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Why a Birthday Is Worth Celebrating
By Rabbi Levi Yitzchok Ginsberg

The reason we celebrate birthdays is connected to the fact that in Chabad Chassidus, there is no such thing as a “free ride.” “Chabad mont pnimiyus” – the individual has to work on himself, and not rely on “gifts from Above.”


The mashpia Reb Mendel once related:

The Alter Rebbe was once out walking with the Chevraya Kaddisha (the disciples of the Mezeritcher Maggid) when they came upon a Chassid of the famous Reb Chaim Chaikel of Amdura in the middle of Sh’moneh Esrei. It was obvious that the Chassid was davening “with an emes,” that his G-dly soul completely illuminated his being and was directly communing with its Creator.

Nu, what do you say to that?” the members of the Chevraya Kaddisha asked the Alter Rebbe. “Just look at how he’s davening!”

“Yes,” the Alter Rebbe replied, “he davens very well. But it’s not he who is doing the davening, it’s Reb Chaikel of Amdura.”

As is known, the Polish “brand” of Chassidus is very different from Chassidus Chabad. As Reb Shlomo of Karlin commented on the words “tzaddik b’emunaso yichyeh” (“the tzaddik lives by his faith”), among Polish Chassidim, the words should be read “tzaddik b’emunaso yechayeh,” (“the tzaddik enlivens [others] with his faith”). A Polish Chassid need only be mekushar to his Rebbe, and the Rebbe supplies him with all his spiritual needs.

The Alter Rebbe concluded: “I will never do that with my Chassidim. They will never be able to rely on ‘free gifts.’ My Chassidim will have to work hard on themselves and perform their avoda through their own effort. They may only attain a little, but whatever they get will really belong to them.”

* * *

Chaf-Hei Adar was the 99th birthday of Rebbetzin Chaya Mushka, of blessed memory, signifying the entry into her hundredth year. As our Sages said in Pirkei Avos, “At one hundred, it is as if a person were dead, passed away and ceased from the world.” As explained in many places, this means that a person reaches a level of avoda that surpasses all boundaries and limitations.

This has special significance in light of the fact that after the Rebbetzin’s passing on Chaf-Beis Sh’vat 5748, a “new period” began in the nesius of the Rebbe Melech HaMoshiach shlita. As the Rebbe explained (see Kuntreis “Becha Yevareich Yisroel”), at that point “the buttons had already been polished,” and the only thing left to do was “to greet Moshiach Tzidkeinu in actuality.”

That Chaf-Hei Adar, 12 years ago, was the “birthday” of Mivtza Yom Huledes, which the Rebbe dedicated to the Rebbetzin’s memory and merit.

Additionally, because Yud-Alef  Nissan is fast approaching, the birthday of Melech HaMoshiach, it is especially timely that we consider the Chassidic concept of birthdays and its special importance for us, the members of the “seventh generation.”

As the Rebbe explained, a person celebrating his birthday should recite the “Sh’hecheyanu” blessing on a new fruit at his birthday farbrengen. This expresses his thanks to G-d for his very existence, for his having been born in the first place. A logical question arises: What’s so wonderful about being born? From the baby’s perspective, wasn’t he a lot better off before he took his first breath, both physically and spiritually?

In the mother’s womb, he didn’t have to worry about what he would eat; the fetus “eats what the mother eats.” The fetus is also better protected from harm than a vulnerable newborn. Spiritually, the unborn baby is also on a higher level, as “a candle is lit by his head, and he is taught the entire Torah.” As soon as he is born, “an angel comes and slaps him on the mouth, causing him to forget everything he has learned.” In truth, how many people ever attain the same level of knowledge, even after a lifetime of Torah study?

(This is related to the custom of eating arbis (chickpeas) at a shalom zachor as a symbol of mourning for the Torah the newborn has just forgotten, in the same way a mourner eats “round foods” that have no mouth, as the mourner “cannot open his mouth” against Divine judgment.)

When you really think about it, why do we celebrate when a person is born?

