A “watershed” article shedding light on the wisdom of our tradition appeared a few days ago in the Five Towns Jewish Times by Rabbi Yair Hoffman and which was picked up by VIN, July 6, 2009, entitled “At What Age is the Mitzvah Of Mipnei Saivah Takum”? The article deals with the mitzvah of rising (getting off your haunches) in honor of an older person or a Torah scholar. (This is the same Rabbi Hoffman who took umbrage with the way Rubashkin was treated by the press; and it is the very same who believes that even if Eliyahu Hanavi, bechvodo uvatzmo, would appear, the laws of kitniyos would remain for Ashkenazi Jews).
Rabbi Hoffman was troubled with this mitzvah (Vayikra 19:32) because Torah doesn’t quantify precisely what comprises a “saivah”, an older person. Apparently there is quite a machlokes amongst our chachamim as to what qualifies one for the title of “saivah”. He sites sources that claim it is the age of seventy, and others such as the Targum Onkelos that believes the ripe old age is sixty but relies both the AriZal and the Minchas Chinuch who believe that the ripe old age of “saivah” is sixty. Of course the sources he sites lived in another time, long ago when reaching sixty or seventy was an event. If disease didn’t kill you than life was cut short as a result of a massacre or pogrom. The rare individual making it to that age of sprouting grey hair had achieved celebrity status and thus deserved the accolade of Saiva. Today, however, people are living well into their nineties; some are still golfing in their eighties. In my health club there are several octogenarians who color their hair and could pass for a sixty year old. Ought I stand for them?
The rabbi also points to a correlation between ones hair color and to whom the mitzvah applies; the hair color the means by which we can discern the age of a person. Thus the third Lubavitcher Rebbe prohibits the trimming of the beard precisely for this reason. Of course, here the whole issue of cosmetic surgery comes into play. As mentioned above, many men today live longer, healthier lives, enhancing it with face lifts, liposuction as well as hair color. Many frum men who could be considered Torah scholars or at least Torah aficionados fall into this category, especially on the west coast, and I wonder whether it is a mitzvah to stand for them when they walk into a room?
Rabbi Yair discusses of course the problem of women. Do you rise for a woman or not. This too is convoluted and problematic. According to some scholars, you only rise for her if she is/was married to a Talmud scholar. What compromises a Talmud scholar? Is it someone who wears a black hat and attends daf yomi but has a limited understanding of text, but knows how to play the game? What about a Talmud scholar who teaches not at Bais Yaakov, but at JTS? What about the growing number of women excelling in scholarship but are single?
Lastly of course is the issue of rising for someone on a train or bus and offering him/her your seat. Here he references some poskim that don’t seem to think that giving up your seat is necessary since it cost money. Apparently these poskim believe that doing the correct thing is contingent upon it not costing.
It seems that there is a large segment of the “Torah” community that has no inkling on how to behave without having a manual, a how to book, to instruct them. This is not to demean the position that Shulchan Aruch should have in our lives but there has to be a level of common sense that can guide us. Shulchan Aruch was compiled with the intention of providing us with an outline on how to run our affairs in the home and public sphere. However its intention was also to empower the individual with the ability to draw certain conclusions that were based on common sense and good reasoning. Thus, whatever the poskim have to say, if there is a “shlub” (strong ox of a person) standing on the crowded train (and looks like he runs the N.Y. marathon), he ought not to expect one to surrender to him a seat. On the other hand, if standing before you is a young person, infirm, pregnant or sickly, that person ought to be offered a seat regardless of sex, race or religion. That person has morphed into a “saivah” temporarily or permanently and ought to be accorded the dignity prescribed in Torah.
Perhaps this is the reason that the Torah never quantified what the age of Saivah was. “Saivah” isn’t something quantifiable. It isn’t something that ought to be legislated through a Talmudic discussion or via the poskim. It is a state of being that ought to be assessed at the moment and with the use of good solid common sense. Reducing everything to the written code robs us of the ability to hone our ability to make common sense calls and relegates us to being humanoids and prisoners of Art Scroll Judaism.