Hayyim David Hazzan (1790-1869) used to invite scholars to a feast on every birthday after his seventieth. ‘I, personally’, says Gagin, ‘had the honour of being an invitee to these celebrations full of Torah, holiness and the fear of God’.
Halevi also quotes the remarks of Rabbi Yosef Hayyim of Baghdad (1835-1909), a leading Sephardi authority. Rabbi Hayyim remarks (Ben Ish Hai, Jerusalem, 1898, re’eh, no. 17, pp. 100b-101a): ‘Some people have the custom of celebrating their birthday each year as a festival and it is a good sign. We too, observe it in our home.’ Rabbi Yosef Hayyim refers, too, to the custom of celebrating each anniversary of one’s brit but remarks that he, personally, does not follow this custom, although he does recite on each anniversary of the brit a kabbalistic prayer, which he supplies.
Although, as we have seen, the hasidic master R. Hayyim Eleazar Spira frowns on Jews celebrating their birthdays, other hasidic leaders are hospitable to the institution. For instance, the hasidic master, murdered by the Nazis, R. Moshe Friedmann of Boyan-Cracow, in his responsa collection (Da’at Mosheh, Jerusalem, 1983, letter 5, p. 200) thanks his nephew for sending him congratulations on his birthday. R. Yitzhak Eisik Weiss of Spinka (1875-1944), in his Hakal Yitzhak (New York, 1966, p. 6, no. 3) writes that his father, R. Joseph Me’ir (1838-1909) used to remind him on his birthdays to see the day as a challenge to him to advance further in the spiritual life.
The Hasidim of Lubavitch have a celebration each year on the Rebbe’s birthday. They published in honour of the Rebbe’s eighty-second birthday a special work, Kovetz Yom Malkenu (‘Essays on the Occasion of Our King’s Day’). In this work (published in Kfar Habad, 1984) the views of those rabbis who oppose birthday celebrations are fairly stated and it is frankly admitted that the institution is untraditional. But the previous Rebbe, R. Yosef Yitzhak, is said to have ‘revealed’ this new way of worshipping God, i.e. it is implied in the Jewish sources but the Rebbe uncovered that which has been there all the time but hitherto unrevealed.
Orthodox German rabbis, it is well known, did adopt a number of Western customs and seem to have been hospitable to birthday celebrations. The rabbi of Frankfurt am Main, Rabbi Markus Horowitz (1844-1910), in his responsa collection Mateh Levi (vol. ii, Orah Hayyim, Frankfurt am Main, 1937, no. 11), offers fulsome congratulations to Rabbi Solomon ha-Kohen on reaching his seventieth birthday.
Other Orthodox rabbis have viewed birthday celebrations with less tolerance. The Hungarian Rabbi Moses Grunwald (1853-1910), in his responsa collection Arugat Habosem (ed. Brooklyn, 1968, vol. ii, no. 216) replies to a rabbi who put the following question to him. The admirers of a famous rabbi (neither the name of this rabbi nor that of the questioner is given) were organizing a great seventieth birthday celebration. Announcement of the event had been made in the newspapers and invitations sent out, one of the invitees being the questioner who was extremely dubious about the whole matter. Grunwald expresses his strong disapproval of the practice, unknown, he remarks, to ‘the venerable rabbis of the past’. He goes further to suspect anyone who celebrates his birthday as a festival of being lacking in religious faith. For anyone who really believes that at death a man will be obliged to render an account of what he has done on earth before the Judgement Seat of God will surely be apprehensive, rather than joyous, as the time of that terrible judgement draws nearer.
The contemporary Rabbi A. D. Horowitz also discusses the question of the seventieth birthday celebration in his responsa collection Kinyan Torah (vol. iii, Jerusalem, 1982, no. 21). Horowitz refers to the Grunwald responsum but expresses surprise that no mention is made there of the fact that R. Joseph celebrated his sixtieth birthday. Horowitz engages in a pilpulistic exercise in order to demonstrate that R. Joseph’s case is different because he was blind. Horowitz comes down on the same side as Grunwald. ‘We have never seen such a thing among venerable rabbis’. (Without seeing one another’s statement, all three rabbis, Grodzinsky, Grunwald and Horowitz, use this expression, based on Berakhot 30a: ‘We have not seen this done by rabbis older than we’.) On the contrary, says Horowitz, our teachers, far from rejoicing on their birthday, used the day as one of remorse and repentance in solitude. Moreover, such celebrations are tasteless, ostentatious and lacking in the reserve that should be typical of the devout Jew.
In this matter, as in others on the borderline between halakhah and extra-halakhic considerations, there cannot be any hard and fast rules, and opinions differ among the rabbis. Ultimately, the issue is whether practices unknown to ‘the venerable rabbis of old’ are thereby ruled out of court. This was one of the main issues between Orthodoxy and Reform in 19th-century Germany and Hungary.