The Torah’s View on Jewish Adulthood

This week’s alumni Dvar Torah is by Rabbi Drew Kaplan

When does one break out of childhood and into full-blown adulthood? This is a question that is on the minds of many young people: when do they count as adults?

In Jewish life, the answer seems to be 13, from Yehudah, son of Tema’s famous statement that “בֶּן שְׁלשׁ עֶשְׂרֵה לַמִּצְוֹת” (Avot 5.21), although it merely indicates an age of performing mitzvot, not necessarily an age of adulthood, per se.

While the monetary valuation part of the Torah reading seems rather quite skippable, it would seem that our parashah has something quite valuable to offer us in consideration of stages of ages in Jewish thought. With the various ages and genders being segregated out into monetary value (Lev. 27:1-15), we have an insight into what constitutes adulthood.

Setting aside gender discrimination issues or questions of ableism, etc., it seems that full adulthood in Jewish thought would be at the age of 20, since this age bracket extending up to age 60, receives the highest monetary valuation when one vows to God the equivalent of someone’s life (Lev. 27:3-4). Moreover, leading off the list would seem to indicate a significant place within societal ability, signifying adulthood.

And this is not the only time that 20 takes a significant place within the Torah. The half-shekel expiation money is only done for those between 20 and 60 (Ex. 30:1-16). Another example is the census that is to be taken up at the beginning of the book of Numbers is from 20 years of age and up (Num. 1:1-3), as well as later on in the same book (Num. 26:1-4).

In these places throughout the Torah, it seems quite clear that the age of Torah adulthood is 20 years old. The age of 20 is clearly an age of not only ability, but also responsibility. Even within our American context, various stages of adulthood begin at either 18 or 21, which is within a similar range as our dear twenty.

While people frequently refer to a girl who becomes a bat mitzvah at 12 or a boy who becomes a bar mitzvah at 13 as “becoming a Jewish adult”, anyone can see that that teenager is far from adulthood. Yet, perhaps, this is Yehuda, ben Tema’s way of saying, “You are now officially a teenager, with responsibilities that are similar to those of adults, yet not full adult rights until you fully become an adult.” It’s almost as if Yehudah, ben Tema, was acknowledging the social awkwardness of one’s teenage years, yet religiously framing it.

Rabbi Drew Kaplan (SBM 2006) is a 2009 graduate of Yeshivat Chovevei Torah and a newly-minted real estate agent in Ohio. He lives with his wife and four children in Cincinnati, Ohio.

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