General Topics

Older or Wiser?


There is an expression “There is no fool like an old fool.” I have often wondered whether this is a comment on stupidity or old age. And please don’t tell me it’s not woke to talk about old anything.

The Torah contains two laws about old age. “You should rise before an old man Sayva  and honor a Zaken(Leviticus 19:32).” Sayva ( is often translated as Gray Hair or Hoary Head and is the origin of the word for a grandfather ) and Zaken (senior), although they do have different usages both in the Torah and the Talmud, and are often used interchangeably. Traditionally Sayva is usually a physical term for old age. Several times the Torah talks about going down to one’s grave with gray hairs. 

In contrast,  Zaken implies a degree of maturity and wisdom. It is used to describe younger people who show leadership qualities and are given the title of Elder. So that when Moses was advised by his father-in-law to appoint seventy elders to help him with the administration and leadership of the Children of Israel  ( Exodus 18:20 & 21) they are described as Zekeynim even though age is not mentioned as a factor but rather that they should be “Of integrity, God-fearing, honest and hating bribery.”  In some respects, you might understand this as respecting authority ( much as I find this disturbing, counterintuitive, and usually a very poor basis for respect)!

The Mishna ( Avot.5.25)  gives a list of qualities associated with age, at 30 maximum physical strength,  40 understanding, 50 good advice, 60 an elder, Zaken, 70 gray-haired  Sayva, 80 longevity, 90 you bend over (or your mind wanders), and 100 you might well be dead! Interesting that in medieval times life expectancy was around 40 and now 100 is no longer rare or senile! I don’t think we are meant to take this too literally. But this reiterates the idea that the Zaken is not necessarily an old man.

Why must the elderly be shown outward displays of honor? Even if they lack scholarly attainment, those who have lived long lives are likely to possess some wisdom obtained through experience. As Job says “Is not wisdom found among the aged? Does not long life bring understanding (Job 12:12)?” 

By the Talmudic era, Rabbinic Judaism valued Torah study over all other human activities (Mishnah Peah 1:1) so they linked these laws to study.   Rabbi Eleazar said we were created to study Torah (Sanhedrin 99b) on the assumption of course that ideally this would make us better people, more educated, loyal and God-fearing Jews.  So that the word Sayva came to be associated with scholarship rather than just age. Advanced age is, by itself, was insufficient reason to afford either respect or honor. Onkelos, the Roman translator of the Torah into Aramac has Sayva as referring to a Torah scholar, whereas Zaken refers to anyone of a grandfatherly age. 

Whereas Rabbi Jose the Galilean requires one to rise in the presence of a young scholar, Issi ben Judah claimed that all elderly people, irrespective of their levels of scholarship or ignorance, are included in the category of Sayva and must be honored (Kiddushin 32b).

The Torah also required both respect and honor for one’s parents even if they have been bad parents. It emphasizes the idea of family and the reciprocal caring by parents of children ( acting as agents of God) and children of parents as they grow old. Emphasizing obligations both humanitarian and utilitarian, reinforced by making it a religious obligation too.

We can see how significant this respect for Torah study is, and elevating it to the highest level of worship was. It kept our tradition alive over two thousand years of dispersion and travail. And the huge emphasis on studying Torah today has had a huge impact on Jewish religious life.  Jewish learning and study have succeeded in reviving religious life after all that the Nazis and assimilation destroyed.

And yet it is manifestly clear that Orthodoxy does not automatically make a person wise or good. And the gerontocracy of religious leadership has illustrated how old age really can lose touch with reality, make unfortunate gaffes, and fail to adapt creatively to new challenges.  So are we right to place so much emphasis on age? 

Many non-Jewish cultures, especially in East Asia, are known for the way they respect their elderly. But not all societies developed that way. In classical era Rome, many people regarded the elderly with disdain, thinking of them as curmudgeons, useless, unproductive, and annoying. Cicero wrote, “Old age will only be respected if it fights for itself, maintains its rights, avoids dependence on anyone, and asserts control over its own to the last breath (On Old Age).” In the industrial world, so much emphasis is put on work, careers, and making money that those who do not work for whatever reason are often regarded as second-class citizens or looked down on. Retirement or redundancy often leads to feelings of worthlessness, frustration, and depression.  Whereas study and intellectual curiosity help in so many areas including apparently helping stave off Alzheimer’s!

In  Orthodox communities that value study and prize Torah learning above all else, 

the greatest benefit is what it does for the elderly. Someone who studies at any age is accorded huge respect. In the Charedi world, study halls are packed with the elderly interacting with each other and younger students which gives them a purpose and sense of value and respect. And this is something now accessible to everyone no matter where they live through the endless study sites available on the Internet. One has an embarrassment of choice and the chance for everyone regardless of their background or level to make study a part of their daily routine.

Old age inevitably reduces one’s physical state. In that context, the Torah commands us to be considerate, helpful, and respectful even to those incapacitated by old age. But beyond the basic matter of physical care, there is the appreciation of experience, wisdom, and knowledge that can continue to accrue and excite the mind and benefit those who wish to take advantage of the gifts of time.

P.S. In the seventeenth century, William Shakespeare, expressed the Western world’s attitude to old age in “The Seven Ages of Man”, spoken by the depressed Jacques (in As You Like It, Act II Scene VII Line 139)

All the world’s a stage,
And all the men and women merely players:
They have their exits and their entrances;
And one man in his time plays many parts,
His acts being seven ages. At first the infant,
Mewling and puking in the nurse’s arms.
And then the whining school-boy, with his satchel
And shining morning face, creeping like snail
Unwillingly to school. And then the lover,
Sighing like furnace, with a woeful ballad
Made to his mistress’ eyebrow. Then a soldier,
Full of strange oaths and bearded like the pard,
Jealous in honour, sudden and quick in quarrel,
Seeking the bubble reputation
Even in the cannon’s mouth. And then the justice,In fair round belly with good capon lined,
With eyes severe and beard of formal cut,
Full of wise saws and modern instances;
And so he plays his part. The sixth age shifts
Into the lean and slipper’d pantaloon,

With spectacles on nose and pouch on side,
His youthful hose, well saved, a world too wide
For his shrunk shank; and his big manly voice,
Turning again toward childish treble, pipes
And whistles in his sound. Last scene of all,
That ends this strange eventful history,
Is second childishness and mere oblivion,
Sans teeth, sans eyes, sans taste, sans everything.

Thank you Michaël