Why Don’t We Instead Commemorate One’s Date of Birth?

Ecclesiastes 7:1, in some supposed flash of wisdom, tells us that  “ . . .  one’s day of death is better than his day of birth.” Really?  Is that true insight, or rather the despondent murmurings of a king, the legendary Solomon, whose life took him in a sad direction, so different from what his promising youth foretold?  How could anyone, on an intellectual level, possibly argue that a day of death is better than the day of the very beginning of life?

Still, our tradition, Jewish tradition, has been to remember death.  The ritual of yahrzeit was instituted by the rabbis in the wake of the assassination of martyrs during the time of the Crusades. And, maybe, indeed, for the greater Jewish community, it made sense for martyrs whose greatest life statement occurred in their very deaths – they, perhaps, willingly accepted or simply suffered death as a testament to their belief in God – to be remembered for the day they died, rather than the day they were born.  A unitary day of remembrance commemorative of their deaths makes all the sense in the world as it commemorates an assault on all of Judaism (as opposed to the death of a single person who died individually).

But, what about for one who dies in the ordinary course of life?  The reason or cause is of no moment – old age, disease, accident, young, old. The date of death, particularly for the next of kin, is a truly horrible day. If the deceased suffered, watching or even just learning of and calling to mind that suffering is a dreadful experience for the survivor. Maybe we came to visualize them in daily pain, or when they had already lost the benefit of their full faculties, physical or mental. How is it preferable to annually remember them that way? And doesn’t the date of death bring that to mind?

When we remember their life, do we want to remember them when the life they led in their prime had already ebbed, perhaps not even recognizing us as, perhaps, we sat beside them on their bed?  What possible benefit to the survivor, other than some kabalistic nuance that speaks of the deceased’s spiritual elevation on the date of death, can be gained from recalling the person on his date of death, each and every year?  And while in saying this I don’t contest, for these purposes, the received wisdom that the date of death is critical as it becomes the transition to another, future, world, that wisdom doesn’t apply to the survivor’s recollections of the deceased.

It is somewhat akin to the belief system that suggests that the saying of kaddish is actually to benefit the deceased – helping her soul, on the merit of our prayer, to “gain entrance” to heaven. This, when it makes far more sense, at least to me, that the prayer is for the spiritual benefit of the survivor who is benefited by the soul of the deceased.  Consider the arrogance of a   the kaddish deliverer in even suggesting that the merit of his prayers help his parents’ entrance, as opposed to the merits of the parent’s life itself meriting the world to come.

I just read a New York Times special edition about the great, brave, Jackie Robinson, who would have been 100 on January 31, 2019.  I never knew him; I never met him. But I did got to see him play at Ebbets Field countless times when I was a kid. He was hero to countless youngsters, including myself.  Shouldn’t we remember, and celebrate, his birth and what it connotes?  The day he came into the world, rather than the day he left it from complications from heart disease and diabetes – a time when he was weakened and nearly blind and hardly himself at all.  No, as with my parents and other loved ones, I want to think of them as strong and vibrant, their lives full of hope and promise on the first day of the rest of their lives.

As for Mr. Robinson, An Aliyah To His Neshama – even though today would be his birthday.

About the Author
Joel Cohen is a white-collar criminal defense lawyer at Stroock in New York and previously a prosecutor. He speaks and writes on law, ethics and policy (NY Law Journal, The Hill and Law & Crime). He teaches a course on "How Judges Decide" at Fordham Law School. He has published “Truth Be Veiled,” “Blindfolds Off: Judges on How They Decide” and works of Biblical fiction including “Moses: A Memoir.” The opinions expressed in this article are Mr. Cohen's and not necessarily those of the Stroock firm or its lawyers. Dale J. Degenshein, a Stroock colleague, assists in preparing the articles on this blog.