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    Asking a woman her age – Chayyei Sarah

    The burial of Sarah, by Gustave Dore

    Though called Chayyei Sarah – the Life of Sarah – the sidra deals with the matriarch’s death and burial.

    Sarah died at 127 (Gen. 23:1). This is the only reference in the Bible to a woman’s age at the time of her death.

    Samson Raphael Hirsch remarks – how times have changed! – that since “the lives of the women are in general farther away from public life, a record of their age is not necessary to fix the chronological order of events of history”.

    If Sarah is an exception it must because thanks to her the Jewish people would have a future; Isaac was 37 when she died (Gen. 17:17) and had had time to absorb his parents’ values.

    Polite conduct more or less up to our own day has required that a woman’s age neither be asked nor mentioned.

    If asked, a woman would be coy and either change the subject or not tell the truth. A mother would tell her child she was 21 – and keep saying this until even the child knew it was a fiction.

    This approach is disappearing, but it raises the question of whether one’s age necessarily matters.

    Certainly, for legal purposes it can be relevant, but there can be a young person with an old head on their shoulders and a much older person who remains remarkably youthful.

    England had a prime minister who was in his 20s and others long past a supposed retirement age.

    Judaism calls Moshe Rabbenu, a man who assumed office at 80 and led the people for 40 years.

    Society must find room for all age groups to make their contribution. The young must not be held back, but neither must the old be treated as useless.

    Two of Aaron’s sons were severely punished because, say the rabbis, they said of Moses and Aaron, “When will these old men die?” (Commentaries on Lev. 10).

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