What’s the Deal with Birthdays

I would like to know the proper way to celebrate birthday parties for any age. Our daughter will be thirteen this June. After joining The Restored Church of God we learned about how paganism is associated with birthday parties. We have left that organization and I wasn’t sure if we could have a party without cake and presents. Since we are not Jewish nor do we want to do mainstream worldly things we would love to know what Ancient Jewish Wisdom says about birthday celebrations.

Thank you so much to “everyone” involved in this organization! You “all” are a true blessing.


Dear Erika,

We have long noticed that the only birthday celebration mentioned in the Five Books of Moses is that of Pharaoh. In Genesis 40, we find that the fulfillment of the dreams of the butler and the baker that Joseph had interpreted for them, took place at a party on Pharaoh’s birthday.

While we don’t look to Pharaoh as a role model, neither should we repudiate the idea of celebrating birthdays because he did so.

Ancient Jewish wisdom tells us that noting the anniversary of one’s birthday is perfectly natural. What is more, it is indeed a day worthy of celebration. We are all supposed to thank God for deliverance from danger. A narrowly averted car accident or full recovery from a perilous disease are instances when we ought to happily offer prayers of thanksgiving. If you think about it, getting born and surviving another year is pretty major. It is fitting to offer happy thanks to God each year when that date comes around.

The oral transmission of the Torah does include the birth date of many personalities, such as the tribes. We particularly note that Moses was born and died on the same day, the 7th of the month of Adar. So, the specific date of birth does carry meaning.

While there is little to find in ancient Jewish wisdom recommending or opposing making a big to-do on the day on which one was born, Pharaoh’s party is worth noting. The real question is why does Scripture find it necessary even to mention his birthday? The answer is in what Pharaoh chose to do to celebrate the occasion. He reviewed all his actions of the past year. In doing so, he realized that he had unjustly imprisoned the officer of beverages and freed him. This provides us with a powerful clue about how we ought to celebrate our own birthdays.

Age is important, as is keeping track of passing time. Contrary to how it is frequently and sadly celebrated today, a bar-mitzvah or bat-mitzvah means reaching the age of legal responsibility for observing Torah rules. With or without a party, when a boy turns thirteen or a girl reaches the age of twelve he or she is responsible for his or her behavior.

We would suggest that whether or not one comes from a family tradition of verbal birthday wishes, cake and ice cream, or lavish blow-out parties and presents, what matters is making sure that one can point with pride to the growth that has taken place since the previous year, set goals for the coming one, and offer gratitude to God for life.

Many happy returns of the day,

Rabbi Daniel and Susan Lapin

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9 thoughts on “What’s the Deal with Birthdays”

  1. Thank you for sharing this wisdom with us.
    I have, for over 20 years, used my birthday as my new year. I reflect on the past year and set goals for the next year.

    My new year is in July, not January!

  2. I am 76 and not that all interested in birthdays anymore special mine does not do me any good the dwell on it not many mistakes and nightmares over the years I have learned from

  3. Rabbi Daniel and Susan, I do agree with you. Very well put.
    I would add another way of looking at a birthday as it has been one of my most remember able times in my life today. At age 20 I got a pair of work boots from my mother for my birthday. It wasn’t anything great. Only about $20 pair of work boots. I used them for working in the yard or any job that I needed them for which wasn’t much over the years. I’m 66 years old and I still have those boots I wear every year for yard work. What makes them special is that every time I put them on I think of my mother and the love that she had for me. Now I’m sure that God only knew what these boots would become to me. What I’m trying to say is that their is a lot of LOVE in birthdays that comes from the heart that only God could give us. Birthdays can be good and special even if we don’t see it for many years down the road. You could say that my mother could have given me those boots anytime. Well for 46 years I moved to four different cities and about 30 different apartments and homes. Each time thinking I should get rid of them, they were just in my way.
    The only reason I did not was that they were a birthday present from my mother.
    Sometimes LOVE wins over logic. The love that comes from God even on a birthday.

    1. This is a great point, Gus. While we are fans of seemingly “random” gifts, when gifts are associated with a special date, that date does serve as a reminder of the love that was shared.

    1. Juan, I hope you have heard my husband’s podcast about the ten most important years of a boy’s life. You have wonderful times ahead.

  4. Thank you Rabbi, wonderful response. Celebrating Shavuot I did say Happy Birthday King David, but I don’t think he heard me. I continue to celebrate my kids, grandkids and great grandkids birthdays, keeps me young. Birthdays are fun when they are someone else’s.

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