One’s birthday is often the very first date children learn, making it an integral part of how humankind marks time.
In many cultures, the anniversary of one’s date of birth is important for legal milestones – such as those marking the rights and responsibilities of adulthood – and it is marked by a day of celebration.
Similarly, in Judaism, birthdays are marked on the Jewish lunar calendar – commonly called a “Hebrew birthday” – and many rabbis encourage celebration through gathering of friends, making positive resolutions, and various religious observances, such as offering blessings to others.
The first commandment given to the Jewish people by God was to sanctify time by establishing a calendar. In Exodus 12:2, God tells Moses, “This month shall mark for you the beginning of the months; it shall be the first of the months of the year for you,” requiring the Jewish people to determine the particulars of the Jewish calendar.
The Mishnah (oral Torah) outlines the hierarchy of sanctity through the concepts of kedushat hazman, sanctity of time. Holidays, such as Shabbat, Passover, and Yom Kippur are placed on this hierarchy in which holiness is distinguished down to the minute.
Given the importance of the calendar and marking time, Jewish tradition holds that if understood and celebrated, one’s Hebrew birthday harnesses immense power and has the ability to add meaning to one’s day, life and impact on the world.
According to Rabbi Avraham Arieh Trugman, director of Ohr Chadash: New Horizons in Jewish Experience, Hebrew birthdays influence the nature of human beings and interacting with the significance of the date can also affect one’s nurture and potential.
Trugman said that on one’s birthday, individuals should look back on the influences that “have made us who we are, and more importantly, use our free will to take responsibility for our own lives despite what hand we were dealt by receiving new strength to use the gifts and talents we have received or developed to activate our deepest potential.”
Similarly, Jonah S.C. Muskat-Brown, social worker, educator with Mayanot Israel and author of Unfolding Potential: A Jewish Journey of Self Development, referred to actualizing our potential across the Jewish calendar, and specifically on our Hebrew birthday.
The holiness of our Hebrew birthday, he maintained, is sourced from the idea that “the entire world cannot exist without us – that our first birthday was the day on which God decided that there was something that only we could add to this world.”
“Everything in Judaism is about energies and re-experiencing those energies,” Muskat-Brown explained.
For example, when something happens for the first time, there is a unique holy-energy embedded within that we can tap into and reconnect with at later times, he said. Likewise, each year when we celebrate festivals, we get to tap into and reconnect to those unique energies and this holiness.
“I like to think of life as a spiral staircase,” he said. “Each year, we walk up a floor, but ultimately – because of the spiral – land at the very same spot as we were on the year before – but this year, we’re one level higher, one floor holier.”
This is why on our Hebrew birthdays, there is a tradition to offer others blessings, as “it is on this day that God decided that we have a specialness to give to the world – something holy that nobody else can add,” Muskat-Brown said, suggesting that similar to the introspecting one does on Rosh Hashanah, a Jewish birthday is a time to “re-evaluate where we are on our spiral and where we’re going” and “remember that we are here for a reason so that we can tap into that energy of newness.”
According to Jewish author Rabbi Shimon Apisdorf, one can additionally harness the power of Hebrew birthdays through introspection about the spiritual connection to one’s month and week of birth.
Every week, Jews read a section of the Torah, called a parsha, Apisdorf explained.
“Jews have a strong tradition that there is a spiritual connection between what’s going on in the Torah at any given time and between reality in life of the Jewish people, humanity and each and every one of us on any given week,” he said.
He said the same dynamic exists for Hebrew birthdays.
“Months, without a doubt, have meaning,” explained Apisdorf. “Weeks and days within the month also have meaning to them.”
He said that if one spends time thinking about the meaning behind his or her birth month – about the holidays in that month, the Torah parshiot (plural of parsha), and the mazal (luck, and also the word used for a zodiac sign) of that month – “each can find a true connection to their birthday and self,” and that each individual, without any scholarly search or revealing kabbalistic secrets of the universe, can harness the power of a birthday by “thinking about what takes place in one’s birth month and week.”
Outside of the Jewish world, individuals have endeavored to forge a spiritual connection to their birthday month through astrology – an ancient Egyptian science, later adopted by the Babylonians – based on celestial alignment that originally was used to predict agricultural and natural phenomena. Astrology is not specifically mentioned in the Torah, but two commandments are often interpreted as forbidding the practice (a view followed by Rabbi Akiva and Rabbi Moshe ben Maimon “Maimonides”), while another is understood by some (including Abraham ibn Ezra) to permit astrology:
“You shall not eat anything with its blood. You shall not practice divination or soothsaying.” (Leviticus 19:26) The Israel Bible
“When you enter the land that Hashem your God is giving you, you shall not learn to imitate the abhorrent practices of those nations. Let no one be found among you who consigns his son or daughter to the fire, or who is an augur, a soothsayer, a diviner, a sorcerer, one who casts spells, or one who consults ghosts or familiar spirits, or one who inquires of the dead. For anyone who does such things is abhorrent to Hashem, and it is because of these abhorrent things that Hashem your God is dispossessing them before you. You must be wholehearted with Hashem your God.” (Deuteronomy 18:9-13) The Israel Bible
“Hashem said, “Let there be lights in the expanse of the sky to separate day from night; they shall serve as signs for the set times—the days and the years;” (Genesis 1:14) The Israel Bible
According to Trugman, “Judaism does not believe in trying to see the future according to astrology, it does recognize a certain influence of the planets on the physical as well as the psychological and emotional planes.”
He told Breaking Israel News, “the Hebrew word mazal literally means ‘constellation’ and as a verb, a flow of energy. In the context of birthdays and according to the Talmud, it means that the same flow of energy and planetary influences present at one’s birth reappear and are in fact strengthened on a birthday.”
In this way, Trugman added, one’s mazal is in ascendency on one’s birthday and it is therefore an auspicious time to review one’s life, to formulate new goals, give charity, do acts of loving kindness, pray from the heart, learn Torah, spend time in quiet contemplation and show appreciation to one’s parents, the “vehicle through which our souls enter the physical plane,” and to God, for the gift of life.