Skip to main content

Age and the Aged

AGE AND THE AGED

Old Age

in the bible

Extreme longevity is attributed to the Fathers of Mankind (e.g., Methusaleh, 969 years) and the Fathers of the Israelite People (Abraham, 175; Isaac, 180; Jacob, 147; Moses, 120). By some, Genesis 6:3 is taken to mean that God has set a limit of 120 years to human life (Ḥizzekuni, cf. Ibn Ezra); in accord with this notion is the popular Jewish reckoning of a long life. However, sober reality is reflected in Psalms 90:10: "The days of our years are 70 years, and if by reason of strength, 80 years." The Bible regards longevity (Isa. 65:20; Zech. 8:4; Ps. 92:15), a long life followed by death at "a good old age" (Gen. 15:15; et al.), as a blessing; whereas the opposite is regarded as a curse (i Sam. 2:31–32). Long life is promised as a reward for observing certain commandments (Ex. 20:12; Deut. 22:7; 25:15), or for obeying the Law as a whole (Deut. 6:2). But there are also some grim descriptions of old age (ii Sam. 19:33–38). Especially instructive are the descriptions of old age in Ecclesiastes (12:1–7) in which old age is "the calamitous days" in which a man takes no pleasures. It may be noted that a similar view of old age can be found in the Epic of Gilgamesh (See *Flood). A realistic observation prompted the moving prayer: "Do not throw me away in the time of old age; when my strength is failing me, do not forsake me" (Ps. 71:9).

The experience of the aged caused the belief that old age and wisdom went together (Job. 12:12; cf. ibid., 20). Nevertheless, the Book of Job also stresses that there are young men who are wiser than old men (Job 32:6ff.; Eccles. 4:13). The Bible enjoins respect for the aged: "You shall rise before the aged and show deference to the old" (Lev. 19:32). This was probably the custom throughout the whole ancient Middle East (Ahikar 2:61). Consideration for old age and its disabilities is mentioned frequently in the Bible. Disrespect for the aged was regarded as a sign of a corrupt generation (Isa. 3:5). Ruthlessness toward the aged is a manifestation of extreme harshness by an enemy: "… who will show the old no regard" (Deut. 28:50); "Upon the old man you made your yoke very heavy" (Isa. 47:6); and "He has shown no favor to the elders" (Lam. 4:16; cf. 5:12). The actual chronological age of a man was not an absolute factor in regard to the disabilities of old age; thus, Samuel says of himself "I have grown old and gray" (i Sam. 12:2) when he is only 52. And King David is described as "very old" (i Kings 1:15) when he was 70. There are few descriptions of the physical signs of old age in the Bible: that of Isaac when his eyes were dim (Gen. 27); that of the manner of Eli's fall, "because the man was old and heavy" (i Sam. 4:18); and Barzillai's deafness (ii Sam. 14:33–38). By contrast with these descriptions, there are idyllic descriptions of old age: "There shall yet be old men and women in the public squares of Jerusalem" alongside "boys and girls playing in her public squares" (Zech. 8:4). The biological process of aging is seen as the depletion of the body's "natural heat" as, for instance, in the case of King David. ("King David was now old, advanced in years; and though they covered him with bedclothes, he did not feel warm" (i Kings 1:1)). This view was a basic premise with Galen and was accepted by preceding generations almost until modern times.

Ecclesiastes (12:1–6) gives an outstanding description of old age. Later geriatric literature was based on this section. Many Jewish commentators found biological symbolism in its details and in the 16th to 18th centuries John Smith and others also explained these verses in medical terms. In its crisp and concentrated metaphorical style, Ecclesiastes contains one of the most striking descriptions in world literature of the infirmities of old age. It appears to be entirely expressive of the state of mind and view of life of an aging or old man, and it was thus interpreted by the sages. King Solomon, who in his youth is supposed to have written The Song of Songs, in his maturity Proverbs, and in his old age Ecclesiastes, was regarded by them as a symbol of the changes which take place in the being and in the experiences of a man in the course of his life: "When a man is young, he quotes poetry; when he matures, he quotes proverbs; when he grows old he speaks of futilities …" (Song R. 1:10). Similarly, A. Schopenhauer states, "Only in his 70th year does a man understand the full meaning of the [second] verse of Ecclesiastes." In the Second Temple era old age was regarded as a blessing and the aged as worthy of respect (Eccles. 8:9; ii Macc. 6:23, 27; iv Macc. 5:4ff.; 7:13–15). Yet it was stressed, that not the number of years was important but wisdom and honesty (Wisdom of Solomon 4:8–9, 16). Ben Sira (30:24) recognized that anxiety ages a man, while in the Book of Jubilees (23:11) premature aging accompanied by mental confusion is caused by sin. That is why in the Dead Sea Sect nobody above 60 years of age could act as judge (Damascus Covenant X:7–10); yet in general the Sect and the Essenes respected old men (Manual of Discipline vi:8; Philo, Prob. 81, 87; Josephus, Wars, 2:9–10).

