My teacher and Rabbi turned 70 last week. He has been part of my life for 25 years.
Mazal tov on reaching such a milestone first of all! I wish you many more happy, healthy productive years.
Before I speak about the Birthday, a little story about the Bible is in order, since we read about the ten commandments in today’s Bible section.
A Brainy Creation
David Epstein came home from work to see his wife and young daughter Rivkah, reviewing the girl’s Hebrew homework.
“What are you learning honey?” asked David.
“Well we’re learning Bereishit (Genesis) and Mommy told me how Hashem made the first man and the first woman. He made the man first. But the man was very lonely with nobody to talk to him. So Hashem put the man to sleep. And while the man was asleep, Hashem took out his brains, and made a woman from them.”
There are no specific customs relating to the celebration of one’s 70th birthday (or of any birthday, save one’s Bar/Bat Mitzvah). However, 70 years is viewed as very significant in Jewish writings. The Sages state that at 70 one reaches the age of “fullness [of years]” (Pirkei Avot 5:21). It is thus definitely appropriate to mark the occasion by expressing gratitude for having lived what the Rabbis consider a full life.
More generally, we find many significant 70’s in the Torah, and they all allude to a similar idea. The Torah lists 70 nations which descended from Noah after the Flood (Genesis 10).
It likewise states that Jacob’s family numbered 70 souls when it first descended to Egypt (Genesis 46:27). The Torah further equates these two totals (Deuteronomy 32:8), stating that God established the nations of the world according to the number of Israel.
Seventy thus represents a totality – the different nations which constitute the world and the unique members of the Jewish people at its inception as a nation. The correlation between these two totals further implies that the national mission of the Children of Israel is to bring each of these seventy nations to recognition of God.
In a different vein, there were 70 elders who assisted Moses in the desert (Exodus 24:1, Numbers 11:16). And likewise the Sanhedrin (high court) in the Land of Israel would later consist of 70 judges (with a 71st presiding over them – as Moses presided over the elders (Mishna Sanhedrin 1:6)). The Sages likewise state that there are 70 “faces” to the Torah (Bamidbar Rabbah 13:15), i.e., 70 valid ways of understanding its meaning, as the Torah is so profound and multifaceted. Thus the 70 judges of Israel represent the full understanding of the Torah in all its angles and perspectives, and their decisions represented the definitive understanding of God’s Torah, binding upon all of Israel.
Seventy is thus a number representing completeness – the nations of the world, the founding members of Children of Israel, and the components of the authoritative judicial body of Israel. And likewise, a person who has reached 70 has achieved a “fullness” of years.
On a practical note, there is an obligation to rise in the presence of a person 70 years or older, just as we rise for a Torah scholar (Shulchan Aruch Y.D. 244:1, based on Leviticus 19:22: “Before an elder you shall rise”). The reason is because anyone who has lived so many years and endured so many life experiences is considered wise and deserving of respect, even if he is not learned in the Torah. His understanding of life and mankind is so much greater than that of the young (who think they know everything), and Jewish law has great respect for such wisdom (Torah Temimah to Leviticus 19:22, note 241).
There’s something special about the number 70. We see this number coming up over and over in Scripture and Midrash in other places as well:
Seventy nations and languages: The Torah lists 70 descendants of Noah after the Great Flood, and tells us, “These are the families of the sons of Noah . . . the nations were separated on the earth after the flood.
From here the sages learn that humanity comprises 70 nations, each with its own language.
Seventy members of Jacob’s family come to Egypt: The Torah tells us that the number of Jacob’s descendants that came down to Egypt was 70 (including Joseph and his sons who were already in Egypt).
Seventy elders: More than 200 years later, Moses is told by G‑d to gather 70 elders of the Jewish people to stand together with him.
Later, the Sanhedrin (the rabbinical high court) would also have 70 judges, plus the head of the Sanhedrin, representing Moses (i.e., 70 plus 1).
Seventy “faces” of the Torah: The Midrash tells us that due to the profoundness and multifaceted of G‑d’s Torah, there are 70 valid ways or perspectives of understanding the Torah (which is one reason given for the 70 members of the Sanhedrin).
Seventy years of exile: Through the prophet Jeremiah, G‑d promised that after the destruction of the First Temple there would be 70 years of the Babylonian exile, after which G‑d would remember and redeem His people
Seventy holy days: The Midrash calculates that there are 70 Biblical holy days in a solar calendar year (note that by rabbinic decree, Passover, Shavuot, and Sukkot are celebrated for an extra day in the diaspora, and Rosh Hashanah is extended into a second day everywhere):
7 days of Passover
1 day of Shavuot
1 day of Rosh Hashanah
1 day of Yom Kippur
8 days of Sukkot
Seventy Divine names: In Scripture, G‑d is referred to by many names. In fact, according to the Midrash, He is known by no less than 70 different names.
Seventy names of the Jewish nation: As G‑d’s chosen nation, Israel is a reflection of its Creator. Just as G‑d is referred to in Scripture with 70 different names, so too are the Jewish people.
Seventy names of Jerusalem: The Midrash continues to say that the holy city of Jerusalem, site of the Holy Temple is also referred to by 70 names in Scripture. Seventy full years of a person’s life: The Torah tells us that we are commanded to honor the elderly.
Well, when does “old age” begin? King David says, “The span of our life is 70 years, or, given the strength, 80 years. This tells us that only those with “extra strength” reach and surpass the age of 70, and are therefore deserving of honor.
The fact that the number 70 is mentioned so many times in Scripture indicates the preeminence of this number. What is the significance of the number 70?
Completeness of Nature
The mystics explain that the natural order is represented by the number 7. G‑d chose to create the world in 7 days, resulting in a week that consists of 7 days, corresponding to the 7 attributes (Chesed—Kindness, Gevurah—Severity, Tiferet—Harmony, Netzach—Perseverance, Hod—Humility, Yesod—Foundation, Malchut—Royalty).
Any number times 10 represents the completeness of that number. (Ten is a “full” number, because after we reach the number 10, we start counting again with 1. For example, the number 11 is 10 plus 1.) Ten corresponds to the 10 mystical sefirot. And 7 times 10 represents the completion of the natural order—each aspect of nature is complete and made up of all 10 sefirot.
Seventy Connected to Leadership
In the Mishnah that is recited as part of the Haggadah on the night of Passover, Rabbi Elazar ben Azariah declares: “I am like a man of 70 years old.” The Talmud explains that the reason he declared that he was like a man of 70 is that he wasn’t actually 70; in fact, he was only about 18 years old. However, despite his young age, the sages wanted to appoint him as the nassi, leader of the Jewish people. Rabbi Elazar ben Azariah was reluctant due to his age, so a miracle occurred and white hairs appeared in his beard, giving him the respectable appearance of a 70-year-old who was fit for the leadership position. His appearance specifically as a 70-year-old was not random. Rather, as explained, the number 70 represents the completion or fullness of a person’s life, as the verse states, “The span of our life is 70 years . . .Thus the number 70 represents refining one’s 7 attributes (since each attribute is comprised of 10 sefirot) as well as refining the world in general. Only someone who has reached this level of personal and global refinement is fit to be the nassi. Thus, it was only after Rabbi Elazar ben Azariah’s appearance became that of a 70-year-old was he satisfied that he was fit to be the nassi and leader of the Jewish people.
What Comes After Seventy?
While the number 70 represents the completion of the natural order, going beyond 70 represents reaching even higher than the natural order, until we ultimately reach the messianic era. May it be speedily in our days!