Ethics Now and Then 96 – Avot 5:24

Pirkei Avot 5:24 

He [Yehudah ben Tema] used to say: The five-year-old is for [learning] Scripture; the ten-year-old is [of age] for the Mishnah; the thirteen-year-old, for [the obligation of] the mitzvoth; the fifteen-year-old, for [the study of] the Talmud; the eighteen-year-old for the wedding canopy; the man of twenty is to pursue [a livelihood]; that man of thirty [has attained] to full strength; the man of forty to understanding; the man of fifty is to give counsel; the man of sixty [has attained to] old age; the man of seventy to venerable old age; the man of eighty, to [the old age] of strength; the man of ninety [is of the age ] to go bent over; the man of a hundred is as though already dead and gone, removed from this world.

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He [Yehudah ben Tema] used to say: The five-year-old is for [learning] Scripture; the ten-year-old is [of age] for the Mishnah; the thirteen-year-old, for [the obligation of] the mitzvoth; the fifteen-year-old, for [the study of] the Talmud;

Yehudah ben Tema here delineates the  age-related challenges of the traditional Orthodox Jewish world. Education in the Scriptures is of central importance in Judaism, in accord with the verse: “And you shall teach them [Scriptures; commandments] diligently to your children.” *  At 5 years of age, a child begins to learn the Torah; beginning, interestingly enough, with the book of Leviticus, Vayikra, which focuses on the priesthood and is considered a manual of purity and holiness.  Rabbi, Abraham J. Twerski, a renowned psychiatrist, shares a delightful memory of his first lesson in Torah:

“I distinctly remember my first lesson when I was five. My teacher opened the book of Leviticus, where the word ‘Vayikra‘- was printed in large letters except for the final diminutive letter aleph [as it is in all Torah scrolls].

1653290_10152018991892810_2009057238_n (1)He explained that I was beginning to learn the third of the Five Books of Moses rather than Bereishit (Genesis), because Leviticus is about the sacred offerings in the Sanctuary. SInce I was now beginning to learn the holy Torah, I too was sacred, and even dearer to God than the offerings in the Sanctuary.
I was, of course, curious as to why the letter aleph was smaller than the other letters. My teacher told me that knowing that I am holy should not cause me to be vain. The diminutive aleph, the frst letter of the Hebrew alphabet, teaches us that one can retain Torah only if one is humble.”**

At 10 years of age, a child is considered able to begin studies in the Mishnah – the Oral Torah, and the further examination of and commentary on the basic text. Then, at age 13, when a boy celebrates his Bar Mitzvah, at age 12 for a girl, the child is now looked upon as a young adult who can make choices between good and evil and can now take personal responsibilty for his or her actions. Thereafter, at age 15, the boy should be ready for the study of Gemarah, a deeper investigation into the legal intricacies of the Talmud.
As we see, this framework of study relies on layering; building on what has gone before. The child is encouraged to understand and appreciate the spiritual as well as the intellectual core of each layer before moving on to the next.

The Talmud describes three specific areas in which parents are responsible to teach their children.: the Torah, how to make a living, and how to swim!***  We can understand the first two, but to swim?  What if the family do not live anywhere near water? No matter, say the sages, one cannot guarantee that the child will never be near water, so the effort must be made. Included in this directive, however, is the exhortation to train children how to survive in any “sink or swim” situation! Parents need to teach, to the best of their ability, the basic skills of how to “swim” and survive in the often turbulent sea of life.  Young people today are afforded greater opportunities, but also daunting challenges and temptations. The need for training in the core, ethical issues of personal and moral responsibility, as well as the value of  integrity and care in inter-personal relationships, is greater than ever.

…the eighteen-year-old for the wedding canopy; the man of twenty is to pursue [a livelihood]; that man of thirty [has attained] to full strength; the man of forty to understanding; the man of fifty is to give counsel;

With this solid foundation of teaching, it is considered that a healthy young man should be ready for marriage at age 18, by which time he will certainly have developed a growing interest in the opposite sex! Young Jewish couples, as part of a strong community, are given much help in setting up home together. In Israel, they will also be performing compulsory army training and duty. Only thereafter, around age 20, do they pursue their careers.

By age 30, a young man has reached his full strength. He will, hopefully, be established in his chosen profession or skill, have a secure home and family and should be enjoying the full blessings of Shalom – wholeness, peace and contentment. By 40 years of age, his continued study of Torah and practice of the ways of God would have borne much fruit and wisdom in his life. By age 50 he should be ready to give wise counsel to others.

…the man of sixty [has attained to] old age; the man of seventy to venerable old age; the man of eighty, to [the old age] of strength; the man of ninety [is of the age ] to go bent over; the man of a hundred is as though already dead and gone, removed from this world.

“Old age” is reached at 60. In Jewish thinking, ‘old age’ is not a negative prospect! The elderly are respected for the maturity of their intellect and their wisdom of judgment based on long experience of life. By 70, a person is naturally ‘white-haired’ and has reached a venerable old age, which bears further acknowledgement and respect. The age of 80, when a person has gained even further insight spiritually but is weakening physically, is considered the extremity of old age.

It is recognized, medically, that when a person reaches their ninetieth year their strength will have waned drastically. Although a traditional birthday greeting in Hebrew is, “Ad me’ah ve’esrim!” – “[May you live] until 120!”, as Moses did, that is not a likely, or even desirable, age to aspire to. In general, we are grateful for any years we are given beyond the “four-score years and ten.” One’s greatest aim should be to live an old age of clarity, continued spiritual growth, dignity and respect; and to accord the same to others.

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Footnotes:

* Deuteronomy 6:7

** Rabbi Abraham J. Twerski, Visions of the Fathers, 321

*** Kiddushin 29a

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