Age Versus Beauty
Chapter 4, Mishna 26
By Rabbi Dovid Rosenfeld
Mishna 26: "Rabbi Yossi bar (son of) Yehuda of K'far HaBavli said: One who
learns from the young, to what is he compared? To one who eats unripe grapes
and drinks wine from the press. And one who learns from the old, to what is
he compared? To one who eats ripened grapes and drinks aged wine."
Mishna 27: "Rabbi Meir (MAI-eer) said, do not look at the flask but what is
in it. There are new flasks filled with old wine and old flasks which do not
even contain new wine."
This week's two mishnas strike an interesting contrast with the previous
mishna. Last week we learned that it is far more productive to study Torah
in one's youth than in one's declining years. This is true in part because
young minds are quicker and younger memories sharper, and in part because
youngsters are still open to being molded and shaped by Torah wisdom and values.
Here R. Yossi tells us that it is preferable to learn Torah *from* an
elderly scholar. It seems that while an older person is not as well-equipped
to absorb new information, he is eminently qualified to give over what he
does know. This is because whereas the young mind is more able to be shaped,
the older mind -- one which experienced Torah study in younger years and
continued beyond -- has not only been shaped by the knowledge of Torah but
has hardened in it as well.
As the commentators understand, R. Yossi's point is that younger scholars
are not yet fully composed in their study -- just as the lees of new wine
have not yet settled at the barrel's bottom. They may have quick wits and
lightning minds, but they lack the mature understanding of the Torah which
results only through years of poring and reviewing. The advanced scholar,
however, has matured in his wisdom and reflects much more fully developed
Torah truths. He may lack some of the biting sharpness of the young genius
-- and for this reason his lectures may not strike one as being quite as
intellectually stimulating -- but the pathways of the Torah, in all their
awe and grandeur, are illuminated to him, cleared of doubts, pitfalls and
A couple years back I heard a story regarding R. Moshe Sofer (known
universally after his work Chasam Sofer), of early 19th Century Hungary.
There were two sharp, young scholars engaged in debate regarding some
intricate Talmudic topic. The Chasam Sofer, then an older man, entered the
room. They asked him his opinion on the matter. He stated an opinion which
they quickly tore to pieces. He attempted to counter once or twice, but the
young sharpies were far too much for him. He then retorted: "I know I'm
right! In Judaism one older ignoramus is better than two young geniuses!"
(Then, after allowing himself a few minutes to turn the matter over in his
mind, he came back to them with irrefutable arguments in his favor.)
The message once again is that the mature scholar reaches the point of more
than being a good debater. He attains the bigger picture. He has a stronger
sense -- as well as a better tradition -- for what the proper decision
should be. The details sometimes must be worked out after.
There is a second benefit to learning from the elderly. The Torah teaches
that aging itself is an educating process. Leviticus 19:32 states: "Before
the elderly rise, and show honor before the aged." The Talmud understands
that one must respect not only an elderly scholar (a young one as well for
that matter), but an unlearned elderly person as well, including a Gentile,
provided he is not wicked (Kiddushin 32b-33a). (Jewish law requires rising
in the presence of a person 70 years or older.) The reason for this is, as
the author of the Torah Temimah comments, "for an ordinary elderly person
has acquired wisdom through the many trials he has endured throughout the
years of his life" (Torah Temimah to Leviticus there, note 241).
There is a form of seasoned wisdom an elderly person carries with him or
her. It cannot be quantified or put into writing. But it reflects an
understanding of the world and mankind which stems from years of accumulated
wisdom and history. To study from such a person is to understand Torah
principles as they apply to life and to see history -- Jewish history --
come to life.
(I personally happen to really cherish the relationships I have with older
people -- in part because my own father OBM did not live much beyond 70. I
feel such people open up new vistas, and windows to a different and
fascinating world (part of my absolute infatuation with history) --
especially when we consider how mindbogglingly fast-changing our world has
been over the past century.)
Lastly, an elderly Jew -- whether learned or not -- carries within him or
her something else Judaism views as crucial to a proper education:
tradition. He forms a link between the world today and previous generations.
