Halacha L’Moshe MiSinai
Volume 2: Number 16
February 5, 2006
Mitzvah 17: Respect for the Aged and for Scholars
Mitzvah 17 – It is a positive commandment to rise up before an aged person, and to honor a Torah scholar, getting up before him.
Hafetz Hayim: Scripture states, “You shall rise up before sevah, a man of hoary head, and honor the presence of zaken, an old man.” (Lev. 19:32) The term “sevah” means someone of very advanced age, even if he is not a man of wisdom. One is duty-bound to stand before him – even a wise scholar who is very young; but he is not obligated to stand up to his full height before him (the old man) but only enough to honor him. The term “zaken” means “one who has acquired wisdom. Even if he is very young, one is to stand up to his full height before him, from the time he comes close to the time he has left his presence. One is likewise duty bound to give honor to his Torah teacher even if he has not learned most of his knowledge from him. If the teacher is willing to overlook this honor, it may be left aside. But it is a great wrong to disparage or disgrace Torah scholars, or to hate them. Whoever disgraces them shall have no share in the world to come. It applies everywhere and at all times, for both men and women.
In our modern times it seems a bit quaint to talk about honor due to the elderly or the scholar. Consider, however, the people we do choose to honor. We show honor to politicians, sports heroes, and financially successful businessmen and women. I certainly do not say that these people do not deserve our respect. But this mitzvah is about more than just respect.
Judaism is a faith that values wisdom. That is the ultimate value in the Jewish point of view. The wisest figures therefore are the elderly, who have a lifetime of practical wisdom, and Torah scholars who have worked hard to acquire the wisdom of our ancestors.
It the case of the elderly, the mark of civilization, according to Judaism, is the way we treat those who have served their community and are not in advanced old age. They need our love and support. They are often compared to a Torah Scroll that is worn from use and can no longer be repaired. We are to keep that scroll safe and to treat it with respect. So too those who have taught us valuable lessons of life. Perhaps this is why Jewish families are so concerned about their elderly parents and grandparents. Even during the Holocaust, many died because they refused to leave elderly parents alone and vulnerable. The Talmud had little good to say about those who abandoned their elderly parents in their old age. They were quick to remind everyone that we should honor the aged because someday we ourselves would grow old and deserve that respect.
Torah Scholars deserve respect because they represent the line of tradition from Moses to our own times. They are our advocates before G-d and the fair judges that we can rely on for proper justice. Today, we don’t pay scholars very much in comparison to other jobs, but we certainly owe them the honor that comes from years of concentrated study. This honor is the best way that we can convince our children that they too can merit this honor if they would only study hard at the sides of these great men and women. In past centuries, this study was only open to men, but, thankfully, we live in a time where both men and women can aspire to the honor of Torah Scholarship. A humble sage can defer the honor of having people stand in his presence, but the rest of us need to make sure that scholars are a well respected guild in our community.
Next week: Mitzvah 18: Respect for Synagogues