Insights in Pirkei Avot: Different Times of Life and their Challenges

He would also say: Five years is the age for the study of Scripture. Ten, for the study of Mishnah. Thirteen, for [obligation in] mizvot. Fifteen, for the study of Talmud. Eighteen, for marriage. Twenty, to pursue. Thirty, for power, Forty, for understanding. Fifty, for counsel. Sixty, for sagacity. Seventy, for elderliness. Eighty, for gevura. Ninety, to stoop. A hundred-year-old is as one who has died and passed away and has been negated from the world. (Avot 5:21)

What does a person begin to pursue at the age of twenty?  Bartenura explains that he pursues a livelihood.  After years of Torah study and then marriage, the time comes to earn a living and support a family.  Apparently, staying in kollel through middle age is not the mishahic model.  Meiri suggests that this age calls for pursuing a spouse.  One begins searching at eighteen but twenty brings further urgency to the pursuit.

Barternura cites a second interpretation in which God pursues a person from this age on.  One midrash (Bemidbar Rabba 18:4) states that heavenly punishments only begin when a person turns twenty.   Though halakhic obligations begin at twelve or thirteen, divine punishments start at a later point. The midrash probably derives this principle from the story of the spies where only those twenty and older received punishment (Bemidbar 14:29).

At the age of eighty, a person achieves gevura.  Tifferet Yisrael explains that this refers to the strength of character enabling conquering negative inclinations. At this advanced age, some things cease to tempt.  Alternatively, we could explain that it takes physical robustness to survive to advance age.  R. Solovetchik offers a different and profound reading.  Gevura can also mean courage; indeed, it takes great courage to deal with declining physical and mental capacities.  Humanity’s increased longevity in the modern Western world has obvious positive aspects but also generates difficult challenges.  We can certainly appreciate the truth of R. Soloveitchik’s insight.

At the age of ninety, one begins “la’shuah.”  Most commentators think this refers to a bent or hunched over posture.  Rabbenu Yona (Sha’arei Teshuva 2:9) says we should pronounce the second later as a sin, from the word siha, conversation.  At such an elderly age, a person does not get out much or perform physical labors. Rather, these years provide a time for prayer, study and discussion.  As noted above, old age is not easy.  At the same time, some know how to utilize the evening twilight time of life in the most productive manner.  May we experience advanced years with the ability, wherewithal, and wisdom to use that time well.

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Rabbi Avi Weinstein taught at Yeshivat Hamivtar and Michlelet Bruria from 1979 until 1984. He also has been a talmid of Rabbi Brovender since 1975. He is currently the Head of Jewish Studies at The Hyman Brand Hebrew Academy in Overland Park, Kansas. He blogs frequently at: scorchintorah.com and invites you to come and join him at your convenience.

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