Each week Rabbi Yoel Domb writes about issues of business ethics related to the Torah portion of the week.
Two recent legal cases in the Israeli courts focused on what has become a painful problem for many people- the need to retire at a certain age. In one case, a 61-year-old lady who had worked for 30 years in the same office claimed that she was being fired due to her age, as there was no other reason for replacing her with a younger worker. She was subsequently awarded damages for age discrimination. In the other instance a 65-year-old made a very similar claim-that she was being fired because of her age and that this constituted discrimination- but the court coldly dismissed her case. The judge concluded that while Jewish law does not make any provision for official retirement, Israeli law does state 65 as the age of retirement, and therefore the dismissal of a worker who reaches that age cannot be construed as age discrimination. (See: Tel Aviv labor court -200256/99 and 912492/99, cited in “Law Review”-legal sources for lawyers )
It has become an accepted practice in most countries to fix a specific age at which workers must retire. There are a number of legitimate reasons for this: Most people wish to spend their final years in a less intense environment than the workplace, while employers usually want to get rid of older workers because their strength and productivity wanes with age, and a younger worker can inject fresh energy and creativity into the work. The problem arises when an effervescent older person wants to continue with his job, while his employer still wants to replace him with a new worker. Dismissing such a worker even when it is legally correct can cause the worker much anguish and insult, and may not necessarily be the correct thing to do. A more sensitive approach might advocate gradually reducing his level of activity while utilizing his immense experience in a consulting position. In this way the worker will preserve his dignity and sense of worth even into old age.
Interestingly enough, in the U.S. a 1986 amendment to the Law of Age Discrimination eliminated mandatory retirement altogether, meaning that employees can legally claim discrimination at any age if they are forcibly retired, except in a select few professions. Thus, if the above cases had taken place in America, the 65-year-old would probably have received compensation as well.
What is the Torah’s position on this topic? Does the Torah recognize retirement as a necessary aspect of life? In Parshat Behaalotcha the Torah delineates the ages at which the Levites can perform their service:
“This is for the Levites: From twenty five years old and upwards they shall go…. to the service of the tent of meeting; and from the age of fifty years they shall go out of the ranks of service, and shall serve no more. They shall minister with their brothers at the tent of meeting, to keep the charge, but shall do no work.”
The first verse seems to establish both a lower age limit and an upper one for the work of the Levites. Yet the second verse emphasizes that they can still perform some tasks, although not official “work.” Rashi, quoting Chazal (Sifrei Behaalotcha 5), says that the Levites cannot continue to carry the holy items in the Tabernacle such as the Ark, but they are allowed to sing (as required with certain sacrifices) and to perform other tasks. Clearly a Levite is not considered “over the hill” when he reaches fifty, and yet provision is made for the fact that he lacks the strength he used to have and must therefore do easier work.
Another approach to this problem of aging could be to allow others to assist an older worker in performing his tasks. The Rashba was asked by an elderly cantor whether his son could help him by reading from the Torah since his eyesight and strength of voice had diminished. The congregants evidently did not enjoy the son’s voice as much as his father, but the Rashba emphasizes that since the congregation knew that no man can maintain his strength and ability all his life without sickness or other difficulties, he is entitled to have his son assist him with his duties. Thus the Rashba recognizes the right of an aging worker to continue his work with assistance.
One apocryphal source may prove the irrelevance of age in discharging duties. The Talmud (Chulin 24) states that a priest may work “until he is old.” Rabbi Chanina explains that when a person trembles from old age he cannot perform his duties. The Talmud, however, adds another interpretation of old age from the laws of purity: Whoever can stand on one foot and take off or put on his shoe is still considered young. It is recounted that Rabbi Chanina was eighty years old and could still doff his shoes in this way, and he attributed this to the devoted care he received from his mother as a child.
Possibly this story is brought to illustrate that many old people can still perform many complex tasks even if they are technically “old,” and we should not flippantly terminate their employment just because they reach a certain age. If necessary, we can make their work easier by providing assistance or by assigning them to easier jobs, like the elder Levites. Thus we can fulfill the eternal words of King David:
“They shall flourish more in old age, and be fresh and full of strength.” (Tehilim 92)
Rabbi Yoel Domb is a graduate of JCT and a member of the faculty of the JCT Bet Midrash. He was awarded a fellowship from the Center for Business Ethics for the academic year 2000-2001. He is currently researching topics of business ethics in Jewish Law and is preparing a curriculum to facilitate the teaching of these topics in Rabbinical seminaries (Yeshivot).