The opening story about the Alter Rebbe sheds some light on this. True, a fetus receives a lot more than a newborn infant, but it is not yet an independent being. As Rashi comments, “It is not yet a person.” The fetus is given an abundance of spiritual and material blessings, but they don’t really “belong” to him. Its very existence isn’t self-sufficient but depends entirely on the mother. The fetus must rely on what it is given, which are essentially “free gifts.” This explains why halachically, an unborn baby isn’t even considered a “metziyus,” and a person who causes death to a fetus, G-d forbid, isn’t deserving of capital punishment.

In truth, this expresses one of the main innovations of Chabad Chassidus: the need for independent avoda. When it comes to our Divine service, there’s no such thing as a free ride. A Jew must never rely on “free gifts” – not from G-d, not from the Rebbe, not from his rav, and not from his mashpia. Until a person expends his own effort, he hasn’t attained anything he can rightfully call “his.” And even if it outwardly appears that he has a lot, they are only external trappings, and “he is not yet a person.”

The yom huledes, the day a person is born, marks the beginning of the process of becoming an independent being. No longer can he live because of what others give him; now he is on his own. He may not accomplish a lot, but whatever his achievements, they will truly be “his.” When “independent service” is the foundation and underlying principle of one’s life, one can then successfully integrate the “gifts” one receives from Above.

Superficially, this concept may seem to contradict the main innovation of Chassidus. Chassidus demands complete and total bittul (self-negation), that the individual put aside the ego and “forget” his own existence. According to Chassidus, a person is supposed to de-emphasize his own feelings and concentrate on the foundation of “pure faith.”

So how do birthdays fit in? How do we reconcile the need for independent avoda with a sense of bittul?

The two approaches are reflected in the revelation of Chassidus itself. Chronologically, “general” Chassidus, as propounded by the Baal Shem Tov, came first, followed by Chabad Chassidus, as developed by the Alter Rebbe. This is because in avoda, the first step must be bittul and pure faith, without the interference of the intellect. Only afterward do we go on to refine our other midos. (The Rebbe Rashab likened this to the chronology of the Patriarchs having preceded Mattan Torah historically.)

Yet it would be wrong to characterize Chabad Chassidus as emphasizing the “I.” On the contrary, there is no system of thought demanding a higher level of bittul, insisting that nothing can be built on either logic or personal feeling.

However, Chabad Chassidus warns that even bittul can be makif, existing outside the individual without being fully internalized. If bittul comes from without (as a “gift” from G-d, from the Rebbe, etc.) and is not fully internalized, the person remains the same “metziyus” as before, and nothing has been accomplished. In effect, whatever spiritual achievements a Jew attains are not really his.

For this reason, one of the basic principles of Chabad Chassidus is that a person must never content himself with “spiritual gifts” from others, no matter how lofty or superior to what he would be able to attain by his own effort. A person must work very hard on himself – independently – to ensure that his bittul is internalized with a p’nimiyus.

The Gemara cites the famous case of “the robber who stands before the entrance and prays to G-d” as an example of what happens when faith isn’t internalized. The robber, about to commit an act of theft or even murder, G-d forbid, sees no contradiction in asking G-d for help! This is because although the criminal truly believes in G-d, his belief is only makif and has not penetrated his very essence. His emuna remains “above,” encompassing rather than internalized. This creates an absurd situation in which he behaves in a manner contradictory to what he believes, and even asks G-d for success in his mission!

To prevent such situations from occurring (on a finer scale, of course), “Chabad mont p’nimiyus” – “Chabad requires self-internalization.” Through his own efforts the individual must take everything he has ever learned and believes in, and make sure that it trickles down to his inner being. The results might not be as glorious as what he could achieve with outside help, but they will truly belong to him.

Accordingly, a yom huledes signifies the need to stand on one’s own two feet. Without independent effort, there is no “free gift” in the world that will have the desired effect.

The Alter Rebbe initiated the idea of a Chassid being “born.” (In fact, it was in the Alter Rebbe’s times that the concept of birthdays first started to gain in significance, i.e., Chai Elul, his own birthday and that of the Baal Shem Tov.) Nonetheless, the practice of celebrating birthdays was not widespread, and only pertained to certain individuals (perhaps because only a select few were truly “born”).

