Birthdays and being Jewish

June 7, 2021 by Rabbi Raymond Apple
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Is it OK for Jews to celebrate birthdays?   Ask the rabbi.

Rabbi Raymond Apple

WHAT’S KEEPING THE MESSIAH

Q. Why has the Messiah not come yet?

A. Everything happens in God’s good time (Isa. 60:22).

The prophet Isaiah says, “hama’amin lo yachish”, “The believer must not be in a hurry” (Isa. 28:16).

According to the Chassidim, the Rimanover Rabbi assured his disciples before his death that he would refuse to enter Gan Eden unless God agreed to send Mashi’ach.

But it was not time for the redemption, so King David was told to play his harp at the gateway to Paradise, and the music was so entrancing that despite himself the rabbi moved into Paradise… and the Messiah did not come.

Realising what had happened, the Oheler Rabbi said, “When I die, they won’t trick me with David’s harp!”

But the messianic era had still not arrived and they did a deal with the rabbi. He was told, “Just give us one d’rashah, one discourse, and when it is over Mashi’ach will be sent onto the earth.”

Of course it took a little time to assemble the heavenly audience, but when he began speaking the rabbi was so inspired that… he is still speaking, and the Messiah has not come (“The Hasidic Anthology”, ed. LI Newman, 1963, p. 249).

What does the story tell us about why the Messiah has not yet come?

Perhaps that we are so entranced by the melody of the happier times in life that we forget the thought of redemption. Or that when we do remember we are so taken up with talk that we neglect the practical work of paving the way for the messianic future.

RETURNING TO EGYPT

Q. Why did Jews go back to Egypt when the Torah prohibited this (Deut. 17:16)?

A. Not once but three times were Israel told not to go back to Egypt. The other two references are Deut. 28:68 and Ex. 14:13.

Maimonides says clearly, “It is permitted for a Jew to settle anywhere except in Egypt” (Hilchot M’lachim 1:1). But Jewish communities did settle there, and Maimonides himself lived in Egypt and was the court physician.

The Radbaz (1479-1573) says the ban applies only to permanent settlement; Maimonides, he argues, did not mean to stay but had to remain because of his court post. The Maharshal (17th century) says the ban operates only when the Jewish people are a free people in their own land; until then we have to live wherever we can.

Maimonides himself might have felt that being an eminent person in Egypt might allow him to influence the rulers to facilitate a Jewish return to Israel.

BIRTHDAYS

Q. Does Judaism believe in celebrating birthdays?

A. The Torah has very few references to birthdays of any kind.

From the story in B’reshit 40, we see that it was gentile kings’ birthdays that were celebrated, and by the time of the Maccabees such occasions had become a problem for Jews because they could be forced into eating forbidden food and other acts contrary to Jewish teaching.

The Mishnah Avodah Zarah warns against doing business with a heathen close to the date of idolatrous festivals, including the Roman ruler’s birthday.

From the Jewish point of view, one of the few birthdays recognised was the 60th, since then a person was freed from the possibility of karet, which some explain as dying young.

Obviously, tradition has come to attach great significance to a girl’s 12th and a boy’s 13th birthday because they mark the passage into religious adulthood.

As a general rule, it is probably more important to celebrate the anniversary of an achievement than to mark the coincidental date of one’s birth. This has the added advantage of ensuring that people do not take seriously astrological calculations based on the zodiac sign of the date one was born.

Editor’s note: Karet is the punishment for certain crimes and offences defined under Jewish law (e.g. eating the life blood of a living animal, eating suet, refusing to be circumcised, etc.), a punishment that can only be given at the hand of heaven unto persons of the Jewish faith who are bound to keep the Jewish law, rather than made punishable by any earthly court. In some cases of sexual misconduct and in breaking the laws of the Sabbath, such as where there are witnesses of the act, the court is able to inflict punishment.  Reference from Wikipedia.

Rabbi Raymond Apple served for 32 years as the chief minister of the Great Synagogue, Sydney, Australia’s oldest and most prestigious congregation. He is now retired and lives in Jerusalem where he answers interesting questions.

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