Respect for those who are older and wiser is built into the Torah and the rabbinic system. Leviticus 19:32 states: “You shall rise before the aged and show deference to the old; you shall fear your God.” But what does this look like in practice?
We can imagine a world in which respect for elders is a wonderful way to transmit traditions and histories, honor the fact that all of us are created in the image of God and take care of those who might be physically or financially vulnerable as they age. But we can also imagine a world in which enforced respect for people based on nothing more than age can foster toxic systems of abuse and authoritarianism. What, then, is the correct way to fulfill this biblical commandment?
Today’s daf offers some helpful limitations on this mitzvah:
One might (have thought that) one must stand before him from a distance. Therefore the verse states: “You shall stand and you shall revere” (Leviticus 19:32), which teaches: I said stand only in a place where there is reverence.
The Talmud assumes that all people can stand up and that the verb means standing literally. The Talmud thus reads the commandments to stand and revere in Leviticus as parallels which limit each other. In this example, reverence limits where one must physically stand. Since the point is to give honor to the elder, one only needs to stand when the elder person is close enough that they realize that the standing is for them. No need to get up the minute you see an older person five blocks away. There is a geographic limit on who we must revere.
Next, the Gemara offers an example of standing limiting reverence.
One might (have thought that) he should revere him through money. The verse states: “You shall stand and you shall revere.” Just as standing includes no monetary loss, so too, reverence includes no monetary loss.
Do you have to put yourself out financially to respect the elderly? No. For the Talmud, the use of the action verb stand emphasizes that it’s about doing, not paying.
And now for my favorite limitation:
One might (have thought that) one should stand before him in the lavatory or in the bathhouse. Therefore, the verse states: “You shall stand and you shall revere,” (which teaches): I said standing only in a place where there is reverence.
If you’re on the toilet in a public bathroom, please, please, please, don’t get up.
While the mitzvah of honoring the elderly does have limits, the Talmud insists that it is still an obligation. One cannot avert their eyes and pretend they didn’t notice the elder person, a rule derived from the third verb in the verse: fear.
One might (have thought that) one may close his eyes like one who does not see. The verse states: “You shall stand, and you shall fear your God” (Leviticus 19:32). With regard to any matter given over to the heart, it is stated: “And you shall fear your God.”
The commandment to fear God appears in multiple places in the Torah in connection to commandments where a person’s true motives might not be readily apparent. The verse in Leviticus prohibiting placing a stumbling block before the blind (understood by the rabbis to include things like intentionally offering bad advice), for example, also concludes with a reminder to fear God — in recognition of the fact that it’s often hard to divine whether the person meant to lead their friend astray with poor guidance.
In our case too, someone may pretend not to see the elderly. And while there are healthy limits to the obligation to respect the elderly, they are not absolute. Because God knows the truth.
Read all of Kiddushin 32 on Sefaria.