By: David Philipson
Various terms are used in the Bible to designate the declining years of life. The most frequent is zaḳen (old, and old man). This term is applied first to Abraham and thereafter to other Biblical worthies, as Isaac, Jacob, Joshua, Eli, Samuel, and David. In a number of instances the term is defined by the additional expression "advanced in years." This term zaḳen is connected with the word zaḳan (beard), the gray beard being the most striking sign of age. From zaḳen are obtained the derivatives ziḳnah and ziḳunim, meaning "old age." We find also the following expressions: sebah (old age), yashish (an old man), seba' yamim (satiated with years), melo yamim (full of years), kabbir yamim (rich in years). Of the two terms most commonly used for Old Age, sebah designated a greater age than ziḳnah. In the Mishnah Ab. v. 21, where the ages of man are enumerated, the age of sixty is called ziḳnah, while that of seventy is called sebah. In the Bible itself (Ps. xc.) we find but one definite statement of the limit of life: "The days of our years are threescore years and ten; and if by reason of strength they be fourscore years, yet is their strength labor and sorrow" (Ps. xc. 10). In the Talmud we find a similar statement: "If one dies at eighty, he has reached old age" (M. Ḳ. 28a, B. B. 75a).
The physical ills attendant upon Old Age were fully appreciated by the Biblical and Talmudical sages. The author of Ecclesiastes in his celebrated dirge indicates the failing powers of age (Eccl. xii. 1-7); and the Psalmist makes pathetic reference to the infirmity of his declining years (Ps. lxxi. 9-18). In the Mishnah the greater inability of the aged to acquire learning is set forth by the following simile: "When the old receive instruction it is like writing a palimpsest" (Ab. iv. 20); and in a passage of theTalmud, in which youth is compared with Old Age, there is the somewhat enigmatic statement, "Two are better than three" (Shab. 152a)—an expression strangely similar to the so-called "riddle of the Sphinx."
The fact that Abraham is the first person mentioned in the Bible as aged gave rise to the following Haggadah: "Until Abraham's time the young and the old were not distinguishable from each other; consequently, young people would jest with Abraham, taking him for their companion, whereas the old addressed Isaac in a manner becoming a man of years. This induced Abraham to pray to God for an outward token of dignity and honor for those advanced in years; and the Lord, granting his wish, said, 'Thou shalt be the first upon whose head the silver crown of old age shall rest'" (Tan., Ḥayye Sarah, ed. Buber, 4-5; Gen. R. lxv.; B. M. 87a; Sanh. 107b).
Old Age implies a state of inactivity; hence its helplessness entailed upon the young the duty of providing for the support and comfort of the old (Ruth, iv. 15). The Essene brotherhoods, especially, made it their object "to honor the old and provide for them; just as lawful children honored and provided for their parents, so they offered the aged all possible comfort by personal care and wise forethought" (Philo, ed. Mangey, ii. 459). During the Middle Ages the aged who lacked support found shelter in houses established by the Jewish community, called heḳdesh (see
Most marked are the teachings of Biblical and Talmudical ethics in regard to the respect due to Old Age. Age as such is regarded as venerable and deserving of consideration from the young. In Lev. xix. 32 the attitude of the young toward the old is expressed in no uncertain tone: "Thou shalt rise up before the hoary head, and honor the face of the old man." The respect entertained for Old Age is indicated in a number of expressions in Biblical and rabbinical literature, such as the following: "The hoary head is a crown of glory, if it shall be found in the way of righteousness" (Prov. xvi. 31); "Despise not thy mother when she is old" (Prov. xxiii. 22); "The beauty of old men is the gray head" (Prov. xx. 29). When Elihu is introduced as one of the speakers in the Book of Job, we read that "Elihu had waited till Job had spoken because they were elder than he" (Job, xxxii. 4). The Talmud also has numerous expressions of a similar tenor. Of Rabbi Meir it is told that he arose whenever he saw even an ignorant old man; for, said he, "the very fact that he has grown old must be due to some merit" (Yer. Bik. iii. 65c). Rabbi Johanan always arose before an aged heathen, because, as he said, of the sufferings the heathen must have endured in the course of a long life (Ḳid. 33a). "Respect even the old man who has lost his learning" is found in the Talmud; "for there were placed in the ark of the covenant not only the two perfect tablets of the Law, but also the fragments of the tablets that Moses shattered when he saw the people dancing before the golden calf" (Ber. 8b).Age Synonymous with Wisdom.
