Adapted from
Likkutei Sichos, Vol. V, p. 132ff.;
Sichos Yud-Alef Nissan, 5722

A Feast and the Questions It Raises

The Talmud1 relates:

When Rav Yosef reached sixty years of age, he made a feast for the scholars, saying: “I have passed [the age when one dies due to] kareis. ”2

Abbaye told him: “Although the master has passed [the age when one dies due to] kareis [over the course of one’s] years,3 has the master passed [the possibility of dying due to] kareis immediately?4

[Rav Yosef answered him]: “Having half is also significant.”

This narrative raises several difficulties:

a) We look to our Sages as exemplars whose conduct we seek to emulate. Nevertheless, the Shulchan Aruch does not mention the practice of making a feast when one attains the age of 60.

The Talmud5 quotes Abbaye as saying: “I am worthy of reward, because whenever I saw that a sage concluded a tractate, I would make a feast for the scholars.” Now the expression “I am worthy of a reward,” implies that the behavior referred to is pious conduct beyond the measure of the law.6 Nevertheless, on the basis of Abbaye’s act, the Ramah rules7 that when one concludes the study of a tractate, “it is a mitzvah to celebrate and to make a feast.” Seemingly, on the basis of Rav Yosef’s conduct, it would be appropriate for a similar ruling to be made with regard to making a feast when one reaches the age of 60. Nevertheless, we do not find any of the halachic authorities advising such conduct.8

b) Rav Yosef was in the third generation of Amoraim.9 Thus many other great Sages who also attained the age of 60 preceded him.10 Nevertheless, we do not find that any of them made a feast to mark their sixtieth birthday.

c) Generally, when one makes a feast, one invites all of one’s friends, why did Rav Yosef invite only scholars?11

d) Abbaye’s question appears justified. Since the possibility remained that Rav Yosef could die suddenly because of a sin, what difference does it make that the possibility of him dying suddenly before 60 had passed?

e) Also, Rav Yosef’s answer is problematic. Even if one would accept that there is a distinction between the two types of kareis, it would seem appropriate for him to have said: “Having one is also significant.” “Having half…” implies that the two types of kareis are part of one larger concept.

A Change in Spiritual Settings

The above questions can be resolved based on the explanation given by the Alter Rebbe12 why we find many individuals in the present generations who have committed sins punishable by kareis and yet have continued living long and pleasant13 lives.

The Alter Rebbe explains that in the era of the Beis HaMikdash, a person who committed a sin punishable by kareis would in fact die before his time.14 For at that time, the spiritual influences which control our world were more openly revealed. When a person committed a sin punishable by kareis, his soul would be “cut off,” and he would actually die before his time. His death was a direct consequence of his sin, for through his sin, he cut off the “line of Divine influence”15 which would bring life-energy to his soul.16

In the era of exile, the Alter Rebbe, continues to explain, spiritual influences are less openly revealed. To borrow an expression: The Shechinah is also in exile,17 and the life-giving influence it imparts is conveyed through kelipas nogah, the gestalt which gives rise to the material consciousness of our world. Since the life-energy becomes enclothed in such an intermediary, even a person who sins is able to continue to derive the vitality which maintains his existence.

Where One’s Vitality Stems From

On this basis, we can explain why the halachic authorities do not advise making a feast to mark one’s sixtieth birthday. For in the present era, reaching that age is not an indication that one is not liable to have died because of kareis. Instead, it is possible that the person continues living, because he receives his life-energy from the forces of kelipah. And that is not a factor for celebration.

For the same reason, the other Sages who lived after the destruction of the Beis HaMikdash ,18 but before Rav Yosef, did not make feasts to celebrate reaching this milestone in their lives. Being humble people, they were not certain that their life-energy had its roots in a holy source.

Unquestioned Virtue

Rav Yosef was the epitome of humility.19 Nevertheless, he held such a feast, because in his instance, there was no doubt that his life-energy stemmed from the realm of holiness.

