HAPTER SIX - The Aging Process: Late Life Questions
B: PRIMARY TEXTS
Earning Long Life – The Biblical View
The Rabbinic View
The Virtues of Old Age
Respect for the Elderly
Old Age: Different Sides of the Picture
The Meaning of Honouring Parents
The Limits of Parental Respect
In this section you will find the various texts brought in the background section, with the addition of some commentary and extra texts that are relevant within the context. After each text is a reference to relevant section in the background text. The additional texts can be used as the basis for further programming - either individually, or juxtaposed with the other texts - in order to further enrich the activities.
16. EARNING LONG LIFE – THE BIBLICAL VIEW (
Honour your father and your mother, so that you may live long in the land that the Lord your G-d is giving you.
If you come across a bird’s nest beside the road, either in a tree or on the ground and the mother is sitting on the young or on the eggs, do not take the mother with the young. You may take the young, but be sure to let the mother go, so that it may go well with you and you may have a long life.
You must have accurate and honest weights and measures, so that you may live long in the land that the Lord is giving you.
These are the commands, decrees and laws that the Lord your G-d directed me to teach you to observe in the land that you are crossing the Jordan to possess. [This is] so that you, your children and their children after them may fear the Lord your G-d as long as you live by keeping his decrees and commands that I give you and so that you may enjoy long life.
17. THE RABBINIC VIEW (
The Rabbis accepted the Biblical viewpoint that longevity did not happen without good reason, but should be considered a Divine reward for a life of virtue. Tthis approach is well illustrated in the following Talmudic story.
The disciples of Rav Adda ben Ahaba asked him: To what do you attribute the length of your life? He replied: I have never displayed any impatience in my house, and I have never walked in front of any man greater than myself. I have never meditated [over the Torah] in any dirty alleyways, nor have I ever walked four cubits without [meditating over] the Torah or without tefillin. I have never fallen asleep in the Bet Midrash nor have I rejoiced at the disgrace of my friends…
Babylonian Talmud Ta’anit 20b
18. THE VIRTUES OF OLD AGE (
In addition to the two Biblical quotations, below is an excerpt from the fascinating book of wisdom written by the second century B.C.E. Sage, Ben Sira. A wise and presumably elderly man himself, Ben Sira had a number of thoughts on the subject of age and wisdom.
Grey hair is a crown of splendour: it is attained by a righteous life.
Proverbs 16: 31
Is not wisdom found among the aged? Does not long life bring understanding?
Do not treat a man with disrespect when he is old,
For some of us are growing old…
Do not neglect the discourse of wise men,
But busy yourself with their proverbs,
For from them you will gain instruction.
And learn to serve great men.
Do not miss the discourse of old men,
For they learnt it from their fathers.
From them you will gain understanding,
And learn to return an answer in your time of need…
How beautiful is the wisdom of old men…
Rich experience is the crown of old men
And their boast is the fear of the Lord.
Ben Sira 8:6-9; 25:5-6
19. RESPECT FOR THE ELDERLY (
The Biblical picture is again amplified with an excerpt from Ben Sira, who had much to say on the need to respect the elderly.
Rise in the presence of the aged, show respect for the elderly and revere your G-d. I am the Lord.
Honour your father in word and in deed,
So that his blessing may attend you,
For a father’s blessing establishes the houses of his children,
But a mother’s curse uproots their foundations.
Do not glorify yourself by dishonouring your father,
For your father’s disgrace is no glory to you.
A man’s glory arises from honouring his father,
And a neglected mother is a reproach to her children.
My child, help your father in his old age,
And do not grieve him as long as he lives.
If his understanding fails, be considerate
And do not humiliate him when you are in your prime…
He who deserts his father is like a blasphemer,
And he who angers his mother is cursed by the Lord…
Honour your father with your whole heart
And do not forget the pangs of your mother.
Remember that it was of them that you were born,
And how can you repay them for what they have done for you?
Ben Sira 3:8-16; 7:27-28
20. OLD AGE: DIFFERENT SIDES OF THE PICTURE (
Do not cast me away when I am old: do not forsake me when my strength is gone.
Moses was 120 years old when he died yet his eyes were not weak nor his natural strength abated.
