Birthdays As Stairway To Heaven


This year, she went rock climbing.

My eldest daughter, Hannah, who turned 9 at the end of August, chooses a different theme for her birthday party each year. Last year, she had a havdalah (end of Shabbat) party at our home in Harrisburg, Pa. After a scavenger hunt, 10 of her friends were invited to sleep over in the basement. At 3 a.m., with the girls still fighting and complaining, and no one getting any sleep, Hannah gave up in tears and climbed into bed with me and my wife. That was the last big sleepover party in our house.

Many parents have stories of the most overambitious birthday parties that they threw for their children. But as stressful as these events can be, I can’t imagine my kids growing up without them. My own birthday parties are among the happiest memories of my youth, from a group apple picking excursion in Westchester County to a trip with a few close friends to see Doug Henning star in “The Magic Show” on Broadway.

Yet many Jews, especially fervently Orthodox ones, do not celebrate birthdays. According to the Encyclopedia Judaica, the marking of birthdays was not a Jewish custom. Other than the bar mitzvah, the third birthday when a male child received his first haircut, and the fifth birthday when he began the formal study of Torah, birthdays passed without ceremony.

In the Torah, the only birthday party mentioned is that given for Pharoah. In Jewish tradition, it is the anniversary of a person’s death, not that of his or her birth, that we mark with the lighting of a yahrtzeit candle. “The day of death,” as King Solomon put it bitterly in Ecclesiastes 7:1, “is better than the day of one’s birth.” As many sages have pointed out, a newborn has not yet performed any mitzvot, or good deeds. Making too much fuss over a child was seen as tempting the evil eye, requiring the utterance of a keyn eyn harah — “no evil eye.”

Nor was this downplaying of birthdays unique to Judaism. Until the Roman Catholic Church began keeping vital records, almost no one in Europe even knew when their birthday was. Birthdays have also never played a prominent role in many Asian cultures. A friend of mine recalls that her former mother-in-law, who was a Buddhist, celebrated her birthday for the first time at the age of 80.

Nowadays, in both Modern Orthodox and non-Orthodox congregations, the celebration of birthdays is an integral part of synagogue life. Many rabbis have a monthly custom of inviting all the children who are having birthdays that month to come up to the bima and be recognized by the community. The rabbi’s birthday often receives special pomp and circumstance. Especially during the summer, when the kiddush after services tends to be frugal, one hears an almost audible cheer go up from the assembly when an announcement is made that Sadie Cohen is sponsoring a special kiddush in honor of her 80th birthday.

Even some ultra-Orthodox Jewish authorities are beginning to express a more positive view of birthdays. A Chabad-Lubavitch rabbi suggests that a person’s birthday should be viewed as a “mini-Rosh HaShanah,” referring to the tradition that Rosh HaShanah is the birthday of the world. These rabbis recommend, that before cutting the birthday cake, the Shecheyanu prayer be recited, thanking the Lord for enabling the child to live to celebrate this important milestone.
When a person is born, Jewish mystics believed, the skies part to enable his or her soul to come down to earth. On each birthday, the skies open again, giving the celebrant one-day access to heaven for his or her prayers. The birthday boy or girl should thus bless as many people as possible.

As my daughter climbs a little closer to heaven at her birthday party this year, I hope that she’ll remember to bless her friends, her teachers and all the important people in her life. My wife and I will probably be biting our nails as she goes higher and higher. We’ll also be shepping naches — swelling with pride — using her birthday to celebrate what a confident, capable young lady she has become.

But still, no more sleepovers.

Ted Merwin covers theater for the paper.