Power at 30: An Experiential Reflection

December 22, 2020 0 By admin

As I was about to turn thirty, I thought to myself, “What does the Jewish tradition have to say about being in one’s thirties?” The most obvious and glaring rabbinic text about this is the statement of Yehudah, son of Tema, who said “שלשים לכח” (Avot 5:21), although the question arises: How does one go about translating this phrase?


The standard dictionary for translating rabbinic literature offers a few possibilities: “firmness, strength, power”,[1] yet these are rather indeterminate, yielding “firmness at 30”, “strength at 30”, or “power at 30”; or, more literally, “30 for firmness”, “30 for strength”, or “30 for power”, but in which direction ought one translate this phrase?


In considering translating this phrase, the traditional, Medieval commentators offer up various possibilities, whether one’s [physical] strength being filled-up,[2] while others specifically mention that the Levites were involved with the physical labors of maneuvering the tabernacle at the age of thirty.[3]


To a large degree, a man does have the potential to attain full physical strength at the age of 30,[4] however, having lived through most of my thirties at this point, this is not the only area in which one experiences more power. I greatly noticed that one also has a significant degree of strength in one’s mental and intellectual powers. In my thirties, I felt better able to mentally grasp things than I had when I was younger and, on top of that, a greater ability to retain information in my memory, as well. So, I experienced a greater intellectual power than I had ever before in my life, and yet, there’s more.


In a professional sense, in a social sense, and in a societal sense, I also experienced a greater ability. These are also greatly important to the understanding of the notion of power at 30 – a societal power, a social power that one begins to cultivate, in a more noticeable way than one had in one’s teenage years or twenties.


Thus, I am satisfied with neither the common translation of שלשים לכח as “thirty for full strength”[5] nor “a thirty-year-old attains full strength”,[6] as Yehudah, son of Tema could easily have included the word “full” if he wanted to, yet he noticeably omitted that word.


This leaves me intrigued by the degree of ambiguity for which this phrase of Yehudah, son of Tema, allows in not only discussing physical strength or ability, but also intellectual ability, social ability, and professional ability. Thus, I am currently settling on Power at 30 for understanding שלשים לכח.


[1] Prof. Marcus Jastrow, Dictionary of the Targumim, Talmud Bavli, Talmud Yerushalmi and Midrashic Literature, vol. I (London: Luzac & Co. and New York: G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 1903; reprint: New York, NY: The Judaica Press, 1996), 628.

[2] Rabbi Menahem Meiri, wrote (in his Beit haBehirah): “כלומר שאז נתמלא כחו והוא בתכלית הכח יתבונן שלא יוציאנה רק לעבודת השי”ת כמו שנאמר בלוים שלא היו כשרים לעבודת משא אלא מבן שלשים ומעלה”.  Rabbi Israel Lipschitz wrote (in the Yakhin part of the Tiferet Yisrael) “כבר נתבשל כחו שבגופו בכל האפשרי”.

[3] Rabbi Shimon, son of Zemah, Duran wrote (in his Magen Avot): “למדנו מלויים, שמבן שלושים שנה היו מקימין המשכן ומפרקין אותו, וטוענין העגלות ונושאין בכת”.  Similarly, Rabbi Ovadiah, son of Abraham, of Bertinoro, wrote (in his commentary): “שהלוים היו מקימים את המשכן ומפרקין וטוענין את העגלות ונושאין בכתף מבן שלשים שנה ומעלה”.

[4] For more on this text being specifically about men, see my “Just Because Some Rabbinic Texts are Androcentric Doesn’t Mean There Aren’t (Or Can’t Be) Gynocentric Correlates”, Drew’s Views (11 February 2014) [http://drewsviews.info/whataboutgynocentrictexts/].

[5] Rabbi Sir Jonathan Sacks, trans., The Koren Siddur (Jerusalem: Koren Publishers, 2009), 674.

[6] Rabbi Nosson Scherman, trans., The Complete Artscroll Siddur: Weekday/Sabbath/Festival, 3rd ed. (Brooklyn, NY: Mesorah Publications, 1992), 579.