Seventieth Birthday, Significance of 70.
I am about to celebrate my 70th birthday God willing. Does Jewish law prescribe any practices or customs for such an event?
The Aish Rabbi Replies
Mazal tov on reaching such a milestone first of all! I wish you many more happy, healthy productive years.
There are no specific customs relating to the celebration of one’s 70th birthday (or of any birthday, save one’s Bar/Bat Mitzvah). However, 70 years is viewed as very significant in Jewish writings. The Sages state that at 70 one reaches the age of “fullness [of years]” (Pirkei Avot 5:21). It is thus definitely appropriate to mark the occasion by expressing gratitude for having lived what the Rabbis consider a full life.
More generally, we find many significant 70’s in the Torah, and they all allude to a similar idea. The Torah lists 70 nations which descended from Noah after the Flood (Genesis 10). It likewise states that Jacob’s family numbered 70 souls when it first descended to Egypt (Genesis 46:27). The Torah further equates these two totals (Deuteronomy 32:8), stating that God established the nations of the world according to the number of Israel. Seventy thus represents a totality – the different nations which constitute the world and the unique members of the Jewish people at its inception as a nation. The correlation between these two totals further implies that the national mission of the Children of Israel is to bring each of these seventy nations to recognition of God.
In a different vein, there were 70 elders who assisted Moses in the desert (Exodus 24:1, Numbers 11:16). And likewise the Sanhedrin (high court) in the Land of Israel would later consist of 70 judges (with a 71st presiding over them – as Moses presided over the elders (Mishna Sanhedrin 1:6)). The Sages likewise state that there are 70 “faces” to the Torah (Bamidbar Rabbah 13:15), i.e., 70 valid ways of understanding its meaning, as the Torah is so profound and multifaceted. Thus the 70 judges of Israel represent the full understanding of the Torah in all its angles and perspectives, and their decisions represented the definitive understanding of God’s Torah, binding upon all of Israel.
Seventy is thus a number representing completeness – the nations of the world, the founding members of Children of Israel, and the components of the authoritative judicial body of Israel. And likewise, a person who has reached 70 has achieved a “fullness” of years.
On a practical note, there is an obligation to rise in the presence of a person 70 years or older, just as we rise for a Torah scholar (Shulchan Aruch Y.D. 244:1, based on Leviticus 19:22: “Before an elder you shall rise”). The reason is because anyone who has lived so many years and endured so many life experiences is considered wise and deserving of respect, even if he is not learned in the Torah. His understanding of life and mankind is so much greater than that of the young (who think they know everything), and Jewish law has great respect for such wisdom (Torah Temimah to Leviticus 19:22, note 241).
Again, happy birthday, and many happy returns!