On Turning Fifty

Fifty seems to be something special. It is the number after seven sevens—the culmination of the completion of the greater cycle of the whole. It is marked by the days with which we number the smaller intimacies of our lives or the weeks which mark the seasons or the years which stretch out before us. Day by day, life’s repetitive tasks of rising and slumber, of getting and spending, of carpools and paper cuts, move towards the seventh day of rest. Weekly, we notice nature’s movements as the trees that were bare begin to flower or the brownish earth sprouts its grasses or the summer’s heat makes hats a must each time we leave our homes. From the springtime of our matzah-laden feasts, seven weeks bring us to the first fruits of summer. And the longer arc of years moves us from diapers and skinned knees to college degrees and mortages. Until again we complete seven sevens and arrive at the very jubilee of our lives.

Leviticus’ penultimate parsha describes the Land of Israel’s yovel—the Hebrew word from which jubilee is derived.


You will count seven sabbath’s of years, seven years seven times. … And you will sanctify the fiftieth year, proclaiming freedom throughout the land for all its inhabitants. It will be the jubilee for you and you will return—each to his own place and each to his own family—return.

The laws of the jubilee year require the forgiving of debt, the freeing of slaves and the remembrance that all belongs to God.

The land will not be sold in perpetuity, for the land is Mine, and you are naught but temporary dwellers with Me.

Rav Kook, in the introduction to his monograph on the Laws of the Sabbatical Year, noted that the Jubilee Year is focused upon rectifying the mistakes and misdeeds of the past. Those among our nation who sold themselves to be other’s servants or lost their family’s stake are given the opportunity for a fresh start—a return to where they should have been in the first place—not where they ended up when life’s blunders lead them astray. It is this end of the cycle of cycles, this completion of seven sevens that provides the time, not only to look back, but to start over.

Rabbi Yehuda ben Teima (m. avot 5:21) lists the stages of our lives: at five one begins to study the Bible, at ten, the Mishnah, and so forth; marrying at eighteen, going off to war at twenty; reaching full physical strength at thirty, full mental acuity at forty. In Rabbi ben Teima’s scheme, at sixty one is already old, but fifty is labeled as the age of advice. Most would explain that here too fifty is the time for reflection on the past. By fifty, one has accumulated enough time and experience to offer lessons from our past—to advise. So, even if in our individual lives we cannot really ever begin again, we can, after our own personal seven times seven, help others by sharing that which our days have taught us. Atop the vantage point offered by the completion of this cycle of cycles, we, who may or may not have attained all which we aimed for, can at the least point the way to the promised land for others still mid-step in their own live’s travels.

Yet, perhaps Rabbi ben Teima meant something else. Perhaps, it is only at this mid-point of our lives (he counts only to 100 and not 120), that we are capable of listening to the advice of others. Experience has brought us to acknowledge that we don’t always have the answers. The wise-man is the one who learns from others, but so often, too much of our own self-importance gets in the way. This is Rav Kook’s point as well. The seventh day or week or year of rest is there for us to rejuvenate our selves by hearing that which in our daily rush we too often miss. The powers we have laid waste, the land and money and time that we have wasted, can still be had—if only we pause long enough to reboot our overdriven lives. Our personal fiftieth year is time to take stock and listen ourselves to life’s whispered lessons—advise from those whose paths we have crossed by this midpoint.

The Zohar calls the Torah’s commandments etin—the Aramaic for advice. Rav Kook saw with his own eyes the fitful start of the rebuilding of our nation’s physical home, and dreamed of the days to come when our talents would again lead the world in innovation. He saw the return of the Jewish people to Zion as the resynchronization of the nation’s heart with God’s laws—both the spiritual and the physical. This was the time of return, the time to listen again, on every level, to God’s advice—His Torah. And the Jubilee Year meant that the universality of God’s teachings (in which Rav Kook deeply believed) would be dependent not only upon return to our particular national home, but coupled with the understanding that we do so as God’s guests in His land—for the land is Mine, and you are naught but temporary dwellers with Me.

The fiftieth year is a time for reflection and repair—aimed at bringing us all closer to where we should be on both the national and personal level. While perhaps past the heights of sheer physical and mental prowess, it the age of advice, the time to look back, before moving forward into our live’s second act.

About the Author
Naftali Moses, born in NYC, has lived in Israel for over 30 years. He holds a PhD in medical history from Bar-Ilan University, and teaches and writes on the nexus of medicine and Judaism. The author of "Really Dead?" and "Mourning Under Glass", he has also translated several books on Jewish thought into English, published on philosophy in the Mishna, and aggadah.