The momentum increased with the Rebbe Rayatz, who revealed many customs to be observed on the day of one’s birth. This was expanded upon by the Rebbe shlita, the “seventh generation,” but wasn’t given the form of an official “mivtza” until the “new period” in the Rebbe’s nesius, which commenced after the Rebbetzin’s passing in 5748.

In other words, although the Alter Rebbe initiated the idea of independent effort to ensure that one’s avoda permeates his inner being, it still required the individual to “step out of himself” to a certain degree in order to receive the revelation from Above. The very lowest levels of existence were still untouched. In the times of the Alter Rebbe, a Chassid had to spend years studying Torah, davening with the utmost concentration and correcting his midos in order to be on a level where he could internalize all he had learned.

The ultimate objective of creation, making G-d a “dwelling place in the lower worlds,” was starting to materialize. G-dliness was pervading the “lower worlds,” but only the topmost layers. The Sh’china had begun its initial descent from the “seventh firmament,” but had not yet reached its final destination on earth. An individual wishing to take part in the process had to expend great effort over many years to elevate himself sufficiently.

With every subsequent generation the Sh’china descended further, as G-dliness penetrated increasingly lower levels of existence. The Rebbe Rayatz, the s’fira of yesod (the “gateway” to the very lowest levels of earth), continued the process by extending it to people and places that previously couldn’t even relate to the process. (This is one of the reasons the Rebbe Rayatz always lived in urban centers, and dealt with all kinds of people throughout his life.)

As is known, the final step, that of bringing the Sh’china completely down to earth so that the “lower world” itself becomes a source of illumination, belongs to the Rebbe Melech HaMoshiach, the “seventh generation,” the s’fira of malchus. As the Rebbe stated upon accepting the nesius, in the maamar Basi L’Gani on Yud Sh’vat 5711: “This is what is required of each of us, the members of the seventh generation, about which it states ‘all sevenths are beloved’: The fact that we are of the seventh generation is not by our choice or in the merit of our avoda; in many respects it may even be against our will. Nonetheless, ‘all sevenths are beloved,’ and we are now in the period known as ikvisa d’Meshicha [the heels of Moshiach], and are in fact at the very end of the heel. Our avoda consists of completing the process of drawing down the Sh’china [to earth], and not just the Sh’china, but the ‘main part’ of the Sh’china, and precisely to the lowest levels.”

With the advent of the Rebbe shlita we reached the stage at which G-dliness has not only reached the very lowest levels of existence, but “bursts” out of them. The Rebbe has touched every geographical location on earth, even the most far-off and remote. These places, in turn, have turned into “independent” centers of Yiddishkeit and Chassidus, translating the highest concepts of Torah into every spoken language in the world. All methods of hafatza are being utilized, bringing Torah to every man, woman and child alive today.

The Rebbe works through his army of shluchim, Rabbanim, mashpiim, community activists, etc., regardless of their own spiritual standing. The Rebbe works through us, even if we are unworthy of the honor. For the Rebbe is the very epitome of getting the world to serve G-d “independently.”

If previously the “buttons still had to be polished” to be ready for the Final Redemption, after the Rebbetzin’s passing on Chaf-Beis Sh’vat 5748 we reached a new era in which polishing them further “could only cause damage.” This is because we’re already at the point at which G-dliness has completely permeated creation, and even the lowest among us can relate to it.

The concept of “independent service” is even more pertinent today, after Zach Adar and Gimmel Tammuz, when it appears to the physical eye that we are working “alone,” G-d forbid. This is why it is even more important to adhere to the Rebbe’s hora’os “like a hairsbreadth” and continue all the Rebbe’s inyanim, spreading the Rebbe’s prophecy of imminent Redemption. For in fact, the greatest expression of the concept of yom huledes is when even the lowest levels of creation will know that the Rebbe shlita is “chai v’kayam” in the literal sense. To that end we will continue to proclaim “Yechi Adoneinu” at every opportunity, until the Rebbe is completely revealed before the eyes of the world. May it happen immediately.


The fetus depends entirely on the mother. It must rely on what it is given, which are essentially

“free gifts.”





Through his own efforts the individual must take everything he has ever learned and believes in, and make sure that it trickles down to his inner being.






The Rebbe works through us, even if we are unworthy of the honor. For the Rebbe is the very epitome of getting the world to serve G-d independently.


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