Pirke Avot, Chapter Five: The Years of Our Lives

Like every other chapter in Avot, the fifth has much of interest (such as Rambam’s reading of Avot’s saying that ten miracles happened to the Jews at the Splitting of the Sea, which I discussed in another context).  The three Mishnayot at the end, justly famous, appeal to me for their concise yet timeless life lessons. Which I’ll now expand upon at length, somewhat defeating the purpose.

My only excuse is that I don’t think we all catch the lessons when they’re said so concisely—even if it were true that anything important could be said in brief, it doesn’t mean the rest of us would catch it. This is my attempt to help us catch it.

The Rhythms of Life, Changing and Unchanging

Mishnah 21 offers Yehuda b. Tema’s view of how lives progress, from age five to a hundred.  The way it is presented today, we might think no one reached that old an age in times gone by. While it is true that many more people seem to be reaching that age than used to, Yehuda b. Tema knew of it as an option, almost two thousand years ago.

That’s one example of how his ideas still speak relevantly to us today. Let’s go through his presentation and see where what he has to say still does or doesn’t speak to us.

Jewish Education the Right Way

Starting at five, he says the child should learn מקרא, which might mean Torah or all of Tanach (I think that’s a matter of disagreement between Rashi and Rambam about the mitzvah of Torah study in general, which I have to leave for another time). Rashi assumes here that five years is long enough for the student to know מקרא well.

There’s an important educational point here that is often lost. First, serious study can start at five. That doesn’t mean forcing five year olds to spend ten hours a day in study, but it does mean they can make meaningful progress. Five years later, they can have learned all of מקרא. This doesn’t happen without some effort, but it need not be burdensome effort, it just takes focusing our efforts narrowly, to do a few things well, instead of trying to do a multitude of things badly.

The same goes for Mishnah, which starts at ten, according to Yehuda b. Tema, for the next five years.  Note that to finish all of Mishnah in five years, once, takes learning a little over two Mishnayot a day, every day. If we double that to five Mishnayot a day (which can be done in an hour, for sure), the child would have gone through all of Mishnah twice in those five years, along with time for review of the מקרא studied from five to ten. With less time devoted to it than in schools today.

At fifteen (note: and not until then!), the child starts on Talmud, which means more in-depth consideration of the material in the Mishnah. What we call the Talmud does a lot of that, so there’s no reason not to start there, a process that seems to go on the rest of our lives, since Yehuda b. Tema never again speaks of stages of education.

There are two implicit and important points here: First, we have to know something to be able to think well about it.  In too many educational circles today, students are encouraged to express opinions and to think “deeply” about issues when they have not acquired nearly the knowledge to be qualified to do so.  Second, at least as important, Yehuda b. Tema doesn’t think students will be ready for in-depth thinking like that before they reach fifteen. Working at teaching “critical thinking” beforehand may be a waste of time, since the students might not be developmentally ready for it.

The Stages of Life

Mixed in to the educational stages of five, ten, and fifteen, Yehuda b. Tema notes that thirteen is the age of obligation in mitzvot (twelve for a young woman). Colloquially, we call that adulthood, although both society and halachah make clear that teens aren’t quite adults (some traditions  assumed the Heavenly Court does not punish the sins we committed before age twenty, see Rashi to Bamidbar 16;27; we are fully obligated at thirteen, but not punished for our failures until twenty).

It does mean thirteen year olds are supposed to be adult enough to undertake these obligations. If we, as a society, raise children in such a way that they are not at all ready for that life, that itself is an indictment of the educational models we are applying.  We need to be that we have a world in which our thirteen year olds are prepared for what they are responsible to be doing.

Marriage, Early and Late

The next life event the Mishnah mentions is marriage, at eighteen. (The Gemara suggests even younger is better). In Modern and Centrist Orthodox circles, we are quick to reject marriage this young, for some valid reasons (people aren’t fully formed enough, it gets in the way of personal development, etc.), but I wonder whether we allow the problems with delaying marriage—such as segments of Jewish society engaging in karet-level sexual activities because they are at an age where their urges are strong and their outlets are nil—to take its place in our grappling about the issue.

That doesn’t mean we should go back to teenage marriage, which has its own problems. It means we should look at this issue with clear eyes, aware that there are competing values and goals, and the solutions are not easy. To ignore one side of the problem completely should not be an option.

Building to the Crest of Life

The next thirty years seem to be about building our lives. At twenty, we start chasing, looking to make our way in the world, at thirty we reach peak strength, and at forty we develop real insight (בינה).

