The day of Yetzias Mitzrayim, our redemption from Egypt, is a birthday: the national birthday of Klal Yisrael. This is stated by the Pasuk in Yechezkel: “And as for your birth: On the day you were born your umbilical cord was not cut, nor were you washed with water to smooth, nor were you salted, nor were you swaddled … on the day that you were born” (16:4-5).
Pesach, we could say, is our national birthday celebration, which we celebrate in service to Hashem who birthed us and tended to all our needs.
Celebrating birthdays is a common custom among Jews and non-Jews alike. We don’t usually think about any halachic issue relevant to birthday parties.
But is there a halachic perspective on birthdays? Is it correct to celebrate a birthday, or should this practice be avoided? Are there specific ages that are especially worthy of celebration? What is special about a person’s birthday? These questions, among others, are discussed below.
Birthdays: An Auspicious Day
Several sources suggest that a person’s birthday is an auspicious day for him, a day of opportunity beyond that of other days of the year.
The Gemara teaches that the specific day and hour that a person was born influence his mazal (Shabbos 156a). Other sources indicate that on a person’s birthday his mazal is strong, meaning that the day is especially auspicious for him.
The Yerushalmi (Rosh Hashanah 3:8) notes that when Amalek attacked Israel, they used warriors whose birthday was that very day. In order to combat this special power, Moshe felt it worthwhile to confound the celestial mazalos themselves, thereby neutralizing the special advantage of those born on that day.
In a similar sense, the Ben Ish Chai (commentary of Ben Yehoyada to Berachos 28b) writes that an elderly appearance was miraculously bestowed on Rabbi Elazar b. Azarya specifically on his eighteenth birthday. In his words, “This is why he succeeded in this miraculous way, for it is known that on the day a person was born his mazal will be strong and successful.”
The Ben Ish Chai concludes: “This is why we have the custom of celebrating our birthdays.” He also notes that some have the custom of celebrating the day of the Bris (seven days after the birthday) (this is noted by the Chasam Sofer in his Commentary to Torah, Vayeira 11 concerning Avraham Avinu) adding that although this is a fine custom, it was not the custom of his own household.
Deferring an Operation for the Birthday
We find additional sources that indicate the special benefits related to the day on which a person was born. For example, the Midrash points out that Yitzchok was born on the fifteenth day of Nissan, and that is also the day on which we left Mitzrayim (Tanchuma, Bo 9).
Likewise, the fact that Moshe Rabbeinu was born in Adar was a source of protection during the miracle of Purim (Megillah 13b). Haman rejoiced when his lots fell on the month of Adar when Moshe died, but the Gemara comments that he did not know that this was also the month in which Moshe was born.
Also, along with rejoicing with the Torah, we note on Shavuos the birthday of David Hamelech (see Shaarei Teshuva 494:6; see also Yad Efraim of Rav Efraim Fishel Weinberber, no. 19, who cites additional sources).
Based on this idea, Rav Chaim Kanievsky, shlita, was asked whether a person should defer an operation to his birthday, because this is an auspicious time on which his mazal shines brightly. Rav Chaim answered (cited in Derech Sicha, Parashas Vayeishev) that the above-mentioned source in the Yerushalmi refers to Amalek, and it is possible that the matter is true only concerning non-Jews, and not concerning Jews of whom it is written that “there is no mazal for Israel” (Shabbos 156a). Note that according to Rashi and Tosafos, this means that our mazal can change through prayer or another merit, and not that the mazal has no bearing at all.
However, it is noteworthy that the Magen Avraham, in his Zayis Ra’ann (commentary to Yalkut Shimoni, Chavakuk no. 564), cites the teaching of the Gemara in Rosh Hashanah (11a), where we learn that the righteous die on their birthday. How, asks the Magen Avraham, does this square with the teaching of the Yerushalmi whereby a person does not suffer death or injury on his birthday? The Magen Avraham answers that the righteous complete their days on their birthday, which is a positive thing. This does not contradict the auspicious nature of the birthday, on which a person is not hurt or killed prematurely.
Thus, according to the Magen Avraham it is clear that the Yerushalmi’s teaching applies even to Jews and not only to non-Jews.
The only birthday party explicitly recorded in the Torah is that of Pharaoh. The Pasuk says, “It was on the third day, Pharaoh’s birthday, that he made a party for all his servants” (Bereishis 40:20). Indeed, the Mishnah (Avodah Zarah 1:3) writes that non-Jews would celebrate the birthdays of their kings (though the Metzudas David, Hoshea 7:5, writes that the custom of Jewish kings was to make a Yom Tov on their birthday). Based on this, some Poskim frown on the practice of celebrating a birthday, as we will mention in greater detail later.
However, Jewish people throughout the years, including several great rabbinic leaders, celebrated, or at least commemorated their birthday.
In addition to the Ben Yehoyada cited above, the Ben Ish Chai writes further that, “Some have the custom to make a Yom Tov every year on their birthday, and it is a good siman, and we do so in our house” (Ben Ish Chai, Year 1, Re’eh 17). In addition, he says that when a person reaches the age of sixty or seventy it is proper to wear a new garment or eat a new fruit and make a shehechiyanu, also having in mind his age.
It is also known that the Ba’al Shem Tov would make a seuda on the eighteenth day of Elul, which was the day he was born (noted in Shana Be’Shana 5736, p. 243), and many Chassidim follow the custom of making a celebratory meal to commemorate a birthday.
Others were careful to commemorate birthdays by other means. The Leket Yosher (Yoreh De’ah, p. 40) records that the Terumas Hadeshen made a siyum on the day he turned sixty years old. The Kesav Sofer (Yoreh De’ah 148) made a siyum every year on his birthday, and when he turned fifty he also made a special siyun, giving thanks to Hashem for reaching the age. He notes that it is certainly proper to thank Hashem on one’s birthday.
In Midrash Sechel Tov (Bereishis 40:20) we find: “Most people are happy and make a seuda on the day they were born.” This seems to be a good reflection of the custom we know.
Opposition to Birthday Celebrations
Some have written in opposition to birthday commemorations.
The Aderes wrote, “With all my heart I was angry with those who wished me well for my birthday, for I have always said that the only birthday that our holy books mention is that of Pharaoh” (Nefesh David; cited in Derech Sicha, Vol. 1, Parashas