This article originally appeared in the Jewish Free Press, Calgary

Happy Birthday*

The Free Press recently celebrated its first birthday. While anticipating the magnificent staff party, I have taken to wondering what Jewish sources have to tell us about birthdays and their celebration.

One of the first Hebrew expressions any modern Jewish child learns is the word for "birthday," yom huledet. This phrase goes back to the Bible, to the story of how Pharaoh held a feast on the occasion of his own birthday, at which he restored his chief butler and hanged his baker, in conformity with Joseph's predictions (Genesis 40:20).

In the midrash and in some of the ancient Aramaic translations, the word used to render "birthday" in that passage is "genosa," which is the Greek word for birthday. The "genosa" is listed in the Mishnah among the idolatrous religious celebrations on which Jews are directed to avoid dealings with their pagan neighbours. The Mishnah lists both the Greek and Hebrew terms for birthday, a fact which the Palestinian Talmud explains as intended to include both royal and individual birthdays; the former were considered public observances, whereas the latter were observed as idolatrous rites by individuals. It is the Greek term that appears most frequently in the talmudic sources, suggesting that birthdays were considered a foreign practice, not a Jewish one.

In actuality, most of the birthdays mentioned in the Talmud were of the royal variety. We have already mentioned Pharaoh's, and some midrashic traditions claim that Ahasuerus' big party at the beginning of the Book of Esther was also a birthday celebration. This is in keeping with the norm in the Roman Empire, where the Emperor's birth would be commemorated in an obligatory religious ceremony, since the Emperors claimed to be gods. The association with Emperor-worship probably resulted in the birthdays' being held in grave disfavour by the ancient rabbis.

There are nevertheless some more favourable references to birthdays, as in the following midrash, which comments on God's declaration that, following the Exodus from Egypt, Nisan (the month in which Passover falls) should henceforward be counted as the first month.

This is analogous to the case of a king to whom a son was born. He ordained that date to be a holiday. Subsequently the son was abducted, and he remained in captivity for a long period. Some time later, the son was ransomed, and the king began to celebrate that date as if it were a birthday. Similarly, before going down to Egypt the Israelites used to celebrate a past event [i.e., the creation of the world]. Subsequently they went down to Egypt and experienced slavery, and God performed miracles for them and they were redeemed. They now began to count the months from that date.

The point of the parable seems to be that, though one's birth is a fine thing to celebrate (even as we mark the birth of the world on Rosh Hashanah), the anniversary of a subsequent achievement (like the Exodus) can take its place as more fitting occasion for festivity.

It is therefore entirely appropriate to wish the folks at the Free Press a hearty mazal tov on this anniversary of their accomplishment.


This article and many others are now included in the book

Why Didn's I Learn This in Hebrew School?Why Didn't I Learn This in Hebrew School

by Jason Aronson Publishers

Return to the main index of Eliezer Segal's articles

My email address is: eliezer.segal@ucalgary.ca

[1]

First Publication:

  • Jewish Free Press, Nov. 15 1991.

Bibliography:

  • S. Lieberman, Hellenism in Jewish Palestine, New York 1962.