One of the happiest expressions in the vocabulary of Hebrew-speakers, especially the young and young-at-heart, is “yom huledet”—birthday. The term has a long history, making its debut in the book of Genesis in the context of the Joseph story. During his incarceration in the Egyptian dungeon, the young Hebrew interpreted the dreams of his fellow prisoners, the chief butler and chief baker; and then, “it came to pass the third day, which was Pharaoh's birthday, that he made a feast unto all his servants: and he lifted up the head of the chief butler and of the chief baker among his servants.”
The occasion has all the ingredients of a familiar birthday celebration, including a party and the fulfilment of wishes—though I suppose that an absolute monarch like Pharaoh could have his wishes fulfilled on every day of the year. All that’s missing is a cake adorned with candles and icing and a game of Pin-the-Tail-on-Seth-Typhon-the Donkey-Headed-God.
Though for modern Israelis the words “yom huledet” roll-easily off the tongue, the biblical usage is far from simple. Grammarians point to its incongruous status as a passive infinitive, which should not take an object; and yet Pharaoh’s name is introduced here by the Hebrew particle “et” that usually indicates a direct object. This could imply that the birth that was being celebrated was not that of the current Pharaoh, but perhaps that of a newborn heir to the throne. Indeed, the grammarian and lexicographer Rabbi David Kimhi seemed undecided as to whether Pharaoh was marking the birth of a son or an annual commemoration of his own birth. Rashi analyzed the wording at considerable length in order to defend the interpretation that this was Pharaoh’s own birthday party. Towards the end of his comment he explained the syntactic logic, and he provided examples of similar usages in biblical Hebrew.
The Greek Septuagint translation has “the day of Pharaoh’s geneseos.״ The same Greek word is used by the Midrash Genesis Rabbah and in some of the Aramaic Targums. Rashi also equates yom huledet with the term “genesia” that appears in rabbinic texts. The Mishnah contains a list of days on which Jews should avoid doing business with pagans, so as not to give them occasion for rejoicing or expressing gratitude to their idols. One of the items on the list is “the king’s genesia day.”
The Greek word “genesia” is well known from classical literature. It was mentioned by Herodotus in connection with the festivities that were observed by dutiful Greek sons in honor of their deceased fathers—evidently on their birthdays. However, there is no lack of instances where that word refers to birthdays of the living. The first-century Jewish philosopher Philo of Alexandria employed a similar word (genesthia) to describe the seventh day of the creation as a universal celebration of the “birthday of the world.” Now, the creator of the universe, we must not forget, is normally portrayed as its supreme monarch.
The question thus arises, whether birthday celebrations were perceived in the classical sources as an exclusive prerogative of emperors and pharaohs, or whether they could be enjoyed by commoners as well.
In this connection it is significant that the sages in the Mishnah associated the forbidden imperial birthdays with the burning of corpses. In Roman practice this ritual was part of the process of "Apotheosis” by which an emperor assumed divine status upon his death. His body and a wax effigy were burned on a tall funeral pyre, from the top of which an eagle was dispatched to carry the monarch’s soul to its celestial abode. In subsequent years his birthday would be commemorated annually in solemn ceremonies. Many of the pagan practices and objects forbidden by rabbinic law were those associated with the cult of emperor worship, for which the talmudic sages had an intense distaste.
Non-royal birthdays are mentioned less frequently in classical documents. Nevertheless, there exists a considerable literature of Latin birthday greetings addressed to the authors’ social superiors (and at times just to friends), invoking blessings and gratitude upon them and their guardian spirits (“genius”; in Hebrew: “mazal”). We learn from these texts about the cultic rituals—including sacrifices, libations, incense, wreaths and ritual cakes—that accompanied the patron’s “dies natalis.” Indeed, such religiously observed birthdays appear to have been an important component of the patronage system that was central to the Roman social structure.
A tyrant’s behaviour at his party could be—well, tyrannical. True, Pharaoh’s birthday feast proved to be a propitious step in Joseph’s rise to success, but I doubt that the chief baker would have seen it quite that way as he was being led to his execution.
Several of those ancient royal celebrations involved disastrous consequences for Jews. Antiochos IV’s birthday was the occasion for the decree in which he compelled his subjects, on pain of death, to participate in the cult of Bacchus in the Temple.The Roman general (later emperor) Titus Flavius, the destroyer of Jerusalem, made the birthdays of his brother and father occasions for the deadly party games for which his nation was infamous: condemning thousands of Jews to horrible fates in the arenas by ferocious beasts, gladiatorial combat and other forms of suffering and death.
And then there was the unfortunate case of the itinerant preacher John the Baptist who provoked the rage of Herod Antipas, tetrarch of the Galilee, by challenging the legitimacy of his marriage to his sister-in-law Herodias. According to the Christian account, it was at the ruler’s birthday celebration (genesia) that Herodias’s daughter Salomé performed the dance that induced him to grant her the fulfilment of a wish “up to half my kingdom”—which turned out (at her mother’s suggestion) to be the delivery of John’s head on a platter (in a manner that might have been meant to evoke Pharaoh’s “lifting up” the head of the chief baker).
It appears from the discussions of several later Jewish interpreters that birthday celebrations were largely a privilege reserved for royalty. This seems to be the view of the fifteenth-century Yemenite exegete Rabbi Zechariah the Physician who mentioned the widespread custom of holding a feast on the king’s birthday.
And who says that birthdays have to be limited to once a year? Another Yemenite scholar, Nethanel ben Isaiah, the fourteenth-century compiler of the book Ma’or Afelah, wrote that “kings used to hold feasts on the same day of the week on which they were born. For example, whoever was born on Saturday would make a feast every Saturday.” Living in an Islamic environment, Nethanel had little knowledge of Christianity (which he dismissed as idolatrous), and he inferred that their observance of Sunday as a weekly holy day was because it was the commemoration of Jesus’s birthday. (In reality, the Sunday “Lord’s Day” derived its sanctity from being the day of his resurrection.)
There were nonetheless some commentators who were aware that birthdays could also be celebrated by commoners. Rabbi Menahem ben Solomon, the twelfth-century Italian author of the “Sekhel Ṭov” commentary to the Torah, remarked with reference to Pharaoh’s birthday that “Most people have a fondness for the day when they complete a year of their life, the anniversary of their birth. They are happy about it and hold a feast.”
In his ethical will, Rabbi Israel Lipschutz (1782-1860) commanded all of his seven children to send each other congratulatory greetings on every birthday—and he made sure to list all their dates. “And it goes without saying that all greetings must be acknowledged. No exceptions except for unavoidable circumstances.”
He made no mention of piñatas or bouncy castles.
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