Senior Citizen Day, an annual event observed on August 21st, is a day meant to both honor older citizens and to remind the government that seniors are a large and powerful constituency.
In Judaism, honoring senior citizens is both a natural part of the cultural philosophy and, in truth, part of Jewish law. “You shall rise up before the hoary [aged] head, and honor the face of the old man…”(Leviticus 19:32).
The Hebrew term for “old man” is zakein, which, according to the Talmud, refers to a sage, someone of great wisdom (as the 70 elders of Israel were called). The honor due a zakein is understandable, but what does the Torah mean by “You shall rise up before the hoary head”?
To stand up for someone is one of the primary ways to demonstrate respect for another. When a parent, teacher or political ruler enters the room, one is expected to stand up in his/her honor. In trying to understand this commandment, the sages discussed the different ways in which they had seen other great leaders act:
Issi ben Judah said: [The verse] implies any hoary head. Rabbi Jochanan said: The halacha is according to Issi ben Judah. Rabbi Jochanan used to rise [even] before aged heathens, saying: How many troubles have passed over these! Raba would not rise up, yet he showed them respect. Abaye used to give his hand to the aged. Raba sent his messengers. Rabbi Nahman sent his guardsmen…(Kiddushin 33a).
In the twenty-first century, with people leading extraordinarily active lives well into their golden years, it may be difficult to determine who deserves respect. It is best, therefore, to maintain the tradition that one is considered to be of “the age of wisdom” at 70.
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