Today (September 12) is my birthday. I remember during my first year of rabbinical school, Dean Michael Marmur at HUC-JIR’s Jerusalem campus posed the following question to our class: Who is the only person whose birthday is mentioned in the Bible? No one could answer. Being the smart Alec (Alexa?) that I was, even at age 40, I asked, “Would that be the Hebrew Bible?” Dean Marmur looked up at me, somewhat in disbelief and responded, “Yes, Robin, now that you are in RABBINICAL school, when someone refers to the Bible, that would be the Hebrew Bible.”
Class ended and still no one had answered. I went back to my apartment and researched until I found the answer: Pharaoh! (See Genesis 40:20-22.) I emailed Dean Marmur and he congratulated me on having redeemed myself.
For Jews, birthdays are thought to be relatively unimportant. Unlike Americans, who remember deceased people on their birthdays (Presidents’ Day, Martin Luther King, Jr. Day), we remember people on the date of their death. Yahrtzeit plaques may include both a birth date and a death date, but the lights next to them are turned on for the day (or month) of death. That’s also when we light a yahrtzeit candle and recite the name for Kaddish. Birthdays seem so ordinary, so perhaps even … pagan. After all, only Pharaoh’s birthday is mentioned in the Torah. The date of death, on the other hand, feels sacred.
Yet, we Jews have many traditions surrounding birthdays:
At age of five, a child is to start studying Torah.
At age ten, a child is to start studying Mishnah.
At age thirteen, a boy becomes a bar mitzvah and at age twelve, a girl becomes a bat mitzvah — and is obligated to perform the mitzvot.
At age fifteen, a person is to begin studying Talmud.
At age twenty, a person is to pursue a career.
At age thirty, a person has strength.
At age forty, a person gains understanding.
At age fifty, a person can offer advice.
At age sixty, a person becomes wise.
At age seventy, a person is respected.
At age eighty, a person is considered to be a hero for achieving that age.
At ninety, a person is considered to be old.
And perhaps our most frequently-invoked birthday tradition: when a person reaches any age, the greeting we offer is ad meah v’esrim, (may you live) until 120, the age of Moses at his death.
With this birthday, I can offer advice though I am not yet wise, and won’t be for another eight years. That’s fine by mean.
I won’t do much to celebrate, as I, like most of our bloggers and readers, am in the throngs of High Holy Day preparations. I am simply grateful to God for helping me to reach another year.
Robin Nafshi serves as the spiritual leader of Temple Beth Jacob in Concord, NH.