February 22, 2020

What Retirement Meant in Ancient Times

Sooner or later in life, nearly everyone needs to stop working for a salary. Yet retirement is a trauma for many.

There is still much debate about whether mandatory retirement is good — for institutions or for people.

As people live longer, with many remaining healthy and active into their 70s and beyond, the issue will stay with us. Interestingly, it arises in the Torah and was discussed by the rabbis in the Talmud, and has been ever since.

The Torah defines the age span during which Levites are to perform their tasks in worship and in transporting the Tabernacle in the Sinai Desert, from age 25 until 50. After that, they may no longer perform the official functions but they may “assist their brethren,” meaning, effectively, they were kept on in a “consultant” capacity.

The rabbis were troubled by this. They said the mandatory retirement age for Levites applied only in the desert, where heavy physical labor was involved. In the Temple in Jerusalem, where the Levites’ main jobs were to sing in the choir and guard the gates, they could continue to serve until they “lost their voices.”

Maimonides was more concerned about forced retirement. He ruled that even after a Levite can no longer sing, he may still guard the Temple gates.

How one spends one’s free time, during working life and in retirement, reveals a lot about a person.

Regarding the priests, the Torah makes no mention of age. It speaks only of physical blemishes as disqualifying factors. The rabbis interpreted this to mean that the period of service ran from puberty until old age. In defining old age for this purpose, the rabbis chose a subjective standard rather than an arbitrary age limit — until he trembles.

The question arose again in regard to judges, who, in many jurisdictions, are appointed for life. The Talmud says that “an old man may not serve on courts hearing capital offenses.” It does not define what old means. Maimonides, again concerned about forced retirement, adds one key word in his codification of this law — a very old man, which delays retirement.

The standard explanation given for disqualifying the very old from cases involving the death penalty is that they are not considered sympathetic to young people.

Over the generations, Jewish authorities generally followed the more flexible approach. Jewish professionals — rabbis, cantors, ritual slaughterers — were to be employed until no longer competent.

In the State of Israel, too, such age limits are common.

Retirement itself can be a challenge, as was pointed out two centuries ago by the English writer Charles Lamb following 36 years as a clerk at the East India Company: “I am no longer clerk to the Firm. I am Retired Leisure. I am to be met with in trim gardens. I am already come to be known by my vacant face and careless gesture, perambulating at no fixed pace, nor with any settled purpose.”

“Perambulating with no settled purpose” is the fear of many a person whose spouse or parent is about to retire.

The modern Orthodox rabbi and thinker Nathan Lopes Cardozo warns against “taking it easy and falling into the pit of idleness.”

Retirement, he points out, offers many opportunities for spiritual growth, but many challenges, as well. He recalls the talmudic insight that three measures of a person’s character are b’kiso, “his pocket” (wallet), how he uses his money; b’koso “his glass,” how he handles drink; and b’ka’aso, “his temper,” does he control it, or it him?

The source includes a fourth test offered by one of the sages, b’sachako, most often translated as “his laughter,” but interpreted by Cardozo as “his play,” — his leisure time. How one spends one’s free time, during working life and in retirement, reveals a lot about a person.

The recent growth of stimulating activities and programs for retired people is an appropriate response to a growing retired population.

This essay was edited by Rabbi Bradley Shavit Artson and Deborah Silver at American Jewish University for aju.org.