50 is the Age of Counsel.
One of my favorite Jewish texts is found in a section of the Mishna - a code of Jewish law that dates to about 200 c.e. - called Avot. Avot means “ancestors.” It’s filled with short statements of advice, ethics, and wisdom. Sounds like a perfect handbook for those seeking modern elderhood, doesn’t it (but then, I’m a rabbi so I’m drawn to these texts of wisdom)?
The teaching I love is found in Chapter 5, section 21. It reads: “Judah son of Tema used to say: At five years of age, one is ready for the study of Scripture; At ten, the study of Mishnah; At thirteen, one becomes responsible for the commandments (Bar Mitzvah); At fifteen, the study of Talmud; At eighteen, one is ready for the bridal canopy; At twenty, for pursuit [of livelihood]; Thirty is the peak of strength; At forty, wisdom; At fifty one is able to give counsel; At sixty, great wisdom; At seventy, one experiences fullness of years; Eighty is the age of “strength”; At ninety, one’s body is bent; And at one hundred, one is as good as dead and gone completely out of the world.”
Aside from the last two, especially for those pushing 90 or 100, the rest of the text is, imho, quite remarkable. It seems to parallel much of life today in Western culture (even though most today first work on their careers before seeking a life partner) and the signposts one experiences after age 30 do mirror much of what we experience; as opposed to other (older) charts that depict life as an ascent to midlife and then a descent into old age or a model that suggests how it’s all downhill from our mid-twenties with midlife being perceived in society, as Chip Conley calls it, “mid-death.” This ancient text sees life as an ascent, at least to age 80.
Looking at it through the lens of what MEA taught me, I saw something in this text I had previously missed. At 50, one is able to give counsel. Up to that age, life seems to be about acquiring things: knowledge and information, a spouse, a career, strength, even wisdom; yet at 50, right where the “U Curve of Happiness” begins to turn back up, this text says that we begin to give back; we offer counsel.
The 16th century Rabbinic sage Ovadiah of Bartenura (1445 - 1515) (no relation to the wine that bears his name) picks up on this shift in the text. He notes (quoting Numbers 8:20-26) that the time of service for the Levites in the Temple In Jerusalem was from age 25 to 50. At age 50, the retired Levite would counsel his younger colleagues in their ministry, not just the technique but the art and the craft of Temple service. Over 2000 years ago, these people understood that 50 was the age where one became an elder.
Coming on the heels of Bartenura, Rabbi Judah Loew of Prague (1520-1609, who is most famous for the Golem) added that 50 is an age of deep counsel when one masters hidden things; things like MEA’s rock balancing, having a growth mindset or the ability to be a “mentern,” learning from and advising those both younger and older than oneself. By the way, Rabbi Loew says that 60 is an age for even greater wisdom, for, as he says, “while the material faculties weaken around 60, the spiritual power increases more and more at that age.”
It is clear to me that the ancients understood how at a certain age we must learn to regenerate, rewire, and repurpose ourselves. They understood that at a certain age, one could become an advisor, a coach, a mentor or an elder (or all four) to re-enter their world with a renewed sense of purpose. There is no evidence that the Levites had an academy to enter as they approached age 50 and the age of giving counsel. If they did, I imagine it would look a lot like MEA.
Rabbi Daniel Gropper was ordained from Hebrew Union College in 1998 and serves as the spiritual leader of Community Synagogue in Rye, NY. He is married to Tamara, is the father of Elijah, Shai and Noa and graduated from the Modern Elder Academy in January, 2023.