This year my birthday fell on Yom Kippur. Or is it the other way around? They collide in my life. This is not the first time I have had to forget about my birthday celebration and focus on prayer. I admit that when I was younger, I felt betrayed that I had to fast instead of eating cake. Truthfully, we did not make much of birthdays when I was young and I cannot even remember a birthday party or gift. There was no recognition even when I turned 12 and became a bat mitzvah.
However, this time, I am able to contemplate the crossover between birthdays and High Holiday celebrations.
We don’t have a tradition in Judaism of birthday validations. But we also don’t have any obvious prohibitions. The matter is open for us. Yet, we do have some form of approval from modern rabbinic decisors (writers of responsa, legal decisions).
At the end of the 19th century, Rabbi Joseph Hayyim ben Elijah of Iraq, in his book Ben Ish Hay, noted with approval that some communities were celebrating a girl’s 12th birthday as a bat mitzvah celebration. Additionally, again in terms of bat mitzvah, Rabbi Moshe Feinstein noted with commendation that birthdays were celebrated in synagogues with a kiddush after Sabbath services. He wrote that this means of recording a simchah was fitting (kosher). Hence birthdays can be a cause for Jewish festivities.
On the other hand, we do have a significant tradition of ways to honour Yom Kippur. Most Jews feel it is a sad day. Surely fasting and the denial of enjoyable pleasures indicate sorrow of some sort. But the actual tradition was developed with a sense of celebration, serious, perhaps at times solemn, but not sad. Paradoxically, the rituals of not eating, fasting and holding at bay some physical pleasures are, in essence, displays of joy and gratitude.
We fast on Yom Kippur in finalizing our attempts at atonement. We are sorry for our sinful ways, remorseful that we cultivated acts that were not valuable, not helpful, not good. We ask our friends to forgive us. We plead with God for compassion and exoneration. But we should recognize the great gift of Yom Kippur – a day in which we can receive amnesty. This holiday is a wonderful opportunity to look toward our future with optimism. God will forgive and we have this official chance to improve our life. It is the opposite of the pessimistic notion that sinners will be punished, that there is nothing we can do about it. It is also a moment in which Judaism teaches us that we are agents of our own destiny. We don’t ask anyone to intercede. We must ask for forgiveness on our own and take the necessary steps to renewal. What a wonderful opportunity.
The main difference between Yom Kippur and birthday celebrations is obvious: one is secular, one is religious. Both have attendant rituals, but they differ in marked ways. Most importantly, while both focus on the individual, Yom Kippur places the person right in the midst of a congregation, of a community with similar issues.
As we stand together, we ask for an opportunity to start again, to remove the stains of our past. But we do so in public, not to shame, but to appreciate that all of us are offenders. We have all strayed and require forgiveness. But we all have this opportunity to renew. As our community stands together singing songs of Neilah, the closing service, we should be full of joy. Not because we can eat now, though that’s fun, but with delight because we can face the new year with confidence, forgiven and standing within a community.
What a great birthday gift.