What is the Jewish way of celebrating a birthday?

In honor of Ask A Rabbi’s one-year anniversary, JewishBoston.com asks: What is the Jewish way of celebrating a birthday?

One of the greatest values of Jewish tradition is gratitude; feeling and expressing our thanks and awe for blessings large and small in our lives. Our very lives are a blessing, and it is our obligation to use our lives for good, for making the world better. In Psalm 118 we read, “Zeh hayom asah Adonai, nagilah venism’cha vo” – “This is the day that the Lord has made, let us rejoice and be glad in it.” Each day we should recognize as a gift, but particularly on a birthday we can feel a special measure of gratitude for our lives. However, simply to feel gratitude is not enough; we must give back to the world and to others since we have been given this great gift of life. So, a birthday is a perfect time to give tzedakah, whether you are donating your time, your money, or both. Some people choose to ask friends and family to give tzedakah to favorite charities in honor of their birthday, rather than giving gifts. This is a wonderful way to increase the good in the world in gratitude for the blessings of your life (or in gratitude for the life of a loved one whose birthday you are celebrating).

A birthday is a perfect time to look back on the year that has passed and identify areas that we need to improve, and to acknowledge and celebrate all that we have done well. On your birthday, consider a committment to learning something new, or to regularly doing something good for yourself and others in the coming year. Our tradition understands each human being as a work in progress, capable of change and self-improvement at any moment.

We have a blessing for new beginnings, the Shehechiyanu. A birthday is a wonderful time to recite this blessing, giving thanks for having reached this day: Baruch atah Adonai, Eloheinu melech ha’olam, shehechiyanu, v’kiyimanu, v’higiyanu lazman hazeh – Blessed are you, Adonai, Source of all life, who has sustained us, and kept us alive, and brought us to this time. Giving tzedakah is a perfect complement to reciting this blessing, as it is a concrete expression of your gratitude.

You might choose to celebrate a birthday according to the Jewish/Hebrew calendar. You can find your Hebrew birthday by going to hebcal.com/converter. Simply type in the birth date, including the year, and the website will tell you the corresponding Jewish month and day. Get a Hebrew calendar (or a Hebrew calendar app!) and you will know when your (or your loved ones’) Hebrew birthday falls each year. You can celebrate two birthdays a year!

You can come up for an aliyah (a blessing before and after the Torah reading) in synagogue on the Shabbat that is closest to your birthday. You can receive a special mishebeirach (blessing) for your birthday at that time, if you tell your rabbi, or whoever is leading the Torah service, that you would like to have an aliyah in honor of your birthday.

For a contemporary twist on the ancient ritual of mikveh, we have a wonderful place right here in the Boston area called Mayyim Hayyim, where you can take on the ancient practice of immersion in water as a ritual of transformation/celebrating renewal and new beginnings. See mayyimhayyim.org for more information.

Each day is an opportunity for gratitude, for transformation, and for renewal, but birthdays especially are a time to look back upon our journeys thus far and reflect upon how we can best give back to the world using our own entirely unique and precious selves.

created at: 2013-02-05

Rabbi Audrey Marcus-Berkman is the rabbi at Shir Hadash, a Reconstructionist havurah that meets in different locations in Newton.

Jewish tradition sanctifies time with blessings – and many can be used whenever the mood strikes you! InterfaithFamily’s Blessings For All Occasions includes explanations, suggestions and the blessings in Hebrew, transliteration and English translations.