When King David was old and well advanced in years, he could not keep warm even when they put covers over him.
I Kings 1:1
I am now eighty years old. Can I tell the difference between what is good and what is not? Can your servant taste what he eats and drinks? Can I still hear the voices of men and women singers? Why should your servant be a burden to my lord the king?
II Samuel 19:35
Remember your Creator in the days of your youth, before the days of trouble come and the years approach when you will say, “I find no pleasure in them”: before the sun and the light and the moon and stars grow dark and the clouds return after the rain: when the keepers of the house tremble and strong men stoop, when the grinders cease because they are few and those looking through the window grow dim: when the doors to the street are closed and the sound of grinding fades: when men rise up at the sound of birds but all their songs grow faint: when men are afraid of heights and of dangers in the streets: when the almond tree blossoms and the grasshopper drags himself along and desire no longer is stirred. Then man goes to his eternal home and mourners go about the streets. Remember him – before the silver cord is severed, or the golden bowl is broken: before the pitcher is shattered at the spring, or the wheel broken at the well, and the dust returns to the ground from which it came and the spirit returns to G-d who gave it. Meaningless, meaningless says the Teacher, everything is meaningless.
21. THE MEANING OF HONOURING PARENTS (
Here are some additional excerpts from Rabbinic literature.
One particularly interesting addition is the second text, which relates one of the most extreme examples of filial respect for parents in the whole of the literature. Its major interest stems from the fact that it relates the acts of a non-Jew from Ashkelon, Dama, who is held up as a paragon of virtue in this particular sphere. The conclusion that the rabbis draw is particularly enlightening.
It happened that R. Tarphon’s mother went forth on the Sabbath for a walk in her courtyard. When her sandal split, R. Tarphon held his hands under the soles of her feet and she walked on his hands until she came to her couch… Whenever she wished to go up to her couch, he would bend down to let her get up [by stepping on him]…
Bab. Talmud. Kiddushin 31b
When R. Eliezer was asked, “How far should one go in honouring one’s father and mother?” he replied, “Go and see what a certain heathen named Dama ben Netinah did for his father in Ashkelon. Once, the Sages sought some precious stones from him for the [High Priest’s] ephod at a profit to him of sixty myriad [gold denars]. But the key to where the stones was kept was under his [sleeping] father’s pillow and he would not disturb him.”
The following year, however, the Holy One gave him his reward. A red heifer [an extremely rare animal needed for the rites of purification in the Temple] was born to him in his herd. When the Sages of Israel visited him [intending to buy it], he said to them, “I know about you. Even if I were to ask all the money in the world you would pay me. But all I ask of you is the amount that I lost because I honoured my father”.
R. Hanina said: If one who is not commanded [to honour his parents] and nevertheless does so is rewarded thus, how much more by far one who is commanded and does so!
Bab. Talmud. Kiddushin 31a
Our masters taught that there are three partners in a person, the Holy One, a person’s father and mother. When a man honours his father and mother, the Holy One says, “ I count it [to his credit] as though I were dwelling among them and they were honouring Me”.
Bab. Talmud. Kiddushin 31b
When a man curses his father or mother, or strikes them, leaving bruises on them, the Holy One draws his feet back under the Throne of Glory, if one can say such a thing, saying: "I made the honouring of his parents equal to the honouring of Me. Had I been dwelling with this man, he would have done the same to Me. I do well not to live in the same house with such a man".
Tanna de Bei Eliyahu
R. Shimon said: Great is the duty of honouring one’s father and mother, since the Holy One set the honour due to them above the duty due to Himself. For concerning the honour due to the Holy One it is written, “Honour the Lord with your wealth” (Proverbs 3:9). How is one to honour G-d with one’s wealth? One sets aside gleanings, forgotten sheaves and the corners of one’s field: One gives offerings and tithes: One makes a lulav, a succah , a shofar, tefillin and tzitzit: One feeds the hungry, gives drink to the thirsty and clothes the naked. In short, if you have wealth, you are obligated to do all these things, but if you have no wealth, you are not obligated to do even one of them. When it comes to honouring father and mother, however, whether you have wealth or not, what does it say? "Honour your father and mother”, even if you have to go begging in doorways.
