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Pirke Avot Chapter Five, verse twenty-four

The ages of man:

He used to say: “One five years old should study Scripture; ten years—Mishna; thirteen years—should practise the commandments; fifteen years old—should study Gemara; eighteen years old—the bridal; at twenty—pursuits; at thirty—strength; at forty—discernment; at fifty—counsel; at sixty—age; at seventy—hoariness; at eighty—power; at ninety—decrepitude; at one hundred—it is as though he were dead and gone and had ceased from the world."

This is the translation of Michael L. Rodkinson, which I like for its concision, which imitates the Hebrew. The Hebrew actually is closer to a son five years—Scripture, which is interesting because of the odd resonance with a son who is ninety or a hundred years old. I think the choice of son rather than man emphasizes that this text is to be taught to children, rather than to be withheld for the rumination of the aged. While it is useful to me, in between discernment and counsel, to meditate on the extent to which I have reached the potential of my age and am preparing for the next step, this verse is (in my opinion) for the young person who is just beginning. But I am likely influenced there by my having read the Passover Haggadah with my children last night, which highlighted the many ways in which the Haggadah talks about (directly or indirectly) the teaching of children and the parenting it wants to model or encourage.

The Youngest Member is now five years old; it is time for him to start to study Scripture. Well, and he has heard some Bible Stories all along, of course, but the time has come to include him in the discussion of them, and to begin to show him how we look at the text, the relationship between the text and the story it tells. He is not, of course, ready for rigorous textual analysis, but he is ready to know that there is a story about the story, and that sometimes we can ask questions about that story as well.

My Perfect Non-Reader is now ten; she is ready for the study of the Mishnah. No, really, she is. She isn’t going to actually begin studying the Mishnah, because frankly I don’t think it’s important enough to take the time away from the study of science, math, literature, social studies, music, art and sport. But she could, if we made that decision, begin to read it, and begin to understand the ways in which we derive rules for our own lives in the present day from rules made long ago in another culture. It wouldn’t be sophisticated learning, at ten, but neither is her understanding of the volume of cylinders and spheres sophisticated learning about geometry, and she has started on that.

And then, of course, there’s the bar-mitzvah or bat-mitzvah at thirteen, by which according to this set-up, the child will have been studying the rules for three years, and can begin to be held responsible for transgressions of them. People talk about the b’nai mitvah as if we consider the child of thirteen to be a legal adult in every sense. That’s a misconception. But it’s also a misconception to think, as we American Jews in the Reform and Conservative traditions often do, that the ritual is simply a milestone of growing up. The idea, as our semi-anonymous Sage states, is that there are years of learning before we hold the person responsible for practice. This is where the training wheels come off. And it’s important, in this arc, that the training wheels come off while the child is still in a household where there’s a lot of cushioning, where mistakes of practice and of character can be of limited consequence.

Because things happen in a hurry, with the young adult starting a household at 18 (now it’s in a dorm, usually, here in the US) and needing to figure out pretty quickly (by age 20, perhaps) what kind of life to pursue. Then, it slows down. Ten years to grow strong in your pursuits, another ten to learn discernment another ten before your counsel is worth listening to. And then the decline. Why tell a sixty-year old man that the decline is before him? Why tell a son of forty-three that he ought to have become discerning by now? We know, we know. But that moment, at five years old, when the world is before you, that moment that the young character is now ripe for the Scriptures, that’s when it is worth telling the little one: do this now, because there is so much more to do.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,