On April 10, Jews the world over will be sitting down to their Passover seder, celebrating the exodus of the Jewish people from slavery in Egypt thousands of years ago.
In one house in Teaneck, however, there will be an additional celebration of a more recent event. This year, the first seder falls out on my 70th birthday.
I’ve been told by some relatives and friends that it’s a “special” birthday. And I think in common parlance it is — all birthdays (and anniversaries) that end in 0 or 5 somehow become special. But I wonder if they really are. Isn’t this idea simply based on the fact that we have a decimal (base-10) number system? If our society had adopted a duodecimal (base-12) system, an idea many mathematicians have advocated, wouldn’t I have to wait another two years until I was blessed with this special occasion?
It’s true that people do indeed have some special birthdays, though not necessarily those ending in 0 and 5. For Jewish girls and boys, 12 and 13 are special as they celebrate their bat and bar mitzvahs, denoting their coming of age in a Jewish sense by taking on the obligation of mitzvot. In New York, 16 is a special birthday for teens who are eligible to get a driver’s license for the first time; in New Jersey that singular day arrives a year later.
Such special birthdays seem to come fast and furious in our younger years. In most states, an 18th birthday signifies that you have reached the age of majority, when you can, for example, first vote, make a will, sign a contract, enlist in the army without parental consent, or apply for credit in your own name. And then there’s 21, when you can drink legally — in the United States, that is. Canadians have this special birthday at 19. In some countries, though, you have to wait until your 25th birthday to celebrate.
And then things slow down. 25, 30, 35, 40, 45, 50, 55, 60 — nothing really notable about those. Sure there are some special years, but each person has different ones, unrelated to the numbers. The year you got your first car, became a parent, were awarded a professional license or award, got a big promotion at work, moved to your first apartment, took that special trip, or published your first book. Or it may be distinct in a different sense. The year you got divorced, went bankrupt, had your house foreclosed, lost a job, a parent, a child, a spouse, a best friend. But in all these it was the year that was special. No one would use that word to describe the birthday launching it.
But then you hit your 60s. Your 65th birthday means you can sign up for Medicare (the best health insurance program I’ve ever been in); 66 means you’ve reached full retirement age according to Social Security; and 70 is the signal that you must start spending your IRA/401(k) savings. Important, to be sure, but I don’t think anyone who commented on my special birthday had my retirement plan withdrawals in mind.
Tradition, however, does describe certain birthdays in multiples of 5 and 10 as special. Thus, in Pirkei Avot, R. Yehudah ben Temah teaches that your fifth birthday signifies the study of Scriptures, your tenth the Mishna, and on and on until 60, which represents seniority, 70 sevah, 80 strength, and on through 100.
Sevah — the one you get at 70 — is hard to render in English. I found several translations that didn’t resonate with me, including ripe old age (nope) and grey hair (true). But the one I liked best — experience — struck a positive chord. My knowledge in some areas may be lacking, my judgment spotty at times, and my wisdom — well, let me just say that the wise Mr. Kaplan was my father. But experience? Surely I have plenty of that.
Putting aside this traditional text and my full head of salt and pepper hair, at the end of the day there will be something very special about this birthday, and not because it’s a multiple of 10. I’ll be celebrating it with my wife, all my kids — my three daughters who live on the Upper West Side, and my daughter, son-in-law, and grandchildren from Toronto — and other cherished family and friends around a festive seder table (or, rather, two tables squeezed into my suddenly-too-small dining room, from which we have to remove the sideboard to the living room to fit in the second table).
It will be a table filled with symbols of our heritage — a shining silver seder plate (an heirloom passed down to us from my late in-laws, who spent Pesach in our home in their later years); gleaming silver bechers that once graced their and my late parents’ seder tables (all polished by me); a kos shel Eliyahu (Elijah’s cup) bought on a vacation in Vermont of all places; hand-baked shmurah matzah; freshly ground marror; two varieties of charoset; children’s hand-made holiday projects; and a Miriam’s cup (a relatively recent addition).
It will be a table laden with much too much, but as always delectable homemade food and desserts, for which space somehow will be found.
It’s a table around which we’ll recite the haggadah; speak words of Torah; listen to the kids (and adults) recite the mah nishtana in several languages, including American Sign Language; ask and answer questions; steal and return (for a price) the afikoman; tell both traditional and new stories; put the grandkids to bed seriatim; share touching memories of family long gone; laugh and argue; complain about the slowness of Magid and the lateness of the hour; and sing with gusto ha lachma anya, frogs here/frogs there, dayenu, and chad gadya late into the night, even though we’re all bone tired. And then, of course, clean up.
In sum, I’ll be celebrating this birthday around a table overflowing with tradition, food, family, and love. Special? You bet!