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Bible Encyclopedias

The 1901 Jewish Encyclopedia

Ages of Man in Jewish Literature, the Seven

The Biblical allusions to the various stages of human life (Jeremiah 6:11, 51:22; Psalms 148:12) and the metaphors in Holy Writ concerning man in all his phases are brought together in Löw's "Die Lebensalter," pp. 12-20 (see Age, Youth). In the Talmud, the idea of "ages of men" is expressed by the word (literally "to break"; compare especially Obad., 14). To the rabbis, a threefold division of human life, viz., boyhood, youth, and old age, seemed more acceptable than any other. In the earlier Midrashim five periods are mentioned: (Tan. to Ex., ed. Stettin, p. 180). In the same work (introduction to Haazinu; Pesiḳ. R.; Löw, "Lebensalter,"p. 24) human life is symbolically compared to the twelve signs of the zodiac (English translation in "Jewish Chronicle," Nov. 23, 1894, p. 11). The computation of fifteen years for each age, to be found in the addition to Abot, 5:21 (Taylor, "Sayings of the Fathers," Eng. ed., pp. 97, 98, Cambridge, 1897), and attributed to Ben Bag Bag, or Samuel ha-Ḳatan (ibid. p. 22), became very popular among Jews because of the educational hints thrown out in the saying, which was paraphrased in verse by Solomon ben Isaac Levi, in his commentary called "Leb Abot" (The Heart of the Fathers), published in Salonica, 1565. Abraham ibn Ezra's poem, entitled ("Mortal Man Should e'er be Mindful of his Origin," etc.), has often been published (see, for instance, Abravanel, "Naḥlat Abot," p. 189b, Venice, 1567; "Midrash Shemuel" of Samuel Ucedo, Frankfort-on-the-Main ed., p. 56a; the poems of Ibn Ezra, ed. Aḥiasaf, Warsaw, 1893; Taylor, "Sayings of the Fathers," p. 22; compare Steinschneider in "Z. D. M. G.," 1850, 4:164, n. 77). A German version of the poem which is incorporated in the Sephardic liturgy is given in Löw's book, pp. 38, 39; and another in Letteris, "Andachtsbuch," etc., pp. 149, 150, Prague, 1869. Other poetic selections by Spanish Jewish poets, ancient and modern, on the various stages of human life, are reproduced in Löw, c., pp. 37-41.

The division into seven ages appears to have been originally Greek, and is attributed to Solon (flourished about 638-558 B.C.), who, according to Philo ("De Mundi Opificio," ed. Mangey, 1:25,26), speaks of ten ages of seven years each. The seven ages are first met with in Hippocrates (died about 357 B.C.), and are also given by Philo, whose divisions are infancy, childhood, boyhood, youth, manhood, middle age, and old age.

Reference to the seven periods are quite frequent in the Midrash. There are some data which Löw has omitted to mention. The Midrash Tadsheh enumerates a number of things divisible into seven parts, such as festivals, stars, portions of the human anatomy, etc. Among others are the following: , which are the equivalents of the designations in Hippocrates (see Jellinek, "B. H." 3:168, Leipsic, 1855; Egers, in "Hebr. Bibl." 16:17). A satirical subdivision into heptads may be found in Eccl. R. to 1:2:

"The Seven Vanities of which the Preacher speaks correspond to the seven eons of man. The child of a year is like a king, put in a coach and adored by all; at two or three he is like a swine dabbling in filth; at ten he bounds like a kid; at twenty he is like a horse neighing and spirited, and desires a wife; when he has married a wife, behold! he is like an ass; when children are born to him, he is shameless as a dog in procuring the means of sustenance; when he has grown old he is like an ape—that is, if he is an am ha-areẓ [ignoramus]—but a learned man like David is a king, though old (I. Kings, 1:1)."

The same tradition is quoted in the unpublished Midrash ha-Gadol to Genesis 2:1 with some peculiar variations. Parallels from folk-lore, especially on the zoological metaphors, are given by Löw ("Lebensalter," pp. 23, 24, 371, notes 40, 41) and by Egers ("Hebr. Bibl." 16:17). Renderings of the above in German are to be found in Wünsche, "Der Midrasch Kohelet," p. 3 (Leipsic, 1880). Löw (c., pp. 22, 23) and J. Dessauer, "Spruchlexikon des Talmud und Midrasch," pp. 125, 126, No. 948 (Budapest, 1876), give paraphrases of the tradition in verse (for English translations, see Taylor, "Sayings of the Fathers," p. 111; Hyman Hurwitz, "Hebrew Tales," American ed., 1847, pp. 75, 76; W. A. Clouston, "Flowers from a Persian Garden," pp. 257-259 (London, 1890), with parallels; compare also Schechter, "Studies in Judaism," 1896, pp. 295, 299, 300). There is also an interesting elaboration of the legend of the Seven Ages of Man in an old Midrash on the "Formation of the Child" (Yeẓirat ha-Welad), published in Wagenseil's Latin edition of the treatise Soṭah, pp. 71-79 (Altdorf, 1674); in Makir's "Abḳat Rokel," pp. 23a, 24b (Amsterdam, ed. 1696), and in Jellinek's "B. H." 1:154,155 (Leipsic, 1853), where Plato's doctrine of preexistence is indicated. This version of the story is given in Yalḳ. to Ecclesiastes 1:2 (ed. Warsaw, 1877), p. 1080, § 966, from Midr. Zuṭṭa, ed. Buber, p. 84, where it is ascribed to Judah bar Simon, who, in turn, transmits it in the name of Joshua ben Levi.

