Sunday, January 29, 2012

40: The Age of Limits

[This month's Kosher Cooking Carnival is here; enjoy]

40 is coming, in just a few weeks.

This development brings with it many different emotions, on many different levels, but one stands out for me: A sense of limits. Not depressingly, just realistically.

All of us have limits, of course, from the start of our lives, but as we get older and hit certain stages, key limitations become obvious and cannot be ignored. This birthday is drawing my attention to them.

We encounter llimits in terms of mortality. This varies from person to person, but we hit gray hair, no hair, reading glasses, a bad back and muscle pain, etc.

We encounter limits in terms of career. We realize we won't go as far as we had wanted, or enter new careers that we had always hoped to join.

We encounter limits in terms of growth. We recognize we're not going to get around to learning Mandarin, or getting a really good handle on materials sciences, not because we have too little time left but because we can see how our lives are going and how we make our decisions.

And so on.

The gemara (Avodah Zarah 19b) identifies the age of 40 as the minimum age for offering serious psak [legal rulings], or, as the Beis Yosef (Yoreh Deah 242) renders it, the deadline past which a capable person may not stall offering serious psak. What is so special about 40? Why isn't it a matter of what you have learned, as opposed to the years you have lived?

I posed the question in a recent class, and one person said it's because people will listen to you at 40. Another suggested this is an age when one has had life experiences which prepare him to handle a situation properly. Another suggested that people are more stable and responsible at this stage in life.

These are all valid answers. I wonder, though, if it isn't also that by the age of 40 one is forced to accept a certain humility, in the awareness of his limitations.



  1. Age is relative. I'll be 43 this year. My kids like to tell me that I am closer to 50 than I am to 30.

    I like to remember that I have learned a hell of a lot of practical stuff during my time here.

    Some of the things that we don't do aren't really age related. They are just the limitations that we apply to ourselves.

  2. Rabbi,
    Limitations is such a negative word, and it has nothing at all to do with being 40. The 40s are better looked at as the years of fulfillment, when some things you couldn't do in your younger years you just might get to during these years. You're smarter now, with more life experience, and you should be smart enough to know that a lot of what we talk about in our 20s is just plain air dreaming, because we have no idea as to whether or not we'll actual want to do or have what we say we want to do or have, and because we have no idea as yet as to whether or not we'll develop the skills and mindset necessary for some things we want.

    And then there are the wonderful new things we discover in our 40s and 50s and 60s, things we didn't know could be possible for us back when we were immature. There are aches and pains and we can't run a 4 minute mile any longer? So?

    Congratulations on hitting that wonderful 40th year. May it be a time of discovery and joy and may it be the starting gate for new opportunities and experiences. Age doesn't limit our capacity to go forward in a positive way--we do that to ourselves with negative thinking. I hope we'll all be zocheh to see you hit 50 and tell us all about how wonderful your
    40s were.

    I'm decades ahead of you on the calendar, and I'm speaking from experience. Or as Shakespeare put it "Come my love grow old with me, the best is yet to be."

  3. I saw an 86 year old cousin yesterday, and she is as youthful as someone 50 years younger (ok, more wrinkles). To echo the trite saying, age is just a number.

  4. Jack, Tesyaa-
    It is a mindgame, and it isn't, of course.

    Thank you, and I hear; it's a talk I've given to others often enough. But in writing this I'm not looking at these limitations as a negative. They are restrictive, but they also help define an appropriate playing field, and present new challenges. Mixed bag, as with anything...

  5. "Another suggested this is an age when one has had life experiences which prepare him to handle a situation properly."

    I think the opposite is true, and it is a different pathway to the humility you described. By 40 (and I'll be there in a year and a half), you've had enough life experiences to realize that though experience helps a little, the challenges are always new, and we are always somewhat inexperienced in solving the newest ones. Our experience brings about the realization that certainty and mastery of life is not our lot.
    Indeed, the humility comes from an awareness of a limitation. But it's a new awareness, not a new limitation.

  6. I just turned 41 this past Kislev.
    40 was a much bigger deal prior to the birthday and after I actually turned 40.

    On occasion I'll catch myself thinking, "I wish I had done x,y, or z when I was younger" but, like Jack, my kids think I am way older than I really am.

    The only downside, and despite the humor in this, I'm totally serious, was that upon reaching 40 I honestly thought my non-kabbalah receptive brain would be able to tackle my hardly read copies of R Aryeh Kaplan's "Innerspace" and "Meditation and the Bible"...still can't wrap my mind around the concept of tzimtzum. :)

  7. Now that I'm 42, so I've actually had the experience of 'hitting 40'. I know it sounds weird, but around 40 (I don't remember if it was right before or right after), I DID feel that my mind was opened, and I began to perceive things that I didn't before (I guess it also helps that I've been listening pretty faithfully for the last few years to my rebbi's tapes (R. Rakeffet), and having original insights and interests...

  8. R' Michael-
    I hear.

    Keep on plugging at it!

    Anonymous 3:16 PM-
    So is this attributed to R' Rakeffet?