The Keys to Life

Respect Your Elders – Rabbi Zamir Cohen

The following commandment is stated in the Torah:[1] “In the presence of an old person shall you rise, and you shall honor the presence of a sage, and you shall revere your G-d – I am Hashem.” A person who sees the physical body and the power of the material world as the central aspect of life, will look at the elderly with contempt. After all, this old, feeble man is deficient in physical strength. However, a person who understands that the body is nothing but a temporary encasing for man’s true inner character, sees the old person as a wise individual who is superior to him. He will therefore respect his great wisdom.

In addition, the physical forces of man are more vibrant in the young, yet more subdued in the elderly. This allows the inner spirituality of the old to manifest itself in a much stronger way – as the Maharal says: [2] “…and like the person who is ungodly for most of his life, at the end of his days, the physical forces depart from him and thus he becomes Godly.” Therefore, we were commanded in the Torah to stand in the presence of a person who is over seventy years old, as he is a virtuous man. Therefore, even a young person who has acquired the intellectual wisdom of the Divine truth, namely, the wisdom of the Torah, is as virtuous as the aged and we are therefore commanded to stand in his presence as well. As the Sefer Hachinuch states:[3]

‘You shall stand before the old man’, our sages have explained:[4] ‘Old man’ means, one who has acquired wisdom. This is why the scriptures express the concept of a Torah scholar by the term ‘old man’, the reason is that a young Torah scholar sees through his wisdom what an old man sees through the multitude of his years. He continues to explain:

At the root of the precept lies the main reason that man was created, for the sake of wisdom, so that he will become aware of his Creator. It is therefore fitting for a man to honor one who has attained this wisdom, as it will lead others to become aroused by it as well. And for this root reason, Issi b. Judah explained in the Talmud in tractate Kiddushin,[5] that even an uneducated old man, i.e. who is not wise, is included in this precept: it is proper to honor him – because in his many years in the world, he has seen a bit of the workings of the Eternal G-d and His wonders. For this reason, he deserves respect.

The Talmud[6] relates that the great sages of Israel used to show much respect for the elders among the gentiles, as they have acquired great wisdom in their lifetime.

Rabbi Yochanan would stand in deference to an aged gentile, explaining: ‘How many experiences has he gone through!’ Rabbah would show them respect as well and Abbaye would offer the gentile elders a hand and help them walk.

From this we must learn to honor the elderly – no matter who they are.

Below is a short list from the fundamental book of laws – the Shulchan Aruch, of laws pertaining to the honoring of scholars and the elderly:[7]

  • It is a positive commandment to stand before any sage, even if he is not old. One must stand even if the sage is young but wise (he must do so even if the he is not his teacher, as long as he is older than him and is able to learn from him). And so, it is a mitzvah to stand before the elderly, meaning, someone at least seventy years old (even if he’s an ignoramus – as long as he’s not an evil person).
  • When does the obligation to stand go into effect? From the time the sage enters his four cubits, and until he walks away.
  • A person may not make an attempt to avoid standing by shutting his eyes so as not to see the old man (or sage) enter his four cubits.
  • One must not stand for a sage in a bathroom or in a bathhouse, the reason is because the rising must be done with respect, (this is true specifically when inside, but outside of these areas, one must stand).
  • Tradesmen need not stand while they are in the middle of their work. And if they’re doing the work for others and they still wish to stand, they are not permitted to do so.
  • It is not proper for a scholar to inconvenience the crowd and walk past them in a manner that will obligate them to stand for him, rather, he should take a short cut, that does not force them to stand up. And if he can take a route in which he does not need to pass them at all, then it is a greater merit for him.
  • Even a young scholar must stand for an elderly person, but he is not required to stand fully erect, he must only show him respect. Even an old gentile man must be respected with words and be given a hand for support.
  • If there are two sages and two older people, neither is required to stand for his fellow, rather, one should exalt the other (even a Rabbi should slightly exalt his student).
  • If one sees a sage passing by, he must not stand until he comes within four of his cubits. Once he passes, he may sit. And if he is his ‘Rav Muvhak’ (meaning, the Rabbi who taught him most of his Torah[8]), he must stand before him and may not sit until he is no longer seen or until the Rabbi sits in his place.
  • If he is of extraordinary wisdom (like a leader of the generation), even if he is not his Rabbi, he must follow the law as stated above.
  • One must stand before him even if he’s in the middle of Torah study.
  • A sage, even if he’s a great sage is permitted to stand for someone who performs many good deeds.
  • If one sees the Chief Rabbinical Judge, he must stand before him from the moment he sees him from a distance until he is within his four cubits.
  •  If one sees a president, he must stand for him and may not sit until the president sits down, or until he can no longer see him. And anyone who forgoes his honor, his honor will be forgiven. But even so, it is a mitzvah to stand before him, even just a bit.
  • When a president (or prince) walks into a Beis Midrash, the people should stand and remain standing until he tells them to sit. When the Chief Rabbinical Judge enters, the crowd must make rows and stand on either side of him, until he sits down. When a scholar enters a person’s four-cubit area, he must stand before him. One may either sit or stand depending on whether the scholar is within his four cubit area or not.


The following is a poem that was written by an old lady in a nursing home in Dundee, Scotland. When the nurses were going through her meager possessions, they found this poem written in a dense and shaky handwriting:

What do you see, nurses, what do you see?

What are you thinking when you're looking at me?

A crabby old woman, not very wise,

Uncertain of habit, with faraway eyes?

Who dribbles her food and makes no reply

When you say in a loud voice, “I do wish you'd try!”

Who seems not to notice the things that you do, and

Forever is losing a stocking or shoe…

Who, resisting or not, lets you do as you will,

With bathing and feeding, the long day to fill…

Is that what you're thinking?

Is that what you see?

Then open your eyes, nurse; you're not looking at me.

I'll tell you who I am as I sit here so still,

As I do at your bidding, as I eat at your will.

I'm a small child of ten …with a father and mother,

Brothers and sisters, who love one another.

A young girl of sixteen, with wings on her feet,

Dreaming that soon now her husband she'll meet.

A bride soon at twenty — my heart gives a leap,

Remembering the vows that I promised to keep.

At twenty-five now, I have young of my own,

Who need me to guide and a secure happy home.

A woman of thirty, my young now grown fast,

Bound to each other with ties that should last.

At forty, my young sons have grown and are gone,

But my man's beside me to see I don't mourn.

At fifty once more, babies play round my knee,

Again we know children, my loved one and me.

Dark days are upon me, my husband is dead;

I look at the future, I shudder with dread.

For my young are all rearing young of their own,

And I think of the years and the love that I've known.

I'm now an old woman …and nature is cruel;

'Tis jest to make old age look like a fool.

The body, it crumbles, grace and vigor depart,

There is now a stone where I once had a heart.

But inside this old carcass a young girl still dwells,

And now and again, my battered heart swells.

I remember the joys, I remember the pain,

And I'm loving and living life over again.

I think of the years ….all too few, gone too fast,

And accept the stark fact that nothing can last.

So open your eyes, people, open and see,

Not a crabby old woman, look closer, see ME!!!


Notes and Sources

[1] Vayikra 19:32

[2] Netzach Yisrael chapter 22. He is referring to the time in which his soul is still inside the body, and not only after it departs from the body.

[3] Sefer Hachinuch mitzvah 257

[4] Kiddushin 32b

[5] Ibid

[6] Kiddushin 33a

[7] Shulchan Aruch – Yore De’ah 244

[8] Shulchan Aruch – Yore De’ah  Siman 242 Seif 30

Adapted from “The Keys to Life” by Rabbi Zamir Cohen


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