Ask the Rabbi

Ask the Rabbi June/July 2023

Rabbi Carla Freedman

June/July 2023 Question

I have never seen a celebration of birthdays and anniversaries during a temple service. Why do we do that here, and is it okay, Jewishly, to do so?

June/July 2023 Answer

Good question.

To the second part of your question: It is a Jewish tradition that, while the Torah scroll is out of the ark, on the reader’s table during the Torah service, we offer special prayers, all of which begin with the phrase Mi Shebirach (May the One who blessed). The most familiar of these is the prayer for the sick, which is offered in various ways or styles in many congregations. But it is by no means the only such prayer.

It is traditional, at this point, for example, to offer prayers for those who are travelling, since in previous time, travel was seen as (and was!) very dangerous. It is also traditional at this point to offer a prayer for those visiting or making Aliyah to Israel.

There are versions of this prayer for people going off to college, for those about to undergo serious medical procedures, for those entering military service (this one is done weekly in some Israeli congregations, where military service is compulsory for all 18-year-olds), etc.

There is also a version of this prayer to be said for couples who are about to be married (in Orthodox congregations, only the bridegroom receives the blessing when he comes up for an Aliyah before the
wedding…at an event with the strange-sounding name of aufruf). And there are such prayers at the traditional naming of a baby girl.

And of course, there is a version (or rather, there are various versions) for birthdays. And for anniversaries. The texts I use come from the Conservative movement’s Rabbis’ Manual.

So we do this, once a month, for people celebrating birthdays and/or anniversaries in the new (secular calendar) month.

Now for the first part of your question: Why do we do this stuff at Beth Israel SCC?

A few years ago, a congregant told me that he was in Temple because his birthday was coming up. I asked if it was a significant birthday and he replied, “Lady, at this age, all birthdays are significant!”.

Think about how many congregants’ names we read each Shabbat when we pray for their health. Think about the many illnesses and conditions common amongst seniors. It is, in our demographic, no small achievement, to reach another birthday. And the same applies to wedding anniversaries.

When we celebrate these in Temple, during a service, we offer prayers in the traditional format of the Mi Shebeirach. We don’t sing “happy birthday”. And we do this while the scroll is open, on the reader’s

We Jews have always been very good at marking the tragedies and sorrows of our lives. It seems to me that celebrating birthdays and anniversaries in accordance with established Jewish practices is a
healthy thing to do on Shabbat, which is already a joyous occasion.

And, yes, I like to make the process fun.

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