Pesikta Rabati 23
“Honour thy father and thy mother”and “Thou shall not commit murder”. What is the significance of having those two commandments placed next to each other [in the list of the ten commandments]? [To teach us] that if a man has ample provisions in his house, yet refuses to give the benefit of them to his father and mother when they are young, let alone in their old age, it is as if all his days he has been committing murder in the presence of Him who is everywhere. For this reason the commandment, “Honour thy father and they mother” is followed by, “Thou shall not commit murder”.
Tanna de Bei Eliyahu
22. THE LIMITS OF PARENTAL RESPECT (
And how far must one go in their reverence? Even if he is dressed in precious clothes and is sitting in an honoured place before many people, and his parents come and tear his clothes, hitting him on the head and spitting in his face, he may not shame them, but he must rather keep silent .
Maimonides. Mishneh Torah: Mamrim 6:7
If the mind of the father or mother is affected, the son should make every effort to indulge the vagaries of the stricken parent until G-d has mercy on the afflicted. But if the condition of the parent has grown worse and the son is no longer able to endure the strain, he may leave his father or mother, go elsewhere, and delegate to to others to give the parents the proper care.
Mishneh Torah: Mamrim 6:10
23. LOVING TORAH (
Out of many possible examples, there is just one additional text below. The love of Torah was such an important idea to the Rabbis, that it is not surprising that so many stories and observations that have been handed down about it.
Hour after hour, words of Torah are loved as much by those who study them as when they first made their acquaintance with them…Why are words of Torah likened to a breast? As with a breast, however often the infant feels like it, he finds milk in it: so too with words of Torah – whenever a man meditates on them, he finds flavour in them.
Bab. Talmud Eruvin 54a-b
“And let them be like fish”. (Bereishit 48:16). Fish, though they grow in water, nevertheless, when a drop of rain falls on them from above, nevertheless leap for it thirstily as if they had never tasted water in their lives. So, too, Israel. Though brought up in the waters of Torah, nevertheless when they hear a new interpretation of it, they receive it thirstily as though they had never heard a word of Torah in their lives.
Bereishit Rabbah 97:3
24. ETHICAL WILLS (
Below are the two examples brought in the background section, but it is worth mentioning again the book of wisdom written by Jerusalemite Ben Sira, just over two thousand years ago. A book, rather than an ethical will, its essence is of an expanded ethical will, only presumably written for a public wider than just the family. Significantly, the book was later published by the writer’s grandson with a preface that he had found it extremely useful personally. In this sense, it is really an extension of the wisdom of the old being offered to younger generations.
My son, when I have left you, devote yourself to the study of Torah and the study of medicine. Chiefly occupy yourself with Torah, for you have a wise and understanding heart and all you need is ambition and application. Let your face shine on people: tend their sick and may your advice cure them. Take money from the rich but treat the poor without money. The Lord will repay you. In this way, you will win the respect of people high and low and your good name will go forth far and wide…
My son, I command you to honour your wife as much as you can. She is intelligent and modest, a daughter of a distinguished and educated family. To act otherwise is the way of the contemptible…
Never refuse to lend books to anyone who has not the means to purchase books for himself, but only act thus to those who can be trusted to return the volumes. Cover the bookcases with rugs of fine quality and preserve them from damp and from mice, for your books are your greatest treasure…
The Ethical Will of Judah Ibn Tibbon
If they can manage it, my sons and daughters should live in communities and not isolated from other Jews, so that their sons and daughters can learn the ways of Judaism. Even if compelled to request money from others in order to pay for a teacher, they must not let the young of either sex go without instruction in the Torah. Marry your children, my sons and daughters, as soon as their age is ripe, to members of respectable families.
To the slanderer do not respond with counter-attack, and though it is proper to rebut false accusations, it is most desirable to set an example of reticence. You yourselves must avoid uttering any slander for so will you win affection. In trade be true, never grasping what belongs to another. By avoiding such wrongs – scandal, falsehood, money-grubbing – people will surely find tranquillity and affection.
Be very particular to keep your houses clean and tidy. I was always scrupulous on that point, for every injurious condition and sickness and poverty are to be found in foul dwellings.
The Ethical Will of Eleazar of Mayence