When society assumes eighteen is adulthood for issues like voting, drinking or serving in the armed forces, Yehuda b. Tema’s choice of twenty (which follows the Torah’s using that as the age for army service) calls for further attention. Despite life expectancy being much shorter in his time, he charts a course of the first twenty years of life remarkably similar to what we have today. Which also implies that even back then, he didn’t think eighteen year olds were ready for freedoms we often give them (a lesson many colleges could stand to learn).

Thirty is the age of peak strength for Yehuda b. Tema, by which I think he means more than physical strength—we don’t mature into our full powers, whatever they may be, until we’re thirty. At forty we get real insight, a contrast to today’s assumption that our biggest contributions will come in our twenties or thirties.  What insights are we losing by virtue of writing off those over forty?

The Long Slide Down

Starting at fifty, Yehuda b. Tema describes a slow withdrawal from the world. Until now, the person’s been chasing, growing in strength, developing insight. At fifty, it’s the time to start giving advice—implying, by the way, that until then we aren’t fully capable of giving advice. We may have some ideas, some insights, but the picture isn’t whole enough, isn’t developed enough, until later in life.

He may also have meant that this is the age to start focusing away from our own chase and starting to mentor others, to start worrying that the world have new people to take over our roles when we take a step back.  A step back that might come as early as sixty, which is what he thought of as old age. Seventy was advanced old age, eighty heroic old age.

There are two more stages, which we’ll come to, but his view of old age calls for comment. While it’s true that the past fifty years has pushed off aging somewhat, so that sixty no longer seems or looks as old as it once did, seventy is more of an expected age to reach, and eighty is not uncommon, it’s still also true that many people still age similarly to how Yehuda b. Tema describes it.

Either way, his noting three stages, the ordinary, advanced, and heroic, is a useful paradigm to keep in mind for ourselves and as we watch others—there is robust aging, frail aging, and dying. Robust aging (in Dr. Muriel Gillick’s model in The Denial of Aging) are those who are just like us, but older; maybe a tad slower, maybe hearing a bit less well, but that’s it. The frail elderly have health problems, but nothing that is life threatening.

Stages of Withdrawal

While many of us will hit frail aging or death before we hit ninety, Yehuda b. Tema thinks that is an age at which we necessarily (or, maybe, properly) start to recede from the world. In Rabbenu Yonah’s reading, he is saying it is an age at which we should care less about world events and focus more on prayer, on involvement with Hashem (to the exclusion of anything else).

At a hundred, it’s as if we’re gone. While this, too, is no longer as technically true as it was in the time of the Mishnah—we have many more centenarians than we used to—it is still true that many of those who reach that age are aged enough that they are relatively uninvolved in the broader world. They live in retirement homes, get out once in awhile, but don’t tend to have more strength or interest than that.

Nor am I saying they should. What I’m really saying is that Yehuda b. Tema’s picture is remarkably sturdy, still mostly as applicable in our times as it was in his. It reminds us that much of the course of life is more fixed than we might care to admit.  We might lengthen one stage a bit, shorten another, but most of us will have to live and produce and contribute within those parameters.  It’s a road map and a challenge: will we do what we can at each stage, aware of what’s appropriate and what’s possible at that stage, thus filling our lives in the most productive way possible?

Keep At It, And Work Hard At It

I only have a bit of space left, so let me note the points in the next two Mishnayot that I believe are too often overlooked.  Ben Bag Bag is famous for saying הפוך בה והפוך בה דכולה בה, turn over and over in it (Torah) for all is in it, but I find the rest of the Mishnah even more poetic and meaningful. In Aramaic, he says, and always be looking at it, and become old and grey with it, don’t move from it, for there is no better standard than Torah.

It’s an ideal few of us reach, but the ideal of keeping Torah with us, always and forever, having it be our companion throughout our journey, as we age and come close to the time when we meet our Maker.  It is Torah that can help us walk that road most safely, and that can make that meeting most pleasant, when it comes.

But it takes work, which is Ben He He’s point in the last Mishnah of Avot, that it is the effort we put into it that determines the reward. If we casually learn a few minutes here or there, do a mitzvah as it comes to hand, that will be one level of effort. And if we focus on it all the time, putting all our attention to it, disciplining ourselves to work for it, that will be another, higher level.

At each age, at each stage, with Torah teaching us how to act and react, putting in all the effort we can—the keys to a race well run.

About the Author
Rabbi Dr. Gidon Rothstein has served in the community rabbinate and in educational roles at the high school and adult level. He is an author of Jewish fiction and non-fiction, most recently "We're Missing the Point: What's Wrong with the Orthodox Jewish Community and How to Fix It." He lives in Bronx, NY with his wife and three children.