There is a quizzical conundrum revolving around this common expression. We all know that the day of the year that someone was born is their birthday, while the day they got married or started a new job is their anniversary (though some people would tell you those are the same thing.)
Now you could mix things up a little if you were talking about, say, a bar mitzvah anniversary. It is technically an anniversary, but it’s also a little bit of birthday.
The definition of birthday is a bit confusing. It is: “the anniversary of the day on which a person was born, typically treated as an occasion for celebration and the giving of gifts.” It can also be “the anniversary of something starting or being founded.” So, for example, a magazine could have a fifth birthday which is its fifth anniversary of publishing its first issue.
So, what is the difference?
If you start searching through language “think tanks” or discussion groups, you’ll likely find some explanation that though they are somewhat interchangeable, and a birthday is actually the anniversary of your birth, they are etymologically derived from different sources or languages and one fell into use more for the birth anniversary and one for the anniversary of other things.
I’d like to suggest that there’s another angle we can look at which will give us an insight into these celebrations and how the different words may have special meaning. Let’s look at the birthday. It is actually mentioned in the Torah.
We are told in Parashas Vayeishev (40:20) that “On the third day, the day of Pharaoh’s birth, he made a feast for all his servants…” I know some people will say that celebrating a birthday is not a Jewish thing, as you see it was Pharaoh who did, but I’m hoping that when I’m done, you’ll think a little differently.
No, I’m not advocating parties necessarily and I know there’s something about the round cakes being similar to an offering to a moon deity. What I’m saying though is that it is worthwhile to pause at least once a year to reflect on the fact that we came to this world on a specific day.
There’s a quote I’ve heard attributed to the Lubavitcher Rebbe, R’ Menachem Mendel Schneerson, z”l: “Your birthday is the day Hashem decided the world couldn’t exist without you.” [I coined a corollary when a dear friend passed away, “The day of death is when He decided that Heaven needs you more.”]
If that’s the case, then your birthday is a day not of happenstance or coincidence, but of positive thought and decision. It’s the day you were put on earth to do something only you can do. If we simply called it an anniversary, then we might mistakenly believe we’re just recalling something in the past. Nothing could be further from the truth.
When we celebrate our birthdays, we’re saying, “I came into this world to do something and I’m still here. I shall still continue to do!” We’re not celebrating the past but looking anxiously to the future with great anticipation and expectation. We’re seeing the potential of a newborn all over again, just without the teething and diapers. When we say, “Happy Birthday!” we’re wishing people that they should achieve and accomplish in the coming year so that others who see them should exclaim, “Happy is the parent who gave birth to such a person.” (OK, it’s from the Gemara and maybe it sounds better in the Lashon Hakodesh.)
In Parashas Re’eh, the Torah tells us that the eyes of Hashem are upon the land of Israel from the beginning of the year to the end of the year. However, the Satmar Rav points out that it changes syntax. First it says, “Mai’raishis HAshana,” from the beginning of THE year, and then it ends with, “achris shana,” year end, but without the letter Hei, signifying THE. Why the difference?
He explains that each year as we approach Rosh Hashanah, we make the equivalent of New Year’s resolutions. We say that THIS year we will daven better, learn more, be kinder. We are going to serve Hashem so well that this will be THE year everything turns around. But our enthusiasm wanes and we often fall short of our hopes and dreams. It turns out at the end that it wasn’t THE year, but just another “year.”
The good wishes of Happy Birthday should remind us why we’re here and encourage us to make this THE year. Of course, it’s not necessary to wait until the date that you were born. Every day can be the first day of the rest of your life, the day you were reborn as something better than you were before.
Cake and balloons might be nice, but motivating yourself to improve and grow, building upon everything that led up to today, is truly cause for a celebration.
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