The fullest and most striking parallel to Shakespeare's "Seven Ages" (on which a special monograph was written by Dr. John Evans, entitled "Shakespeare's Seven Ages of Man, or the Progress of Human Life," London, 1834) is to be found in the Midrash Tanḥuma. The following is a translation:

(Ab. R. N. p. 22).

"For now, seven worlds follow one another in rapid succession. In the first, the child may be compared to a king: all greet it and long to catch a glimpse of it; they embrace and kiss it, it being but one year old. In the second stage, when about two years old, it may be compared to the unclean animal which wallows in the mire. In the third period, it resembles a kid of the goats, which capers hither and thither in the presence of its mother—an object of delight and joy to its parents, making glad the hearts of all who look upon it. [This period would include the age at which it begins to walk alone along the public way, and extends to the years of maturity at the age of eighteen.] And now, in the fourth stage, he may be likened to a spirited steed, running in the race and confiding in the strength of youth. But there comes the fifth stage, in which he becomes as the saddled ass, when, at the age of forty, he is bowed down by the weight of wife and children, having to travel backward and forward in order to bring home sustenance for the members of his household. And how much keener this contest becomes in the sixth period of life, when, like a whining hound, the bread-winner of the family in shamelessness races and tears about, snatching from one in order to give to another. And, lastly, there arrives the seventh stage of man's existence, in which, ape-like, his countenance changes, and childlike, he asketh for everything, eating and drinking and playing as a child: and there he sits, even his children and his household mocking at him, disregarding him and loathing him; and when he utters a word, he hears such expressions as 'Let him alone, for he is old and childish.' This is the period in which his sleep is so light, that the flutter of a bird's wing would rouse him from his slumber; and this period extends to the time in which his hour of departure from this world is fixed, at which the selfsame angel comes to him and asks him, 'Dost thou recognize me?' to which he replies, 'Indeed, I do: but wherefore dost thou come to me just this day?' 'In order to take thee out of this world,' says the angel, 'for thy time has come to depart hence.' Immediately he commences to weep; and his cry pierces the world from one end to the other: addressing the angel, he exclaims, 'Hast thou not already caused me to quit two worlds, to enter this world?' to which the angel finally replies: 'And have I not already told thee, that against thy will thou art created—against thy will thou art born, against thy will thou livest, and against thy will thou must render account for thy actions before the Supreme King of Kings, blessed be He?'"

The first Jewish author who mentions the classification of Hippocrates is Solomon ha-Levi of Salonica, whose views may be found in a sermon delivered by him on the Feast of Tabernacles in 1574. He identifies the seven stages of Hippocrates with the seven names of the evil inclination ("Yeẓer hara'") spoken of in the Talmud (see his "Dibre Shelomoh" (The Words of Solomon), pp. 161c, 297d; Löw, c., pp. 31, 32, 36). The physician Tobias Cohen (1652-1729) was also familiar with the division into heptads. "The life of man," he says, "according to the opinion of the physicians, is divisible into seven chapters, as follows: infancy, childhood, puberty, youth, prime, old age, and very old age" (see Löw, c., pp. 36, 372, notes 82, 83). His views differ from those of Philo. Löw, c., gives a German translation of Cohen's own ideas on the subject; despite his learning and culture, he seemed to be influenced by the symbolism of numbers (see his "Ma'aseh Tobiah," p. 73a). About other divisionsof human life by Jewish authors in the Middle Ages and in modern times see the résumé in Löw, c. pp. 26-41. Poetic contributions to this subject from the pen of Samuel ha-Nagid, Abraham ibn Ezra, and other poets of the Spanish school are especially interesting. See also Seven.

  • Wackernagel, Die Lebensalter: Ein Beitrag zur Vergleichenden Sitten- und Rechtsgeschichte, Basel, 1862;
  • Leopold Löw. Die Lebensalter in der Jüd. Lit., Szegedin, 1875. Additions in Steinschneider, Hebr. Bibl. 13:92,93, Berlin, 1873;
  • 16:16-18, Berlin, 1876 (Dr. Eger's review of Löw's work);
  • Hebr. Uebers. pp. 257, 874, Berlin, 1893.
G. A. K.

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Singer, Isidore, Ph.D, Projector and Managing Editor. Entry for 'Ages of Man in Jewish Literature, the Seven'. 1901 The Jewish Encyclopedia. 1901.

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