In several passages of the Bible (Deut. xxviii. 50; Isa. iii. 5, xlvii. 6; Lam. v. 12) disrespect for the aged is considered as one of the marks of evil times; and in the Talmud it is stated that a sign of the troubled days preceding the coming of the Messiah will be the lack of respect and courtesy shown by the young toward their elders (Soṭah, 49b). The reason for the respect shown to Old Age lay chiefly in the circumstance that advanced years were supposed to bring experience and wisdom. The old man, having passed through the trials of life, was looked upon as a source of counsel, and as being filled with the spirit of discretion and knowledge (Job, xii. 12; xv. 10). Hence, the term zaḳen came to be used for wise man (counselor), and also for elder in the sense of ruler. Expressive of this is the definition of zaḳen which we find in the Talmud, "The zaḳen is he who has acquired wisdom" (Ḳid. 32b). Compare the pun in Sifra, Ḳedoshim, vii. 12 —which is obviously the older form. Another indication of it is the story told by Eleazar ben Azariah, who, having been elected president of the Sanhedrin at the age of eighteen, was considered too young. But a wondrous thing happened: his beard turned white, so that he had the appearance of an old man ("Lo! I am like a man of seventy"—Ber. 28a). In accordance with this thought, there is a strain running throughout the literature of the Jews, indicating that the experience of years is the best guide for deciding vexed questions. After the death of Solomon, his son Rehoboam, by disregarding the advice of the elders and following the counsel of young men, brought about the division of the kingdom (I Kings, xii. 13, 14). A similar incident is recorded in the Talmud. In the days of Hadrian, when the enthusiastic young men advised the rebuilding of the Temple of Jerusalem, some wise men reminded the people of the event that occurred in Rehoboam's time, and said, "If young people advise you to build the Temple, and old men say destroy it, give ear to the latter: for the building of the young is destruction; and the tearing down of the old is construction" (Tosef., 'Ab. Zarah i. 19). The classic passage on Old Age in the Book of Ecclesiasticus (Sirach, xxv. 4-6) lays stress upon the insight that comes with years: "How beautiful a thing is judgment for gray hairs, and for elders to know counsel! How beautiful is the wisdom of old men, and thought and counsel to men that are in honor. Much experience is the crown of old men; and their glorying is the fear of the Lord." Hence, "He who learns from the old is like one who eats ripe grapes and drinks old wine" (Ab. iv. 20).
Of the wise who have begun to acquire learning in early youth and continued to devote themselves to study after they have grown old, it is said, "The older scholars grow, the greater their wisdom becomes" (Shab. 152a). But there are statements in the Bible and the Talmud to the effect that mere length of years offers no claim to reverence (Job, xxxii. 6-9). The Psalmist exclaims, "I understand more than the aged, because I have kept thy precepts" (Ps. cxix. 100); and the Preacher declares, "Better is a poor and wise child than an old and foolish king" (Eccl. iv. 13). More emphatic is the author of the Book of Wisdom when he says: "Honorable old age is not that which standeth in length of time, nor is its measure given by number of years: but understanding is gray hairs unto men, and an unspotted life is ripe old age" (iv. 8, 9). Similarly, Rabbi Judah ha-Nasi advised, "Look not upon the vessel, but at what is in it, for there are new vessels full of old wine, and there are old vessels which do not contain even new wine" (Ab. iv. 207). In the Midrash, too, it is well said, "There is an old age without the glory of long life; and there is long life without the ornament of age: perfect is that old age which hath both" (Gen. R. lxix.).