rabbinic period

According to the Talmud, old age (ziknah) begins at 60, ripe old age (seivah, "grey hairs") at 70 (Avot 5:21), though oldness may appear prematurely (Shab. 152a; Eruv. 56a; Tanḥ., Ḥayyei Sarah 2). Like Ecclesiastes, the rabbis viewed the later years of life as unattractive (Shab. 151b); the old resemble apes (Lam. R. 1:2), they cannot reason (Shab. 89b). The afflictions of the old are described, as in Ecclesiastes, metaphorically: "The rocks have grown tall, the near have become [too] distant [to visit], two [legs] have become three [with a cane], and the peacemaker of the house has ceased [to function as such]." So it is said, "Youth is a crown of roses; old age a crown of [heavy] willow rods" (Shab. 152a). A man must pray that in his later years "his eyes may see, his mouth eat, his legs walk, for in old age all powers fail" (Tanḥ, Mi-Keẓ 10).

There are some rare instances of praise for oldness itself. R. Simeon b. Eleazar valued the advice of the old: "If the old say 'tear down' and the children 'build' – tear down, for the 'destruction' of the old is construction; the 'construction' of the young, destruction" (Meg. 31b). According to R. Johanan, only elders sat in the Sanhedrin (Sanh. 17a). These statements reflect the ancient view that age, with its experience, is a guarantee of wisdom, and without age there is no understanding. The general opinion, however, is that with age comes loss of intellectual capacity. Elisha b. Avuyah said, "What does learning when old resemble? It is like writing on blotted-out paper" (Avot 4:20). Oldness itself is not a virtue – wisdom and knowledge of Torah determine its value (Kin. 3:15). Even the opinions of the old were not universally preferred to those of the young. When R. Abbahu claimed authority in a given dispute due to his age, R. Jeremiah answered, "ls the matter decided by age? – It is decided by reason" (bb 102b). Targum Onkelos also reflected this view when translating "You shall rise before the aged" (Lev. 19:32) as "Arise before those knowledgeable in Torah." The rabbis held that even a young scholar is called zaken ("elder") and should be honored, while no honor is due the ignorant or sinful, though old (Sifra, Kedoshim, 7:12). However, Isi b. Judah differed: "'You shall rise before the aged' – all the aged"; R. Johanan agreed, even concerning gentile elders; but R. Naḥman and Rav did not act in this manner (Kid. 32b–33a). According to Maimonides, one must honor the exceedingly old, even if they are not wise, by rising (Yad, Talmud Torah 6:9).

An age limit existed, past which one was not to hold a responsible position. Already in biblical times, the levites' service in the Tabernacle was limited: "At the age of 50, they shall retire from the work force and serve no more" (Lev. 8:25–26). The retired could do less strenuous work, either assisting their fellows, or guarding. In talmudic times, it was forbidden – for psychological reasons – to have the very old serve as Sanhedrin members (Sanh. 36b. Maim., Yad, Sanhedrin 2:3). In kabbalistic literature and tradition, those well-versed in mystic knowledge are represented as aged; many of the names in the Zohar are followed by "elder" (saba).

[Moshe David Herr]

Care of the Aged

ln the society of ancient Israel the aged and elderly were highly respected, and accorded a central position in family life and the tribal structure. This continued after a national organization based on kingship was adopted. This attitude is essentially linked with the biblical precept enjoining fear and honor of, and obedience to father and mother (kibbud av va-em, cf. Lev. 19:3, 32). Barbarism in an alien nation is described by denouncing it as one "that shall not regard the person of the old" (Deut. 28:50). A state of anarchy in Israel is characterized by the fact that "the child shall behave insolently against the aged" (Isa. 3:5; 47:6). The term "elders" appears throughout the Bible, Mishnah, and Talmud as a synonym or designation for judges, leaders, or sages. The Jewish image of the aged was therefore originally one denoting leadership and rule. Of course, physical facts asserted themselves and horror of weakness and senility was frequently acknowledged. In talmudic times the problem of earning a livelihood in old age was faced: "Every profession in the world is of help to a man only in his youth, but in his old age he is exposed to hunger" (Kid. 82b). Respect alone was of little assistance to the aged in the changed circumstances of late antiquity and the transformation which society had undergone. However, no attempt was made to issue specific regulations or create institutions to help the aged or care for them as such. If not living among the family, as was customary, destitute aged people were treated as part of the general social problem created by poverty and weakness and the precepts concerning *charity and alms giving (ẓedakah) applied to them. Thus, although old age was originally invested with strength and majesty, people of the lower strata of society who had lost the support and care provided by the family underwent much suffering, if not humiliation, in their old age. The transition from the position of the powerful elder to that of an aged pauper requiring special assistance outside the frame of the family is an outcome of the heritage of Judaic-Muslim-Christian civilization.

