With the Rebbetzen’ s and the Rebbe’s birthdays being celebrated during these couple of weeks – we share a letter where the Rebbe explains our customs for a birthday. The letter, written originally in English, is from the archives of the Rebbe’s trusted secretary Rabbi Nissan Mindel.
By the Grace of G-d
25th of Cheshvan, 5735
Miami Beach, Fla. 33140
Greeting and Blessing:
I was pleased to receive word about your recent birthday.
No doubt you know that Chassidim observe special customs in connection with a birthday. These also reflect the significance of a birthday in Jewish life.
In general, these customs comprise four items: 1) and aliyah – being called up to the Torah – on the preceding Shabbos, if at all possible, 2)additional Torah study on the birthday itself, 3 an extra donation for tzedaka on the birthday – if a weekday, or before or after, if it occurs on Shabbos, 4)the custom, introduced by the Baal Shem Tov and transmitted to us by the Alter Rebbe, founder of Chabad to recite on that day and daily thereafter throughout the year, the particular Psalm/Tehillim corresponding to one’s age, plus one (e.g. a Bar Mitzvah boy would begin reciting Psalm 14 and the following year Psalm 15 and so on).
Needless to say, Jewish customs are meaningful in many ways. It would take us too far afield to mention more than one aspect in regard to each of the above four customs.
The Aliyah to the Torah on the preceding Shabbos, which is, by way of preparation for the birthday, emphasizes that with each birthday the Jew rises to a higher spiritual level. This is indicated also by the word aliyah (going up). And although the term also refers to the physical ascent of actually going up to the bimah which is on a higher level that the floor of the shul, its real meaning is the spiritual aspect. Indeed, it is precisely because of the spiritual aspect, achieved through the reading and study of the Torah, that the bimah is elevated.
The particular relevance of the birthday is this: a person, of course, grows physically and mentally from day to day and from year to year, so that in some respects the person is not exactly the same today as the day before. Certainly in the spiritual sphere the birthday is meant to bring about an essential, not merely superficial, change, since on that day his mazal is renewed. By that is meant, as the Gemoro expresses it “Mazolei chazi” – the “root” of the soul, which remains attached to its Source On High, while only an extension of the soul, as it were, descends into the body and vitalizes it. For, obviously the soul which is eternal and part of “real G-dliness” could not be wholly confined within the body, any more than G-d Himself could not be confined within the world He created. And just as G-d is both in the world and beyond it – immanent and transcendent – so it is in regard to the soul and the body. Therefore, when the birthday comes, the Jew is expected to ascend to a higher level in an essential way, namely by strengthening the very root of the soul when, as a matter of course, the change is felt also in the “lower” aspect of the soul that vitalizes the physical body. Such a change can be achieved only through Torah, which is “our very life and the length of our days.”
The second observance – an increase in the actual Torah study – follows the first, but in a more tangible way, namely with the study of the Torah with understanding and comprehension, so that it permeates the mind and is reflected in actual living experience in the daily life.
The third item – the giving of tzedaka – signifies the giving of oneself, both of body and soul. Since a person consists of both body and soul, his growth and advancement has to encompass both the spiritual and the physical. If the aliyah and the study of the Torah study primarily reflect the spiritual, the giving of tzedaka reflects the physical and material, namely the sweat and toil of earning money, which is then converted into something spiritual and sacred, since it is dedicated to a sacred cause, as indicated by the term tzedaka.
The fourth serves as a source of general inspiration and, by focusing on a selected verse, as a particular highlight or guideline in the daily conduct.
Being kept informed by our mutual friends about your consistent advancement both spiritually and materially (in matters of tzedaka), there remains for me only to express the hope that since your recent birthday, you have been doing this with even greater inspiration and joy, and that the advancement is evident in both quality and quantity.