Let Us Eat Cake
Tue, 04/05/2011

Sunday, Oct. 28 was Bess’s first birthday. The festivities began two weeks earlier with a collective party for my local moms’ group’s entire brood — Bess won our first annual crawling race by a mile! — and culminated with an immediate-family-only party featuring homemade frosted pomegranate layer cake. (Rimona, Bess’s middle and Hebrew name, is the feminized form of rimon, or pomegranate.)

But what about a way to celebrate Bess’s birthday Jewishly? Her emergence at sunset, her very presence on earth: they are so tied up for me with Shabbat, with Chana’s tearful prayer for a child in the Book of Samuel, recited at Rosh HaShanah, with the “Oseh Shalom” I hummed to numb the pain of birth and of the long empty months that went before. We celebrate Tu b’Shvat, the “birthday of the trees,” by eating special nuts and fruits (including pomegranates). Is there, I wondered, a special menu for the birthday of a child? Any official birthday ritual, a particular blessing, anything?

As it turns out, there is not. Some Jews do believe that birthdays — our Jewish birthdays, calculated on the Hebrew calendar — are auspicious, full of mazal (fortune), good days to make resolutions. (Bess: “I will refrain from all ear infections.”) Traditionally, Jews celebrate a boy’s third birthday, the official start of his Jewish education, by cutting his hair for the first time, a practice known as “upsherin.” (It’s linked to Leviticus 19:23, which forbids eating fruit from newly planted trees for the first three harvests.) And there’s a traditional association of Purim with Moses’ birthday. (The story goes that Haman chose the seventh of Adar — the day Moses died — to issue his death sentence for Persia’s Jews. What he didn’t know was that Moses was also born on that date, making it an auspicious one). And, of course, we all know what 13th birthdays bring.

But that’s about it. According to the Encyclopedia Judaica, “The celebration of birthdays is unknown in traditional Jewish ritual.” There is no official birthday blessing or ceremony. Nothing. This from a religion with brachot for everything from hearing thunder (“Blessed are You, Eternal God, Sovereign of the Universe, for your strength and power fill the world”) to smelling fragrant trees (“Blessed are You, Eternal God, Sovereign of the Universe, who creates fragrant trees”). While much is made in the Torah of the matter of age — Sarah bore Isaac at 90, for example — the only birthday party mentioned in the Hebrew Bible is, apparently, that of Pharaoh. And yet we assiduously observe every year the occasion of a loved ones’ yahrzeit, or death-day. A little bit of birthday cake is too much of a kinehora? Truly, Jews are people of the bummer.

Or are we? Writing in Moment magazine, Lisa Farber Miller and Sandra Widener speculate that the lack of scriptural birthday hoopla may have more to do with the Jewish focus on doing rather than being. Miller and Widener reference this midrash on Ecclesiastes: “When a person is born, it is not known what he will be like when grown and what his deeds will be — whether righteous or wicked, good, or evil. When he dies, however, if he departs with a good name and leaves the world in peace, people should rejoice.” In other words, the mere fact that we show up may not itself be cause for celebration. It’s what we do after we get here that matters.

Interestingly, though, while birthdays themselves are not ritually observed, the concept of birth — and the possibilities it offers — is written into the Hebrew calendar. In Exodus 12:1, God says to Moses and Aaron, “This month (Nisan) shall mark for you the beginning of the months; it shall be the first of the months of the year for you.” This is said to be the first commandment the Jews received as a nation. It establishes the Hebrew calendar, where each month is marked by the new moon. (Since years are measured by the sun’s rotation, it’s called a lunisolar calendar. Our Gregorian calendar, in which the months no longer correspond to the moon’s phases, is solar; the Islamic calendar is lunar.) And the time at which the new moon appears — determined in ancient times by eyewitnesses reporting to the Sanhedrin — is, long story short, called the molad, or birth. Thus each Rosh Hodesh (“head of the month,” which comes with its own set of rituals and practices) is itself, in a sense, a birthday — of the moon and of our people.

Though calendar computation had traditionally been regarded as a secret science, the fourth-century patriarch Hillel II began the practice of fixing the months and the leap years (more about that shortly) in advance. Hillel’s innovation — which created the permanent Jewish calendar — established a sense of unity among Jews dispersed around the world, making sure that we could celebrate holidays as a single nation, that we all count our days together.

But, if you divide a solar year of 365 days by 12 lunar months, you get about 11 extra days. How to make it come out even? The solution, since ancient times, has been to insert before Nisan, every few years, a 13th “leap” month, Adar II. A year with a second Adar is called a “pregnant” year. I love that, putting aside the image of actually being pregnant for 13 months, the gestation period of a bowhead whale.

The Jewish calendar is full of even more complex calculations. I haven’t even told you how, traditionally, hours are divided into “parts,” where one part equals three and one-thirds seconds, 1/18 of a minute, or 1/1080 of an hour. (You do the math. No, really — YOU do the math.)

All of which brings to mind Psalm 90:12: “So teach us to number our days, that we may get us a heart of wisdom.” What does this mean, to “number” our days, and how is it supposed to make us wise? I wish I spent less time looking at my calendar, figuring out what’s due when, making lists, keeping track, planning ahead. I wish I could be more like my husband, who has a boundless — if occasionally maddening — capacity for doing only what he is doing, right then, in that moment. I wish that all of my moments with Bess were like his: all Bess, all the time. (Mine: some Bess, some “That reminds me, we need mustard,” some Bess, some “When do I need to start dinner in time to get her into the bath and bed on time?”) But we do need to “number our days,” at the very least, to prevent chaos — and far beyond that, as Judaism shows us, to find meaning, to know who we are.

The wisdom we can discover, I think, is in working to discover for ourselves a balance between measuring moments and letting them be. Numbering our days: knowing that their number is finite, stopping once a year nonetheless to take formal, festive, buttercream-frosted note. Numbering our days: knowing that no matter how finely we slice them — 1,080 parts in an hour! — no matter how complex our calculations and adjustments, we are only responding to the passage of time, not having dominion over it. Numbering our days: filling them full, following the traditional Jewish value of avoiding things that are bitul zman (a waste of time) but also remembering that downtime is hardly wasted. Part of Judaism’s beauty is that this balance is written into our calendar with Shabbat, into our weekly cycle of do, do, do, do, do, do, be. As much as Jews are expected to focus on deeds, actions,and mark-making, expected to follow our calendar as we followed Moses, we can also find wisdom in numbering our days — and our moments — this way: one at a time.

Lynn Harris is a Tablet contributing editor and an award-winning journalist who writes regularly for Salon, The New York Times, Glamour and other publications. She is author, most recently, of the comic novel “Death By Chick Lit” and co-founder of the website BreakupGirl.net. Reprinted from Tabletmag.com