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The Rebirth of the Birthday

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The 18th of Elul marks the birthday of two great luminaries in the history of Chassidism. Both the founder of the Chassidic movement, Rabbi Israel Baal Shem Tov (1698-1760), and the founder of the Chabad branch of Chassidism, Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi (1745-1812), were born on this date.

Interestingly, it is only in recent generations, and through the influence of Chabad Chassidism, that the birthday has come to be marked as a spiritually significant occasion in Jewish life. Although the Torah lends particular significance to a person’s date of birth,[1] Jews have not, in recent centuries, made much of their birthdays. While the anniversaries of the passing of the great sages and leaders of Israel have been marked as important dates in the Jewish calendar, their birthdays remain largely unknown. The Rebbes of Chabad, however, reemphasized the importance of the birthday, beginning with the establishment of the 18th of Elul as a Chassidic holiday. They stressed the specialty of a great person’s birthday as a day uniquely suited for us to emulate his example and further his life’s work. They also taught that our own birthdays are days of empowerment and opportunity—a time to examine our lives, set new goals, and embark on new achievements. The 18th of Elul can thus be regarded as the birthday (or the rebirthday) of the Jewish birthday.

the Torah lends particular significance to a person’s date of birth
.

Why, indeed, should a person’s date of birth be regarded as more significant than any other date? True, society as a whole celebrates birthdays. But is there truly a basis for such celebration? The date of a person’s passing, especially one who has led a full and productive life, can be seen as the climactic moment of his or her impact upon the world. On this day, the accumulative effect of all that he has achieved reaches its lifetime culmination.[2] But what happens on the day of birth? Long before the fetus departs the womb it is a living organism, with a functioning brain, heart and limbs already encapsulating the potential for all subsequent development and attainment. And if one looks for more than potential, then the moment of birth is hardly a landmark of maturity and achievement; in fact, the day-old infant is, in many respects, even more vulnerable than when encased in the protective environment of the mother’s womb. It will be many years before the child will be in the position to actualize his potential on any meaningful level.

So why should the occurrence of one’s birth be considered an event worthy of commemoration and celebration?

Alive or a Life?

To understand the significance of the birthday, we must examine the manner in which Halachah (Torah law) regards the event of birth. On the face of it, Halachah is a legal and behavioral code which deals primarily with the pragmatics of life; but a deeper look reveals a philosophy and perspective which provides the ideological and spiritual answers to the questions that confront the human soul.

According to Torah law, an unborn child is regarded as “a limb of its mother.”[3] Hence the law that if the fetus endangers the mother’s life, the pregnancy is to be terminated, since “as long as it has not emerged into the world (outside the womb) it is not a soul.” But from the moment that its head emerges, it is considered a “soul,” and “we cannot destroy one soul to save another.”[4]

In other words, a fetus is not an individual life, but an extension—albeit a living extension—of its mother’s being, animated by its mother’s soul. Unlike a body with its own soul, which assumes the quality of life as its intrinsic state of being, the fetus merely reacts to an outside source of vitality in much the same way that a machine reacts to the flow of energy channeled through it. A machine can be made to exhibit the characteristics of life: warmth, movement, growth; it might even be programmed to perform the functions of intelligence and emotions. But the machine is not warm—it is being warmed; it is not moving—it is being moved. Its body remains intrinsically inanimate—it resists the movement (and other lifelike qualities) being imposed on it. Similarly, the body of a fetus, having not yet cemented its fusion with its own soul, reacts to the life-energy generated by its mother’s soul, but is not, in itself, fully alive.[5]

The moment of birth marks the point at which an animated but essentially lifeless body becomes a living being. A “limb” of the mother becomes an individual life, a “soul.”

The Spiritual Fetus

Human life, if it is to be distinguished from the merely animal, includes a spiritual dimension—a set of moral values and transcendent aspirations. Thus the Talmud states: “The wicked, even in their lifetimes, are as if dead.”[6] A soul is not truly alive unless it is connected with its source, attuned to its purpose, and faithful to its mission in life.

But life, as we said, can be either an intrinsic state or merely a superimposed phenomenon. The same is true of spiritual life: a person may lead a moral and holy existence, yet remain a spiritual fetus—a being whose spiritual life is not integral to itself but imposed upon it by an outside source.

