Torah Reading for Week of April 24-30, 2011
“A Sacred Wisdom”
By Rabbi Eli Schochet, PhD, AJRCA Professor of Talmud
Growing up on the west side of Chicago, I would often encounter a man (I believe, Rabbi Perlstein was his name) who was reputed to have been 100 years old.
One hundred years old! We youngsters, still in the single digit category, were intrigued by his triple digit age status. We would regard him with a mixture of curiosity and awe, wondering what it could possibly be like to have lived for an entire century. “Just imagine how many Cub baseball games and Bear football games one could attend in one hundred years” was our practical take on the blessing of longevity.
Needless to say, as orthodox yeshiva students we knew of our obligation to always rise in his presence. This was in keeping with the injunction appearing in this week’s Torah reading of Kedoshim, “Thou shall rise up before the saivah…”
What, however, is the precise definition of the word saivah? It is often translated as “hoary- headed” or grey haired. But what if one has white hair or no hair? Is there an accepted age level, independent of hair presence and color that merits such reverence?
Generations of rabbis wrestled with these queries. Some (based on Rosh to Kedushim 32a) defined the saivah as a 70 year-old, others (Minchas Chinuch and R. Isaac Luria) said it applies as well to a 60 year old.
Hair color was obviously deemed to be a decisive factor in determining age. Have you ever wondered why Chabad rabbis do not ever shave or trim their beards? It is possibly because the third Lubavitch Rebbe ruled (Responsa Tzemach Tzedek, Yoreh Deah 93) that this would make it difficult to ascertain a person’s age, and therefore, difficult to fulfill the obligation to honor him by rising.
But must it be a “him” or a “he”? What about “her” or “she”? According to the Sefer Chasidim (#578), the obligation to rise before a saivah applies equally towards an elderly woman.
Is Torah scholarship and book learning a prerequisite to merit such reverence? Must the saivah deserve the honor? What if a boorish and virtually illiterate old person (make him 100 years old!) enters the room? Issi ben Yehudah opined in the Talmud that the obligation applies to any hoary-headed individual. Indeed, R. Yochanan would rise in the presence of aged heathens declaring, “How many travails have passed before these?” (Kedushin 33a) In other words, there is merit in honoring life experience, regardless of the specific nature of that experience. Any weather-beaten, wrinkled, visage merits reverence.
Needless to say, the mitzvah of honoring the aged has fallen on hard times. In the modern world, “unproductive” and “expendable” are phrases more commonly associated with the elderly than are “reverence” and “honor”. Debates on health care and the allocation of scarce medical resources are not infrequently characterized by intimations that society would be better off if many of the elderly would simply die off already! In other words, our obligation to rise before them has been replaced by their obligation to fall before us! Our youth culture, in league with a billion dollar cosmetic industry, has convinced us that looking one’s age is a humiliation to be avoided at all cost.
All the more reason to reaffirm the sacred wisdom of “Thou shalt rise up before the saivah.”