Reprinted from The Jewish Religion: A Companion, published by Oxford University Press.
There is only a single reference to a birthday in the Bible: “And it came to pass on the third day, which was Pharaoh’s birthday that he made a feast unto all his servants” (Genesis 40: 20). The Mishnah (Avodah Zarah 3: I), too, refers only to the birthday celebrations of pagan rulers but is silent on birthday celebrations among Jews. It has even been suggested that, in ancient times, Jews saw a birthday as a gloomy reminder that life is drawing closer to its end; a day for solemn reflection and repentance rather than festivity.
It is reported that, on these grounds, the famous Russian Rabbi Isaac Elhanan Spektor (1817-96) refused to allow his community to organize a celebration in honor of his jubilee in the Rabbinate. On the other hand, the Talmud (Kiddushin 72b) gives a list of Rabbis each of whom was born on the day when another famous Rabbi died and whom he replaced, implying that there is cause for rejoicing when a good man is born.
In more recent times birthday celebrations have become the norm among many Jews. Even if this practice was copied from the non-Jewish world, it is held that there is no harm in it since questions of doctrine are in no way involved. In some synagogues, Orthodox as well as Reform, special prayers of thanksgiving are recited for someone reaching the age of 70 or 80 or at his “second Bar Miztvah” when he reaches the age of 83! It is customary to greet an elderly man or woman on their birthday with the wish: ‘May you live to be 120’ (the age at which Moses died; Deuteronomy 34: 7)·
Relevant in this connection is the Talmudic statement (Moed Katan 28a) that the fourth century Babylonian teacher Rabbi Joseph made a party for the scholars on his 60th birthday to celebrate his having passed the age of karet (“excision”). In the same Talmudic passage the verse is quoted: “The days of our years are three score years and ten, or even by reason of strength four score years” (Psalms 90: 10) to suggest that it is good for one who has reached the age of 70 or 80 years to give special thanks to God for having spared him.
The German Rabbi Jair Hayyim Bacharach (1638-1702) has a responsum in which he lists the occasions when a party has religious significance, one such occasion being when the age of 70 is reached (by coincidence the number of this responsum in his collection is 70). Interestingly, some Hasidim, especially those of Lubavitch, celebrate annually the birthday of the Rebbe. Aware that this is something of an innovation, they argue that not all innovations are taboo.
Also relevant is the Rabbinic statement, in Ethics of the Fathers (5.21) on the ages of man (14, not seven as in Shakespeare): “The age of five for the study of the Bible; then ten for the study of the Mishnah; 13 for the commandments; 15 for the study of Tamud; 18 for marriage; 20 for earning a living; 30 for power; 40 for understanding; 50 for giving advice; 60 for old age, seventy for grey hairs; 80 for special strength, 90 for bowed back; 100–it is as if he had died and passed away.”
Pronounced: MISH-nuh, Origin: Hebrew, code of Jewish law compiled in the first centuries of the Common Era. Together with the Gemara, it makes up the Talmud.
Pronounced: TALL-mud, Origin: Hebrew, the set of teachings and commentaries on the Torah that form the basis for Jewish law. Comprised of the Mishnah and the Gemara, it contains the opinions of thousands of rabbis from different periods in Jewish history.