Judaism sees such people as invaluable and irreplaceable bearers of our
heritage. What we know, everything we are today, is on account of the
"ordinary" Jews of yesteryear who preserved what they knew and passed it on
to their children. For this too we look backwards, towards our forbears, for
wisdom and guidance.
In the Talmud (Eruvin 13b) R. Yehuda HaNasi ("nasi" = minister or nobleman),
known simply as "Rebbe" (REH-bee), explained that he is sharper than his
colleagues because, "I saw R. Meir from behind." (R. Meir, author of Mishna
27 above, was one of the foremost scholars of the period of the Mishna --
living approximately two generations before the Mishna's close.) To this he
concluded, "Had I seen his front how much greater would I have been!"
I've heard R. Berel Wein (www.rabbiwein.com) explain this passage
figuratively, but actually quite compellingly. Rebbe lived at the end of an
era. He was considered the last of the Sages of the Mishna. (He was the
Mishna's editor.) His death marked the close of the period of the Mishna and
the beginning the period of the Talmud -- and in spite of the centrality of
the Talmud to Torah study today, the Sages of the Talmud knew they would
never reach the level of scholarship of the Sages of the Mishna. (For this
reason, the Talmud almost without exception never disagrees with decisions
recorded in the Mishna.)
Rebbe attributed his greatness in Torah to having seen the back, i.e. the
close, of the period of the Mishna. He saw the aging scholars of the
generation before him before they died out. Had he seen their "fronts" -- R.
Meir and the like in their prime -- how much greater would he have been.
We too, continued R. Wein, retain a glimpse of people from an earlier world.
Jews who grew up in -- and were molded by -- pre-War Europe, saw a world no
longer existent today. A recurring theme at such funerals (which
unfortunately, we are privy to today on regular basis) is that the faith and
steadfastness of such individuals were so because they were cultivated in a
very different world.)
I won't pretend that Jewish pre-War Europe was Fiddler on the Roof piety and
tranquility. We were as vibrant and contentious as ever, and the number of
anti-Torah movements was staggering, a few of them still with us today (or
certainly their aftereffects). Yet the level of faith and devotion many Jews
had -- even if they lacked a strong Torah education -- has simply not been
matched in our proud new world of sophistication and superficiality. Jews
were more Jewish. The reality of G-d's existence and the humble acceptance
of the Jewish lot and mission were very much a part of their lives.
Tradition was stronger, and Jews took a far greater pride in it. (Today
young people hardly know if they're Litvaks or Galicianers. And 95% of my
readers don't even know what that means!) :-)
It was further a world which, in spite of huge numbers of Jewish day
schools, yeshivas and kosher conveniences of all kind, we have simply not
been able to reproduce. The human relics of that age carry with them a piece
of Jewish history -- a thousand years of European Jewish "shtetl" life which
was ripped from us so tragically and suddenly. They form a living link to a
grand and glorious past -- one exile less distant from the Judaism of the
ancients and the revelation at Sinai. They, by their feeble and aged
presence, serve as living testimony to our eternal history, a history that
must be cherished and treasured till their last dying days.
Finally, our discussion is rounded off with R. Meir's rebuttal. In spite of
the wisdom of R. Yossi's words, R. Meir takes issue. Age is a significant
factor in understanding and disseminating Torah, but it is not the only one,
nor is it the primary one. An elderly scholar is far superior to a youthful
one of equal talents. But the overriding consideration must be the Torah
itself. The elderly and our past can teach us lessons we must cherish and
never forget, but they are only valuable if they are delivered with an
equally strong message of Torah and observance. The Jewish nation has
persevered in spite of tragedy, exile and uprooting. Great past Jewish
civilizations -- Babylonia, North Africa, Spain, Turkey etc. -- have been
lost and all but forgotten, but we have managed to rebuild each time through
our commitment and rededication to the Torah. It has been the Torah, not our
history, heritage or anything else culturally Jewish which has maintained
us. And through this, we can retain and see true meaning in our past, yet
build an even brighter and more meaningful future.
Text Copyright © 2010 by Rabbi Dovid Rosenfeld and Torah.org.