To explain: After Rav Huna passed away, the Sages desired to appoint Rav Yosef as the head of the Talmudical academy, because he was “Sinai,” the repository of Torah knowledge. Nevertheless, out of his humility, Rav Yosef refused the appointment and it was given to Rabbah. The Talmud20 concludes: “For the 22 years during which Rabbah headed the academy, a doctor did not have to pass [the entrance to] Rav Yosef’s home.” Neither Rav Yosef, nor any of the members of his household became ill.

Now illness is, unfortunately, a common factor in our lives. For that reason, our Sages forbid21 a scholar from living in a town that does not have a doctor. Nevertheless, Rav Yosef did not fall ill for such an extended period of time. This indicates that his life was not ordinary physical life, but rather an expression of spiritual vitality, as it is written:22 “The awe of G‑d brings life.” His life-energy was certainly not rooted in unholiness.

For that reason, when he passed the age of 60, he made a feast, celebrating the fact that he had reached that age without dying because of the violation of a sin punishable by kareis.23

Self-Control

The question raised by Abbaye, however, requires resolution. Free choice is one of the fundamental principles of our faith.24 At any moment, any person has the power to chose good, or heaven forbid, to chose the opposite and commit a transgression. This applies even to individuals on a high spiritual level. For this reason, our Sages counsel:25 “Do not believe in yourself until your dying day.” Since there was a possibility that even as refined an individual as Rav Yosef could commit a sin punishable by kareis and die suddenly, why did he make a feast celebrating the fact that he had not died before the age of 60?

This question can be resolved through the explanations of the Rishonim26 with regard to another dimension of Rav Yosef’s character. Rav Yosef was blind. This infirmity was not congenital, but instead came about as a result of his efforts to restrict his power of sight so that he would not be tempted to sin, as our Sages commented:27 “The eye sees and the heart desires….”

The fact that Rav Yosef’s willingness to avoid sin was so powerful that it affected his physical person indicates that he was in control of his heart. Thus there was little likelihood that he would commit a sin in the future. Nevertheless, out of humility — and because he still had free choice — he did not answer Abbaye that there was no chance that he would sin in the future. Instead, he told him that he was merely celebrating that he had not died because of committing a sin punishable by kareis previously.28 However, the expression he used: “Having half is also significant” indicates that he viewed the fact that he had not committed a sin punishable by kareis until this date — not as a separate factor29 — but as part of a comprehensive effort to control his conduct. Attaining this milestone encouraged him to hope that he would continue in this pattern and never commit such a sin.

Choosing One’s Guests

On this basis, we can also appreciate why Rav Yosef restricted the attendance of his feast to scholars. By nature, a person’s self-interest influences the way he interprets information. We hear what we want to hear. When a message is pleasing, it makes a deep impression on us. If it is disturbing, it may not be grasped as easily.

For this reason, our Sages state30 that a person fulfills the charge:31 “This Torah scroll shall not depart from your mouth,” by reciting the first verse of the Shema in the morning and in the evening. It is, however, forbidden to convey this teaching to a common person.32

Why? Because when a common person hears that, what he will focus on is that reciting the Shema itself is sufficient. No matter how much effort will be spent in explaining to him the importance of studying more, that first impression will not change.

A scholar is different. He has trained himself to look beneath the surface and to seek to gain a total picture of a concept.

Therefore Rav Yosef invited only scholars to his feast. He feared that were he to invite common people, they might misinterpret the matter and think that once a person reaches the age of 60, there is no further need for effort to control one’s conduct to refrain from sin. Therefore he invited scholars who would appreciate that only a unique person like Rav Yosef who had trained his body to curb its desires should make such a feast. (Moreover, even in his instance, he remained aware that he is celebrated only “half,” keeping in mind the teaching: “Do not believe in yourself until your dying day.”)

On this basis, we can appreciate the practice of the author of the responsa Terumas HaDeshen.33 When he reached his sixtieth birthday, he concluded the study of a tractate of the Talmud and made a celebration with the intent that this would also be in celebration of reaching the age of 60. For when a person makes a celebration associated with the conclusion of the tractate of the Talmud, he may — and indeed, he should34 — invite others in addition to Torah scholars.35 This becomes a seudas mitzvah, connecting a mitzvah — a bond with G‑d that transcends the limitations of our material world — with a seudah, a celebration with eating and drinking on the material plane, drawing down blessing into even the material dimensions of our experience.