“What’s more important an anniversary or a birthday?” Cecil asked me, “I’m in two minds whether to go home to South Africa this year for my old man’s seventieth birthday or next year for my folks’ fortieth wedding anniversary. Of course I’d love to go for both, but it’s way too expensive! What do you suggest, Rabbi?”
“How are your parents doing? Are they in good health?” I inquired. Sometimes it’s not a good idea to delay a visit.
“Yes, thank G-d, they keep in great shape, may they live till 120!”
Which occasion is more significant in Judaism – birthdays or anniversaries?
When the Jews returned to Israel from exile in Babylonia, they wanted to reinstitute the Temple service, but there was an acute shortage of communal resources. Nine families stepped up to the plate and offered to cover the costs of wood for the altar. As time went on, the economic situation improved and there was no need for the individual families’ donations. Nevertheless, in recognition of their original dedication, they were each accorded one day a year to contribute the wood. The families celebrated their day as a personal family festival.
Rabbi Chisda taught: Any fast that one does not complete until nightfall is not called a fast.
The Talmud questions this teaching from a story told by Rabbi Eliezer the son of Tzadok.
“I am a descendent of Son-of the son of Benjamin. One time, the 9th Av (a day of national tragedy, observed as a public fast) fell on Shabbat. The fast was postponed to Sunday (since there is no mourning on the Sabbath). Our family fasted [so as not to separate ourselves from the community] but we did not complete the fast, because that day (the 10th Av) is our family festival [of the wood contribution].”
Here, the Son-of family didn’t complete their fast, but they still partially fasted. The Talmud infers that, contrary to Rabbi Chisda’s opinion, an incomplete fast is still deemed a fast. The Talmud concludes, however, that they didn’t really need to fast since it was not the actual day of the 9th Av. They simply did not want to be in complete celebration mode when everyone else was in mourning and so they too afflicted themselves a little.
Our purpose in life is to contribute. The more we contribute in life, the more we have fulfilled our Divine mission. Babies are pure takers. As we mature, hopefully we take less and less and begin to give back. The festival of the wood-contribution was so important that it overrode the Son-of family’s obligation to fast! Such is the significance and value accorded to contribution!
Birthdays are wonderful but they don’t celebrate any personal achievement. The only thing you achieved by your birthday is that you managed not to die over the last twelve months! It’s certainly an opportunity to thank the Almighty for granting you the health to reach another birthday and to think about all the goodness He has given you in life. But in terms of your accomplishments, it really doesn’t signify anything.
Anniversaries, however, are extremely meaningful. There are two major milestones in life that reflect our ultimate purpose on earth. When one is single, it’s all about ME. No need to worry about anyone else. I can come and go as I please, spend money as I please, say and do whatever I like. But then you get married and everything changes. Suddenly it’s all about giving your life to someone else.
Why would anyone do that? The answer is that our purpose in life is to give. Marriage is about unconditional giving. Of course, the second milestone is having children – at that point, it’s completely about selfless giving. You can never expect to get back the hundreds of thousands of dollars and hours you have given your kids!
And so every year, on your wedding anniversary, it is surely a cause for celebration. It is the celebration of contribution. You have given of yourself to someone else selflessly for another year! That’s the purpose of life, that’s worth celebrating!
Always remember why you are here. You were given this mortal life to be a contributor, to be a giver. The more you give, the greater your accomplishment. Become an achiever today – become a giver today! And then you will have much to celebrate!