in the middle ages

The aged are singled out in medieval Jewish ethical works and general halakhic regulations (takkanot) as worthy objects for special charity and tender treatment. In the 11th century *Rashi defined the age requiring assistance as "when I shall be 60 or 70" (commentary to Ps. 71:17). Persecutions and massacres in the Middle Ages led to the breakup of families, and large-scale migrations brought additional suffering for the aged. A resolution passed at the Council of Lithuania (see *Council of the Lands) in 1650, after the *Chmielnicki massacres, stressed the duty to support "… in any case married and unmarried women and old persons" and reflects the breakup of the family under catastrophe. About the same date, the Jewish community in Rome introduced care of the aged as one of the four divisions of its charitable activity. A home for the aged was founded in Amsterdam by the Sephardi community in 1749.

eighteenth to nineteenth centuries

From the second half of the 18th century the need for introducing special treatment and care of the aged was felt more strongly in Jewish societies which were beginning to experience the breakup of the traditional family cohesion. These were more prepared to view old age as a social problem separate from poverty. In this period the time-honored concept of respect for the aged began to combine with new feelings of estrangement between the generations together with compassion and understanding for the weakness of the old as part of social responsibility. Thus an increasing number of Jewish foundations to care for the aged were established. The Mishenet Zekenim ("Support of the Aged") society, established in Hamburg in 1796, made weekly provision for the needy aged. An old-age home was founded in Berlin in 1829, and in 1839 the Hamburg community set aside a building for old men and women where they received lodging, support, and clothing. The Frankfurt community founded a home in 1844 for men and women aged over 60 without means of support. A Viennese family donated several houses for accommodating aged Jews of the community. The number of Jewish homes for the aged increased from the middle of the 19th century, as social care of the aged developed. By the present century most large communities in Europe included a home for the aged (often called Moshav Zekenim) among their welfare institutions. In 1938, there were in Germany 67 homes for the aged with 3,568 beds.

The revolutionary changes in society affecting the general attitude toward the aged and provisions for their welfare which began at the end of the 19th century are deepening and becoming increasingly pronounced and complicated. Among general factors responsible for this change are the modern appreciation of youth and understanding of its specific psychological and social needs, coupled with a corresponding understanding of the needs of the old, their psychology and social requirements; the demographic changes, first throughout the western world and later in other countries, resulting from birth control on the one hand and the prolongation of life expectancy on the other; and the introduction of pension laws and schemes as the problems of the aged emerge as a political factor in appealing to electorates with an increasing percentage of aged persons.

contemporary period

In addition, factors specific to Jewish society are the huge emigration from Europe from the end of the 19th century, the Nazi Holocaust, and forced emigration from Arab countries in the Near East and North Africa after the creation of the State of Israel. The impact of these general changes is most clearly seen in the main Jewish centers of today, and in the experiments currently being attempted to solve the problems to which they have given rise.

u.s. care for aged

In the United States, the cultural and social estrangement that developed between "second-" or "third-generation" Jews and their "first-generation" immigrant parents and grandparents inevitably strained the close, tightly knit Jewish family life that was a legacy of Europe. The first homes of the aged, therefore, often tended to be institutions of "last resort." Care of the aged in America was also originally hindered by a resistance to paid social workers. Similarly, family agencies displayed a reluctance to deal with the aged. Over the years this pattern has significantly altered so that care for the aged is largely in professional hands. Family agencies served about 20,000 persons aged 60 and over in their homes in 1966.

The general tendency in the United States is to avoid employing terms or arrangements traditionally linked with old age and care for the aged; aged persons are referred to as "senior citizens," for whom "towns" and "resorts" have been established. Emphasis has been placed on providing services to enable the aged to remain in their communities where they can retain the satisfactions of normal community life. At the same time experiments to meet the specific needs and inclinations of the aged are made while attempting to provide them with accommodation apart from the family. This trend is gaining ground in Jewish society. The concept of institutional care for the aged has changed from one of a permanent retreat to a resource to be used as needed.

