To 120!

The Jewish Internet with Mark Mietkiewicz

Special To The Dayton Jewish Observer

Mark Mietkiewicz
Mark Mietkiewicz

The world recently celebrated a birthday (5,774 candles) and, God willing, so will you over the coming year. That means it’s high time to know what Judaism says about this special event and to find out how to celebrate your Yom Huledet.

At first glance, it seems the Torah does not have a lot to say about birthdays. The Encyclopedia Judaica is blunt on this topic: “There are no positive data in the Bible or in rabbinical literature concerning birthday festivals among the ancient Jews (”

Lynn Harris points out that there is one birthday party mentioned in the Torah. But it’s for Pharaoh, in Gen. 40:20 (

Rabbi Yanki Tauber explains that Judaism traditionally observed the death (yahrzeit) of an individual, while the anniversary of a birth did not get as much attention. He says that is logical since a yahrzeit commemorates a lifetime of achievement. However, the rabbi then suggests that the birth of a child does merit celebrating in our tradition.

“Birth marks the point at which your body received and fused with your soul, the point at which you attained your individuality (”

The Ohr Somayach site mentions several sages who marked birthdays as auspicious days. “Rabbi Yisrael Lifshitz instructed his children that when one of them has a birthday the others should visit and bless him. Similarly, distinguished members of Jerusalem’s Jewish community used to visit Rabbi Shmuel Salant on his birthday and offer him their blessings (”

The Talmud informs us that on our Jewish birthdays our mazel (good fortune) is dominant. Rabbi Naftali Silberberg explains that “Your birthday is a day to express gratitude to God for bringing you into this world, entrusting you with the mission of illuminating it with the radiance of Torah and Mitzvot. This day, which is akin to a personal Rosh Hashanah, is the appropriate time to recommit to the mission at hand, resolving that the added maturity and experience gained during the past year will cause the following year to be even more productive and fruitful (”

How can you celebrate the day in a Jewish manner? In the article Birthdays, Jewishly, Sandra Widener and Lisa Farber Miller have several suggestions for kids but I think adults could enjoy some of these too:

• Plan a special family-only Shabbat dinner dedicated to the person celebrating a birthday.

• Or start a Saturday slumber party with a Havdalah ceremony.

• Do a mitzvah together. Birthdays are a good time to convey the importance of mitzvot like bringing a piece of birthday cake to an ailing relative or friend.

• Plant a tree. An ancient and lovely tradition is to plant a tree when a new baby is born. According to the Talmud (Gittin 57a), in biblical times, a cedar was planted for a son, a cypress for a daughter (

• And of course, sing! Although Happy Birthday to You is the staple of most birthdays, you can inject some Hebrew into your next celebration. There are several kids’ tunes ranging from Hayom Yom Huledet ( along with a surprising number of other melodies (

You can’t celebrate your Jewish birthday if you don’t know when it is. If you’ve lost track or were never sure of the date, no problem. It’s easy to figure out. Just go to Chabad’s Jewish Birthday Calculator, type in the English date and indicate whether you were born in the morning, evening or night. You can even set up an annual email reminder prior to your Jewish birthday ( Both the Chabad and the Aish Hatorah sites let you print out a birthday certificate with your Hebrew name (

If you are marking an upcoming milestone, you may want to check out related wisdom found in Pirke Avot, the Teachings of our Fathers. Rabbi Yehudah ben Teima used to say:

“• Five years is the age for the study of Scripture.

• Ten, for the study of Mishnah.

• Thirteen, for the obligation to observe the mitzvot.

• Fifteen, for the study of Talmud.

• Eighteen, for marriage.

• Twenty, to pursue (a livelihood).

• Thirty, for strength.

• Forty, for understanding.

• Fifty, for counsel.

• Sixty, for sagacity.

• Seventy, for elderliness.

• Eighty, for power.”

I’ll leave it to you to check out what the sage had to say about turning 90 and 100 (

While we’re in the stratosphere of Jewish aging, one of the most famous blessings that Jews bestow on each other is Bis hundert und tzvantzig, until 120. The age of 120 is considered the ideal lifespan because Moses was 120 years old at the time of his death, in Deut. 34:7 (

I’ll leave the last word to Rabbi Lewis Eron, director of religious services at the Jewish Geriatric Home in Cherry Hill, N.J. As his tale goes (, one Shabbat morning the rabbi announced that a well-loved resident of the home was about to celebrate a milestone birthday and the rabbi wished that she live to the proverbial age of 120.

At that moment, a friend of hers corrected him. The friend said firmly, “No, rabbi, you should wish her 120 years and three months.”

“Why the extra three months?” the rabbi inquired. “Rabbi,” she declared, “Why spoil her last birthday? Don’t you want her to enjoy her party?”

Mark Mietkiewicz may be reached at

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