A women's study group in Seattle, 2009. (Zion Ozeri/Jewish Lens)

Ask the Expert: Do I Have to be 40 to Study Kabbalah?

Why are there age limits on Torah learning?

Question: I heard that you shouldn’t start learning Kabbalah until you’re 40 years old. Is this true? Why? Why 40 in particular?
–Simon, Japan

Answer: Remember when you used to ask your parents a question and they would say, “I’ll tell you when you’re older” and that seemed horribly unfair because you wanted to know now? But in retrospect, sometimes their tactics were understandable, right? That’s kind of what’s going on here.

In Pirkei Avot (5:21) we read a teaching of Yehuda ben Tama in which he discusses various ages and what one should be doing at that age. From him we learn that Bible study should begin at age five, the Mishnah at 10, and that at age 40 one should pursue binah, deep understanding. This statement led to the idea that people should not study philosophy or Kabbalah until they reach 40 years of age, a sentiment codified by 17th century rabbi Shabbatai HaKohen (known as the Shakh) in his commentary on the Shulhan Arukh (Yoreh Deah 246:6).

But why delay the study of Kabbalah at all? What’s the big deal? To answer this question I contacted Professor Elliot Wolfson, the Abraham Lieberman Professor of Hebrew and Judaic Studies at NYU. Professor Wolfson is an expert in Kabbalah, and has written a number of books about Jewish mysticism and Kabbalah, including, Along the Path: Studies in Kabbalistic Myth, Symbolism, and Hermeneutics and Alef, Mem, Tau: Kabbalistic Musings on Time, Truth, and Death.

It turns out just because the 40-year rule was stated, doesn’t mean people  followed it. Prof. Wolfson pointed out that, “historically, there have been many Kabbalists who were younger than 40, [and] some did not even live long enough to make it to 40.” He suggested that 40 would have been the preferred age for deep study because it comes at a time when one is hopefully at a mature and more stable time in one’s life.

“For the most part, I do not see that this [rule] was ever taken too seriously until recent times,” Prof. Wolfson said, “as interest in Kabbalah has spread and the level of Jewish literacy has diminished, some religious authorities have felt the need to emphasize that one should not study Kabbalah until one is 40.”

Kabbalah isn’t just a particularly difficult text that you need great expertise to crack, though. The challenge of Kabbalah is its intrinsic mysticism, the concepts it teaches and draws out as it details the ten mystical attributes, or sefirot, of God. No one can say exactly when you’ll be ready to learn and really understand what’s in the Kabbalah–maybe you’ll be ready at 27, maybe not until 58, maybe never–but the idea is that you need to have a high degree of Jewish literacy, in addition to an ability to think deeply and mystically about God and God’s role in the world.

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