Didn’t the Levites retire? Why can’t I?

In your teaching on ancient Jewish wisdom you say two words that are not in the bible but which are commonly used are retirement and coincidence. While coincidence implies God is not in control yet all things are clearly designed by Him, when I came across the age limit in priesthood I thought that is retirement. Please explain the 50 years limit of a priest. What does it say in Hebrew?

Simon M.

Dear Simon

If we can rephrase your question a bit for those who haven’t heard the teaching, we explain an ancient Jewish wisdom principle that that if a word doesn’t exist in Hebrew then the concept doesn’t exist. We are not speaking of “things” —obviously a telephone isn’t found in Biblical Hebrew—but of universal concepts. So there are words for the idea of communication but a telephone is just one example of a method of communicating.

One chapter in our book, Thou Shall Prosper, is entitled “Never Retire.” In it, we make the point that the word retirement is not Biblical, hence the concept is incorrect. Thank you for giving us the opportunity to elaborate on the seeming contradiction you noted in Numbers 8: 24-25.

To begin with, the Hebrew word is “yaShuv” from the verb “to return.” Although the English commonly translates that as “retire” it is more in the sense that a novel in the 1800s might have said that the man “retired to the country.” That did not mean he wasn’t going to be active the next day, simply that he was withdrawing from a certain place and going to another one.

If you read further in Numbers to verse 26, you can see that the Levite above the age of 50 is not heading off to play golf but simply switching tasks. Ancient Jewish wisdom explains that the “retirement” refers to the specific job of carrying items on his shoulders in the Tent of the Meeting. However, he remains responsible for other jobs.

As a society it makes sense that certain jobs that require extreme physical skills such as fireman might have age restrictions.  The way in which the Biblical concept differs from that of our society is that as long as the person is mentally and physically capable of contributing to society in any form whatsoever, they should do so. Certainly, one might have to move from one function to another, but sitting at home waiting for one’s pension check and focusing only on pleasing oneself tends to hurt the individual as well as the society.

Hope this clears things up a bit,

Rabbi Daniel and Susan Lapin

25 thoughts on “Didn’t the Levites retire? Why can’t I?”

  1. A sub-question on retirement … If one does not plan on retiring (in the conventional sense of the word) then what is the goal with finances? In today’s culture the ubiquitous goal is “save for retirement”. But if retirement is a lack luster goal, what is the alternative?

  2. Hey Rabbi and Susan. I’m sure happy I heard about your book while listening to a Dave Ramsey interview. In regards to retirement, how much should I work? My wife and I have 2 kids ages 4 & 2 and hopefully more. She’s stays home with the kids. I find myself conflicted, wanting to make extra money, while being home more with family. I’m a RN at a hospital and works 36hrs a week. I was thinking about getting a second RN job part time during the week. I never work on Sunday and that’s our Sabath. By the way, I’m reading your book “thou shall prosper”. Never retire has been a great chapter.

    1. Alonzo, we’re delighted that you are enjoying the book and it sounds like you have a lovely family. Please submit your question to the ‘Ask the Rabbi’ column. We would then be able to give it the time, thought and prayer it needs.

  3. Steve Souligne

    This is some of my favorite teaching from Rabbi. Ancient Jewish wisdom is so insightful!

  4. Pertaining to what Stephen wrote here, my (other) Rabbi taught us that the prophecy given to Noah, regarding the 120 years, was talking about the corruption of mankind with the Nephilim in Gen 6:4 (another study) and that 120 years after this prophecy was given to Noah came the Great Flood. Noah’s family had not been contaminated and, therefore, was able to repopulate the earth with pure human beings again.
    This is not about retirement but I would be interested in hearing what you teach regarding the 120 years mentioned in Gen 6:3. I had never heard it taught that we each have 120 years to live and we shorten our own lives by not living up to the Mosaic law.

    1. Rabbi Daniel Lapin

      Dear Lisa
      In an earlier Thought Tool we illustrated how we can know that this reference to 120 years was a prophecy regarding the future role of Moses who lived 120 years!

      1. Lol! So we were both wrong!! I’m sorry I missed that other Thought Tool. Is there a way for us to see old Thought Tools that we missed? It would be fun to have a years worth of these teachings to read all at once.

  5. In reference to the seventy or eighty years of age, Hashem is not establishing a new lifespan. These verses in Psalms 90 are in the context of punishment for desobedience at some point in the history of Israel and King David is making a plead to Hashem.

  6. The Levitical priests serving in the Temple did “retire” at age 50, however, Mosheh lived and worked to age 120. We may not be Moshehs, but neither are we priests serving in the Temple.

    1. Rabbi Daniel Lapin

      Dear Friend
      They did not “retire”. At age 50 they shifted duties from heavier physical jobs to other functions better suited to their seniority.

  7. I just retired from 32 years as a Police Officer. According to online sources the average life expectancy of a retired Police Officer is 5-8 years! There are many reasons for this but it does not have to happen! I plan to stay busy, eat healthy, exercise, read the Bible and beat the odds!

    1. Looking forward to hearing from you for many more years, Matthew, as you beat the odds. That is quite a horrifying statistic.

  8. I have been wondering why if the Levites we’re supposed to stop serving in the Tabernacle at age fifty in the book of Luke, Zacharias being “well stricken in years” was still offering incense.

    1. Rabbi Daniel Lapin

      Dear Don
      Thanks for writing to us. Our specialty is ancient Jewish wisdom and the Hebrew Scriptures. Unfortunately, I cannot comment on your quote from Luke. To clarify, we didn’t say Levites stopped serving at 50. No, not at all. They did not “retire”. At age 50 they shifted duties from heavier physical jobs to other functions better suited to their seniority. That may have included incense, we don’t know.

  9. Stephen K Meitzler

    Ok, now you’ve hit some something that interests me. Didn’t YHWH tell Noah that he was going to shorten man’s days to 120 years? Apparently that prophecy wasn’t for Noah because he lived about 950 years, but for the next few generations they lived exceeding less and less.
    Now, I grew up thinking that HaShem meant for us to live for 70 years because of what Moses was told out there on the desert. I think He was referring to Israelites who rebelled and had to die in the wilderness. The youngest of that bunch would have died at age 60. Personally, I like the idea of 120 years; but you say, “Nobody lives that long!” Please, don’t blame HaShem for that. That’s not his fault. If we were to live-eat-rest- etc. like we were told, like Moses, we could to 120, and then retire at the same age Moses did. Our problem is, we want to do it our way. Our way is more fun, more exciting. . . more deadly. No! HaShem gave me 120, and if he doesn’t wrap it up in the next 40 or so, I’m going to use every one of them, and then retire when I’m supposed to!

    1. Rabbi Daniel Lapin

      Dear Stephen,
      In an earlier Thought Tool we illustrated how we can know that this reference to 120 years was a prophecy regarding the future role of Moses who lived 120 years!

  10. Well said.
    The recall of hearing the sharpness from the greyhaired is smart, and elders aid grandchildren and those who are the younger people’s peers.

  11. Michael Hoffman

    Having followed you for many years, and having read Thou Shall Prosper”, I was well aware of this. I was wondering if Simon M. was referring to the Catholic religion as he used the word priest. In that respect any limits would be entirely man conceived, IMO.

  12. I spent 25 years doing IBM’s work before retiring from that in 1992. I have spent longer than that doing HaShem’s work since. Most of my IBM colleagues who sat around after that are now lying in the grave.

      1. Karen Thompson

        Rabbi Daniel and Susan,
        Thank you for your sound advice. I would like even more information for both men and women as to how to navigate the later years in life effectively! Our culture can be so isolating for the elderly.


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