Dear Rabbi Fried,
I’ve seen and heard lots of talk recently about attempts of the increasingly aging population to “stay young.” To me, as a baby boomer, some of it seems enticing but some of it feels inappropriate. Does Judaism have anything to say about aging and attempting to prevent it?
I think there are two parts to your question: exercising and attempting to remain in a state of optimal health as one ages, and the attempt, by many, in today’s world to “remain young” in every way, no matter what it takes. The second aspect often includes hormone treatments and medical procedures, coupled with youthful dressing and lifestyle, to remain youthful and, as much as possible, to never age.
To invest time and effort into one’s health, with exercise, careful eating and living a healthy lifestyle is Jewishly considered a great virtue and the fulfillment of the mitzvah to “guard one’s soul.” Maimonides codifies this into law in his code, with an entire chapter devoted to proper eating habits, exercise and healthy living. I know of many leading rabbis, who are in their 70s and 80s, who keep a strict regimen of daily walking, jogging, swimming and careful eating habits. Today’s leading Torah sage, Rav Y.S. Elyashiv of Jerusalem, despite his rigorous schedule of study and teaching which allowed him only three hours a night of sleep for the past 70 years, always kept a schedule of walking and kept very thin. Today he is, k’na hora, 101 and still going strong, meeting with world leaders and delivering a nightly lecture to hundreds of rabbis.
The other aspect of attempting to prolong youth has its foundation in today’s culture, which glorifies youth and disdains aging and the elderly. Time magazine recently ran an article called “Amortality: Why Acting Your Age is a Thing of the Past.” The article mentions a bumper sticker that reads “I refuse to get old.” This statement, which in the past would have been ironic, has become the mission statement of the “amortals,” those who “refuse to contemplate aging and death.”
This philosophy runs contrary to Jewish thought and philosophy, where age is a thing to be respected, and aging gracefully and with pride is a virtue. The Torah says, “In the presence of an elderly person you should rise…” (Lev. 19:32). The Talmud says this applies even if the elderly individual is not righteous; the virtue of years alone and the life experience which accompanies it demands the respect of those younger than them. (One speaker pointed out that in today’s culture we could not even contemplate a successful TV show called “Father Knows Best!”).
In contemporary culture, youth is considered the “spring of life” and old age, its winter. It is interesting that in rabbinical literature it is the opposite: elderly sages will often refer to thoughts they had in their youth as concepts they realized “in their days of winter.” Winter is the time the seeds germinate and take root, blossoming in the spring. Old age in Judaism is considered the spring of life, when all of life’s lessons and experiences coalesce and blossom into the wisdom of age. King David writes, “They will still blossom and be fruitful in old age, vigorous and fresh they will be…,” (Psalms, 92).
All attempts of science cannot override G-d’s decree that, due to the sin of eating the forbidden fruit, death became a fact of creation. (Gen. Ch. 3). Aging, however, is a later innovation. A fascinating Midrash reveals the source of aging. Until the days of Abraham nobody aged. In their youthfulness, when the time came for them to leave the world they would sneeze and, with no prior warning, the soul would exit the nostrils the same way it entered and the person would die. Abraham asked for G-d’s compassion that one should age and realize that his or her time is coming near and life is not forever, to allow the opportunity to introspect on the actions of life and repent any misdeeds before leaving the world. It also allowed the opportunity to have the physicality of life take a backseat to the main point of life, its spiritual underpinnings. G-d, out of compassion to man and in deference to Abraham’s request, granted this change in the human experience.
Time magazine quotes Woody Allen, “When you’re worried about this joke, and this costume, and this wig, and that location and the dailies, you’re not worried about death and the brevity of life.” This is diametrically opposed to the weltanschauung of Judaism; although we’re not worried about death and the brevity of life, it needs to be on our minds as a reminder to improve ourselves and accomplish meaningful things with our families and the world. Aging is a good thing, and our place is to approach it gracefully with respect and to do all we can, within the opportunities of healthy living, to hold on to the gift of life with as good of health as we can with our efforts and the blessings of G-d.
Rabbi Yerachmiel D. Fried, noted scholar and author of numerous works on Jewish law, philosophy and Talmud, is founder and dean of DATA, the Dallas Kollel. Questions can be sent to him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Dear Rabbi Fried,