The Reason for Celebrating a Birthday

Presented with permission, from Sichos In English, Volume 14. (Translation of a talk given by the Lubavitcher Rebbe on 18th of Elul, 5742 / 19’82). Published and copyright © by Sichos In English. [Clarifications by the Director of are inserted in square brackets.]

Why is the emergence of a person into the world cause for such celebration so many years later? While in the womb, the fetus benefits from all the amenities of his mother’s body. He eats, drinks and breathes from his mother. For many weeks he is even a complete human being, down to the smallest detail. Upon being thrust into this world, he is immediately met by a sharp slap to ensure that he breathes properly. He must begin to fend for himself. Is it any wonder that the expression on the face of the newborn is far from a smile? What reason is there to celebrate?

Happy birthday!

…So, why do we celebrate this occasion throughout a person’s life and indeed beyond that? Physically, there is no change; the body is complete for many weeks prior to birth. And spiritually, the fetus has, seemingly, only to lose from being born. We must search for the answer in the Torah… for a birthday is marked by all. Torah is termed “the Torah of light” — it will throw light on any problem for those who gaze in it. And the simplest realm of Torah, the one which pertains to all of us, is the area of halachah [Torah law]…

The radical transition that takes place at birth

Before birth, the baby indeed eats, but from what the mother eats. He drinks, but from what the mother drinks. And though he desperately needs his mother’s care for many years after birth, it is as a separate being. This concept has application in a number of areas in halachah [see below].

This transformation is so radical, that notwithstanding the trauma both physically and spiritually of birth, the gaining of one’s independence is such a joyous occasion, that it is celebrated year after year… It’s worth losing the warm protection of the womb only to deal with the world on one’s own terms.

The lesson for us in our daily lives: Rashi states [1], “[The Torah] should be considered new each and every day.” Each day should be seen as an independent, newborn entity, and all the accomplishments of the previous days should be seen as a fetus before birth. The newborn does not rely on his seemingly towering accomplishments prior to birth. He immediately begins to assert his independence. So also in our daily service of G-d. If we rely on yesterday’s accomplishments, we will be eating, as it were, free bread. Every new day that is “born” in our lives, must be asserted as an independent unit, using past endeavors as a springboard to higher things.

A mission for every person

“Man is born to labor” (Job 5:7). Each day must be developed. One cannot argue… “I have accumulated great spiritual wealth! Now is the time for me to rest.” The answer to this is emphatic! All that you have mentioned belongs to yesterday! Yesterday you put all your effort into it. But what about today?! Today is a new era, an opportunity for new achievement. Will you accomplish the dictum “Man is born to labor” by resting on yesterday’s laurels?! No! Your past accomplishments are indeed yours but they belong to the past. Now is the time to build anew…

This is a lesson for all those who claim that they are complete… They want only to revise what they have learnt, despite the importance of constantly widening one’s horizons. They argue: “Why should I labor? …What more do you want of me?!”

To which the whole idea of a birthday has the emphatic answer: [in the womb] he was physically complete; he ate, drank, and moved about like any one of us; nevertheless we still make a fuss about that moment when he is called upon to stand on his own two feet.

The lesson for us is clear: When called upon to do a good deed, we cannot retort that we’ve done enough good and now is the time to rest. This is a misconception. Yesterday’s work is there, but it has no bearing on today’s requirements. (Cf. the Baal Shem Tov’s interpretation of the phrase,[2] “who in His goodness renews each day, continuously, the work of creation.” He explains that G‑d actually creates the world anew every moment. With this in mind, it will be easier to constantly strive to accomplish something new every moment, for we now live in a new world with new requirements!)

Your continuous impact on the world begins at birth

There is another aspect to the whole idea of a birth: From the moment of birth, the baby begins to have an impact on the world around him. Either he causes a commotion, in which case those around him attempt to pacify him, or he smiles and causes happiness all around. While concealed in the womb, the fetus eats, drinks and moves, but privately; his body is complete but only he has any benefit from this. When does he begin to interact with his surrounding environment, even prior to being able to speak? When he emerges from his private quarters of nine months.

Of course his ability to interact undergoes various stages of development. He goes from strength to strength… showing a greater degree of ability to work with the world around him in a responsible way… Independence is indeed gained upon being born, but [in halachah] that independence is manifested in an increasingly intense manner as the years go by: At the age of six a child becomes less economically dependent. At the age of 12 [for girls] or 13 [for boys], it is the time of bar/bas mitzvah.[3] At the age of twenty “he can sell the property of his father” and so on throughout one’s life.[4]

The purpose of our existence is after all, to create a dwelling place for G‑d in this world. In this there are also a number of levels. By the virtue of the newborn’s very existence he is creating a dwelling place for G‑d, for a certain law of the Torah immediately goes into effect: His life must be saved even if it means transgressing another mitzvah.[5] However, this passive creation of a dwelling place cannot be compared to the active efforts of the older child and ultimately those of the adult…

The lesson for parents

The lesson is: It is folly to wait until the child has reached the age of understanding, to properly devote oneself to his education and general upbringing. The time to pay the utmost attention to this is when the child is born and immediately begins to make his presence felt. It is then that the parents must be careful in their behavior, careful in what they feed the child and so on.

And when their child reaches his first birthday, the parents should give charity on his behalf and reflect on the wonderful gift that G‑d gave them. They must make themselves worthy of the trust G‑d put in them, in giving them this precious gift. The birthday of their child is the most fitting time to renew this trust and intensify many times over the effort they put into their child’s education.

May we merit the transition from golus (exile), which is likened to pregnancy, to geulah ([the Messianic] redemption) which will be the birth of a new era, very soon, in our days.


[1] Citing the verse Deuteronomy 26:17.

[2] From the Morning Prayer in the traditional Jewish liturgy.

[3] The age of mature obligation to observe one’s commandments.

[4] Tractate Bava Basra 156a.

[5] See The Divine Code, Part V, chapter 7.