A spiritual life, in the ultimate sense, is the life of one whose spirituality stems from his very identity and self-definition—from an appreciation that in his connection with G-d lie the essence and purpose of his existence. A person, however, may lead a righteous and spiritual life, yet do so only out of habit, peer pressure, fear of divine retribution or expectation of divine reward, or out of a sense of duty—his “contribution” as a good citizen of G-d’s world. The common denominator of all these scenarios is that the person and his spirituality are two distinct entities: the person’s own self is defined not by his spiritual aspirations but by his material needs and wants, in addition to which he also “has” a spiritual life, imposed upon the material self by realities and forces that lie beyond its ken.

Such an individual does not have a birthday, for he possesses life only on the fetal level. He is spiritually alive—he serves the purpose for which he was created—but his spiritual life is “supplied” by an external source. He has never graduated to the intrinsic state of life achieved outside of the womb.

A Taste of the Future

Thus our sages compare our present galut (exile) to the state of pregnancy, and the coming of Moshiach to our time of “birth” and emergence into full-fledged life.[7]

For galut is more than a people’s exile from their land. It is a state of spiritual displacement—an obfuscation of truth, a blurring of priorities, an estrangement from one’s essence and source. In galut, we cannot see G-d and are therefore strangers to our own true self.

In galut we cannot experience true life—true identification with our deepest self and our quintessential purpose. We can only, at most, attain a fetal-like connection to a source of vitality, by submitting to a life that is greater than ourselves—a life we strive to actualize in our day-to-day behavior but cannot hope to fully internalize and integrate into our own existence.

This is why the celebration of birthdays was not a prominent feature of Jewish life for many generations. Throughout the centuries of our galut, the spiritual significance of the birthday—the graduation from the externally imposed life of the unborn soul to the post-birth state of full-fledged, self-possessing life—was an elusive goal to all but the very select number of spiritual giants.

Then, on the 18th of Elul, the birthday was reborn.

The teachings of Chassidism, revealed in the closing hours of galut as a “foretaste” of the era of Moshiach, came to penetrate the veil of galut and reunite us with the essence of ourselves. They came to transform our spiritual lives from a “religion” (i.e., submission and reaction to something greater than and beyond the self) into something that is apprehended, experienced and internalized as the very essence of our selfhood.

Our true and ultimate birth awaits the coming of Moshiach, when “the earth will be filled with the knowledge of G-d as the waters cover the sea”[8] and the “spark of G-dliness” that is the core of the human soul will assert itself as the seat of our identity and the essence of our lives. But the first stirrings of birth have already begun, prodded by two great leaders born on the 18th of Elul whose teachings have accorded us a glimpse of life beyond the womb.

Based on the Rebbe’s talks on Elul 18, 5741 (1981) and 5742 (1982)[9]

Adapted from the teachings of the Rebbe by Yanki Tauber


[1] . See Midrash Tanchuma, Pekudei, end; Talmud, Megillah 13b; Jerusalem Talmud, Rosh HaShanah 3:8.

[2] . See Tanya, Iggeret HaKodesh, section 27.

[3] . Talmud, Gittin 23b.

[4] . Talmud, Ohalot 7:6; ibid., Sanhedrin 72b and Rashi’s commentary. See also Nachmanides on Shabbat 107b and Niddah 44b; Meiri on Shabbat 107b and Sanhedrin 72b.

[5] . Editor’s note: The abortion issue is often misrepresented as hinging solely on the question of whether a fetus is a life, in which case its destruction is “murder,” or not, in which case it is merely a question of “a woman’s rights over her own body.” But there exist other moral wrongs aside from murder. According to Torah law, abortion is not murder in the ultimate sense of taking an individual human life, and is therefore justified (and obligatory) if the pregnancy poses a danger to the mother’s life. But it is the destruction of life, both of a living extension of the mother and of the potential for a full-fledged “soul.” The issue of “women’s rights” is a moot point: no human being, man or woman, has the right to destroy his own life and body or any part thereof, and society carries the responsibility of preventing such acts.

[6] . Talmud, Berachot 18b.

[7] . See Torah Ohr, Bereishit 55a ff.

[8] . Isaiah 11:9.

[9] . Likkutei Sichot, vol. XXIV, pp. 178-187.

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