By Rabbi Yochanan Posner
This Saturday is my dear wife’s birthday. Like every year, I will not get her a cake on her birthday. I will not buy her a gift on her birthday—we will not even go out to a restaurant. And I am not a bad husband, I think. You see, my wife was born on Yom Kippur, the holiest day on the Jewish calendar.
In fact, her parents chose to name her “Esther Yona” because she was born on this holy day.
She was named Yona (which, in addition to meaning “dove,” was also the name of the Hebrew prophet whom G-d had sent to urge the people on Ninve to repent), because on Yom Kippur afternoon Jewish communities all over the world read the Book of Jonah—Yona in Hebrew.
The connection of Esther to Yom Kippur is a bit trickier, but it holds a very deep lesson. Esther, is the heroine of the miracle of Jewish survival during the Persian period chronicled in the book that bears her name. We celebrate it every year on the super-joyous holiday of Purim. Now, the word Yom Kippur(im), can also be read to mean “the day that is like Purim.” This means that as special and holy as we think we may become on Yom Kippur, this is merely a reflection of that which we can attain on Purim through joy. So keep on smiling!
Now, on Yom Kippur we neither eat nor drink, living like angels for 24 hours. Since our family celebrates birthdays according to the Jewish calendar, her birthday always is on Yom Kippur. This means that she never gets a cake on her birthday.
The truth is, in a certain sense, everyone’s birthday is on Yom Kippur. This is because the Chassidic masters teach that your birthday is your own personal Yom Kippur. Yom Kippur is the day when we take stock of the past year, and look forward to the coming year, seeing what we should continue and what needs improvement. In Chassidic tradition, we spend our birthdays much in the same manner, contemplating, meditating, and connecting out our souls.
But just in case you are getting worried, we don’t ignore my wife’s birthday. We just hold the party a few hours early. That is because on the day before Yom Kippur we feast (twice in fact) so that we have enough nourishment to carry us through the fast, and one of those feasts also doubles as a party, replete with ice-cream and all the trimmings.
As Jews all over the world prepare for this special day, I want to wish everyone a meaningful and easy fast. And to Yona: Happy birthday!
Rabbi Yochanan Posner is the executive director of Lubavitch Chabad of Skokie. For close to a decade, he has been honing his distinct style as the local instructor for the Jewish Learning Institute. He has spoken for diverse crowds here in Illinois as well as in Russia, Ukraine, South Africa, Namibia, Hungary, and Israel. Rabbi Posner is an energetic and passionate presenter.
Raised in Skokie, Rabbi Posner has dedicated most of his life to helping the Jewish community, and currently resides in Skokie with his wife and their children.