Jewish Wisdom on Aging

What Jewish texts have to tell us about getting older.

The Jewish wisdom tradition has something to say about virtually every part of life. Here’s a selection of quotations from Jewish sources about getting older.

You shall rise before the aged and show deference to the old; you shall fear your God: I am the LORD. Leviticus 19:32

Gray hair is a crown of glory; It is attained by the way of righteousness. Proverbs 16:31

Every should man look upon himself as if he is nigh to death, lest he die during the interval, as a consequence whereof he will be outstanding in his sin; he should, therefore not tarry but repent presently. He should not say: “In old age I will repent”, perhaps he will die before old age overtakes him. To this Solomon in his wisdom pointed, saying: “Let thy garments always be white”. Ecclesiastes 9.8 Mishneh Torah, Repentance 7:2

He said to him: I do not remember what he did in his youth, but the deeds of his old age I remember. Taanit 20b

Rabbi Shimon ben Akashiah says: ignorant old people, the older they become, the more their intellect gets befuddled, as it is said: “He removes the speech of men of trust and takes away the sense of the elders.” But when it comes to aged scholars, it is not so. On the contrary, the older they get, the more their mind becomes composed, as it is said: “With aged men comes wisdom, and understanding in length of days.” Mishnah Kinnim 3:6

Rabbi Yose ben Judah a man of Kfar Ha-babli said: He who learns from the young, to what is he compared? To one who eats unripe grapes, and drinks wine from his vat; And he who learns from the old, to what is he compared? To one who eats ripe grapes, and drinks old wine. Rabbi said: don’t look at the container but at that which is in it: there is a new container full of old wine, and an old [container] in which there is not even new [wine]. Avot 4:20

A person must renew their habits and customs in every moment. Spiritual aging causes one to become stagnant, and evaporates vitality and pleasure. It causes withering and physical aging, even in one’s youth. The Ba’al Shem Tov commented: “Do not forsake me in old age”: let not old age and stagnation rule my habits and customs.’  Degel Mahaneh Efraim on Ekev (translated by Rabbi Dayle A. Friedman)

[The commandment in Leviticus 19:32] Rise before a person who has reached old age” might be read this way: reaching old age means summoning up the inner resources that enable a person to rise and accomplish [their] purpose in life. Menachem Mendel Schneerson (translated by Rabbi Eliyahu Touger)

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