My son’s birthday is today. Jewish tradition places great importance on the day of a person’s death, the yahrzeit, but not so much on the day of birth. Ever since my parents passed away, I observe their yahrzeits each year. I just never think about their birthdays.
After I lost my son Jacob, his birthday remains an important day for me. I can’t help but wonder if Jacob is celebrating his birthday in Heaven.
Sources and Customs for Birthdays in Judaism
Although Judaism doesn’t place an emphasis on celebrating birthdays, there are several places where birthdays are mentioned in Jewish writings. In the Torah, we find the King of Egypt throwing a party on his birthday:
‘And it was on the third day, the day of Pharaoh’s birth, that he made a feast for all his servants…’ (Genesis 40:20)
Near the conclusion of the Torah, when Moses speaks to the people before his death, he mentions his birthday:
‘Moses went and spoke these words to all of Israel. He said to them “I am 120 years old today”…’ (Deuteronomy 31:1-2)
From the Gemara:
‘When Rav Yosef turned sixty, he made a holiday for the rabbis…’ (Moed Katan 28a:11)
Rabbi Avraham Shmuel Binyamin Sofer (1815-1871), known by his main treatise Ketav Sofer, uses his birthday as a time of reflection and gratitude to G-d:
‘Behold, I have blessedly taken my birthday, the first day of Adar, on which I have reached the age of 50, and I have thanked God publicly for having enabled us to live, and sustained us to this time…And on that day, the day God fashioned for me, I made a siyyum on Tractate Pesachim. And on the first of Rosh Chodesh Adar I delivered a public talk upon the tractate’s completion.’
From the Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson:
‘My father in law…taught that a birthday is a time for introspection, to take the purpose of one’s life to heart and make resolutions for the future. It is a most propitious time, for on one’s birthday his mazel (fortune) radiates with extra strength.’
Whereas the secular world views a birthday as a time to receive (get gifts, etc) Judaism sees birthdays as a time for giving. The Lubavitcher Rebbe also taught that one should give extra charity on a birthday, and gather with family and friends to encourage them to increase in acts of kindness. Birthdays are also an opportunity to give a big Thank You to G-d for giving and sustaining life.
In the post Birthdays Are For The Living, it seems that birthdays are just that, a time for those who are still in this world to appreciate life. But what about those who have passed on to the next world? Do they celebrate birthdays in Heaven?
Each year, his birthday seems like a new event. Weeks before the day, I get agitated and wonder how I’m going to acknowledge the day he came into the world.
Jewish Birthday Customs
A beautiful Jewish custom is to recite a chapter of Psalms according to one’s age. For example, in honor of a newborn baby one recites Psalm 1 because the child is in his or her first year of life. So at the cemetery, we recited Psalm 28. (Jacob would be 27 years old were he alive.) Given that this custom of reciting a Psalm for one’s age continues even after the person passes away, I feel that there is something important in Heaven about a birthday.
I had a dream awhile back where Jacob got married in Heaven. I’m a firm believer that dreams have meanings. So, if there are marriages in Heaven, why not birthdays in Heaven as well?
It’s traditional that on a Jewish birthday the celebrant gives blessings to others. This is because the spiritual power on one’s birthday is greater than on other days of the year, so it’s a propitious time to bestow blessings. I figured Jacob’s birthday would be an opportune time to ask him to pray for Moshiach and the welfare of the family he left behind.
So my husband and I went to the cemetery, said psalms, asked him to pray for us, and told him how much we love and miss him. We sent sweets and balloons to his brothers and their families. My son’s nieces and nephews will enjoy the balloons, and everyone will appreciate the treats. I want to acknowledge my son’s birthday because our family should remember the day he was born. Although he no longer lives with us, he’s very much alive.
He’s still our son.