in israel

Two basically different traditional patterns of family life are encountered: the Oriental in families from the Near East and North Africa, and the European in families from Europe and the United States. The Oriental family has retained much more of the traditional veneration for the aged and is much less influenced by the modern attitude toward youth than the western family. However, the mass exodus from the Arab countries created a problem of care for the aged in families who have been broken up by forced migration. Thus, the traditional Oriental family also encountered modern problems concerning its old people in Israel. Provision also had to be made for the survivors of the Nazi Holocaust and concentration camps. The combined problems of abandonment, physical weakness, illness, premature aging, and old age were dealt with by the *Malben organization, founded and maintained by the *American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee and its institutions. In addition, a new social phenomenon in Israel was that of family life in the kibbutz, which had specific problems concerning aging and the relationship between the generations. Although the kibbutz provided collective support and care of the individual member irrespective of his family status, health, or psychological problems, the strain on the aged and the aging was particularly great since it was a society originally created by the senior members themselves, founded on the ideal of physical labor and appreciation of the supreme and eternal value of youth. In this framework the spiritual and psychological side of aging is present in its "pure form," i.e., separate from the usual physical and material problems.

In Israel in 1964, 5.5% of the male population and 5.9% of the female population were aged over 65 (the age of retirement). The majority were living within the family or independently. About 7,500 old persons were in special institutions. These consisted of the traditional old-age homes (moshav zekenim) and the more modern living centers for the aged, of which there are different forms. By the early 2000s, 10% of Israel's population was aged over 65, with 250,000 Israelis aged over 75. The consequence has been a great strain on public facilities and a proliferation of upscale retirement homes and the fashion of employing live-in Filipino caretakers among the well-to-do. The care of the aged in 21st century Israel therefore fully reflected the economic imbalances that prevailed in the country. The poor among the aged have become a marginal group barely able to survive.

[Haim Hillel Ben-Sasson]

bibliography:

L. Loew, Die Lebensalter in der juedischen Literatur (1875), 253–75; J. Preuss, Biblisch-talmudische Medizin (1911), 515; H. Rolleston, Aspects of Age, Life and Disease (1928), 31–34; G. Weil, Maimonides ueber die Lebensdauer (1953); Plessner, in: Jerusalem Post (Jan. 9, 1953); Leibowitz, in: Journal of the History of Medicine, 18 (1963); idem, Al Oraḥ ha-Ḥayyim le-ha-Rambam (1953); Habermann, in: Haaretz (Jan. 16, 1953); idem (ed.), Kitvei R. Avraham Epstein, 2 (1957), 34–37; I. Bergman, Ha-Ẓedakah be-Yisrael (1944); Council of Jewish Federations and Welfare Funds, Inc., n.y., Administration of Homes for the Aged (1951); idem, Council Reports (1949– ); Central Atlantic Regional Conference on Services to the Aged, Disturbed and Disturbing Aged Person (1955); Symposium on Research and Welfare Policies for the Elderly (Jerusalem, November 1968), Family Life, Social Relationships, and the Need of the Aged (1968); Israel, Central Bureau of Statistics, Special Publication No. 199 (1966); ajyb, 57 (1956), 3–98 passim.

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"Age and the Aged." Encyclopaedia Judaica. . Encyclopedia.com. 17 Aug. 2018 <http://www.encyclopedia.com>.

"Age and the Aged." Encyclopaedia Judaica. . Encyclopedia.com. (August 17, 2018). http://www.encyclopedia.com/religion/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/age-and-aged

"Age and the Aged." Encyclopaedia Judaica. . Retrieved August 17, 2018 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/religion/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/age-and-aged

Learn more about citation styles

Citation styles

Encyclopedia.com gives you the ability to cite reference entries and articles according to common styles from the Modern Language Association (MLA), The Chicago Manual of Style, and the American Psychological Association (APA).

Within the “Cite this article” tool, pick a style to see how all available information looks when formatted according to that style. Then, copy and paste the text into your bibliography or works cited list.

Because each style has its own formatting nuances that evolve over time and not all information is available for every reference entry or article, Encyclopedia.com cannot guarantee each citation it generates. Therefore, it’s best to use Encyclopedia.com citations as a starting point before checking the style against your school or publication’s requirements and the most-recent information available at these sites:

Modern Language Association

http://www.mla.org/style

The Chicago Manual of Style

http://www.chicagomanualofstyle.org/tools_citationguide.html

American Psychological Association

http://apastyle.apa.org/

Notes:
  • Most online reference entries and articles do not have page numbers. Therefore, that information is unavailable for most Encyclopedia.com content. However, the date of retrieval is often important. Refer to each style’s convention regarding the best way to format page numbers and retrieval dates.
  • In addition to the MLA, Chicago, and APA styles, your school, university, publication, or institution may have its own requirements for citations. Therefore, be sure to refer to those guidelines when editing your bibliography or works cited list.