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Shabbat Parashat Naso 5777

Ask the Rabbi: Respect for the Elderly

Rav Daniel Mann

Question: Is one required to give special respect to an individual between 60 and 70 years old? I remember that one stands up only for those over 70.

While we should be respectful of people in general and certainly older people, the specific mitzva regarding older people is standing for them. The Torah commands: “Stand up before seiva, and honor the presence of a zaken” (Vayikra 19:32). The gemara (Kiddushin 32b) brings opinions as to who these recipients of respect are. The first opinion is that it is a Torah scholar. Isi ben Yehuda says that seiva refers to an elderly person, even if he is devoid of other special qualities. The gemara (ibid. 33a) says we accept Isi ben Yehuda’s opinion, as does the Shulchan Aruch (Yoreh Deah 244:1).

Who is old enough to deserve rising in their presence? The Rambam (Talmud Torah 6:9) writes that this is one who is “extreme in oldness,” without giving a specific age. The Rosh (Kiddushin 1:53) says it refers to a 70-year-old. Many point out that this is in line with the mishna in Avot (5:21) that lists characteristics of different ages and says that 70 is the age of seiva, the word the Torah uses for one deserving to be stood for. This is also the age that the Shulchan Aruch (ibid.) writes, so your recollection is well-founded.

Yet, there are also sources that refer to 60. The Birkei Yosef (YD 244:4) cites the Arizal that we should stand for people above 60, and the Birkei Yosef says that this is based on Kabbalistic reasons. However, others provide more standard sources for the significance of 60. Unkelus translates the above pasuk so that “seiva” refers to a Torah scholar and “zaken” refers to an older person. The Rashbetz (commentary on Avot ibid.) says that according to Unkelus, that “zaken” refers to the elderly, the age is 60, as the mishna says that 60 is the age of zikna. As we have seen, the Shulchan Aruch accepts the age of 70. This makes sense because we halachically prefer the gemara to Unkelus and because it is possible that Unkelus agrees that the word for an older person is indeed “seiva” (see Ramban, Vayikra 19:32).

Despite the preponderance of standard halachic sources that the age for deserving to be stood up for is 70, there are a few reasons why it might be worthwhile to do so from 60. There are early sources, such as Tikkunei Hazohar, who say that seiva is from 60, and the Gra says that they argue on the mishna in Avot (see Yabia Omer III, YD 13). In any case, it may be laudable to follow the Arizal, whatever his reason is (see ibid.; Divrei Shalom, YD 93), or just to be more careful than required. There is also an interesting compromise that includes some 60-year-olds. Some Acharonim understood the classical sources as saying that to deserve honor just based on age, one must be 70, and to deserve it just based on scholarship, one needs to be a notable talmid chacham. However, a minor talmid chacham who is 60 deserves honor (see Tzemach Yehuda VI:35).

These halachot are difficult to implement in a society where it is not standard, even for observant Jews, to stand out of honor for older people (poskim have bemoaned this for centuries). One justification is that one may waive his honor, and perhaps we can assume that many do so, which may be correct, given the situation (see Radbaz VIII:167). It is also hard to know when it is appropriate. One does not always know if someone is 70 (Yabia Omer ibid. – in a case of safek on this Torah law, from age 70, one should be stringent) or even 60. Many 70 year-olds these days are in excellent shape and resent being treated as old. (One can even claim that 70 years old no longer meets the Rambam’s description of extreme age, but I did not find this claim in poskim). Certainly we do not want to insult someone whom we are trying to honor. If one really wants to do this mitzva well, we suggest developing a style of standing up and approaching older people (or, for that matter, anyone) to greet them in a natural manner that does not scream, “I am rising in your honor because you are elderly and it is a mitzva.”

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