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The Jewish Ethicist: Age Discrimination

The Jewish Ethicist: Age Discrimination

Sometimes age does make a difference.


Q. Is it permissible to discriminate against workers based on their age?

A. In answering this question, we should distinguish between discrimination in hiring new workers and in letting go of old ones.

Discriminating against hiring older workers is not something prominently discussed in Jewish sources; there is no particular prohibition on giving preference to a younger individual if there are good reasons for favoring one. But it is worth keeping in mind that Jewish tradition generally has a very positive notion of the special abilities of older people. As a whole, the growth in wisdom with age is greatly emphasized, whereas the diminution of physical strength is not viewed as greatly significant.

We may point for example to the Mishna in Pirke Avot, which states that only at the age of 30 does a person attain strength; at 40, insight; at 50 a person obtains judgment. The Mishna goes on to say that at 80 a person attains might! Only after the age of 80 do the descriptions begin to present a picture of deterioration: at 90 a person is stooped over and at 100 he is practically gone from the world. (1)

So while Jewish law doesn't forbid giving preference to a younger person if we are convinced he can do a better job, Jewish tradition should lead us to examine if our stereotypes are justified. It is not unlikely that if we looked at all the parameters of ability including experience, judgment and maturity we would reach the conclusion that the older candidate is better qualified.

Regarding older workers who are already employed, we find more specific guidance in Jewish sources. The Mishna discusses a wife who inherits older slaves from her parents; it states that often the economically prudent thing to do is to sell them and buy some other asset, like land. Rabban Shimon ben Gamliel then states that even if this is the most favorable choice economically, it is better to refrain from letting go of these faithful servants, for they are "the glory of her father's household." (2) From this we can learn that an older worker who has served a firm faithfully over a period of many years is the glory of the firm; such a person should be let go only with the greatest reluctance.

The story is told that a generation ago the administration at the Tiferet Yerushalaim yeshiva in New York felt it was necessary to dismiss an older janitor who had worked for many years at the yeshiva, due to budgetary constraints. The head of the yeshiva was the great Jewish leader Rabbi Moshe Feinstein. He told the administration that they should keep this man on despite his advanced age and the yeshiva's limited budget, in recognition of his long service to the school. This is a model that other organizations should strive to emulate when possible.

(1) Mishna Avot 5:21.
(2) Babyolonian Talmud Ketubot 79b.

This week's column is dedicated
in honor of my wonderful, ethical parents

Bennett & Ellen Zarren.




Send your queries about ethics in the workplace to

The Jewish Ethicist presents some general principles of Jewish law. For specific questions and direct application, please consult a qualified Rabbi.

Copyright © JCT Center for Business Ethics.



July 26, 2003

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Visitor Comments: 5

(5) Holly, November 7, 2003 12:00 AM

It goes both ways

I think it should also be noted that age discrimination goes both ways, not only are the elderly discriminated against, but also the young. When I was sixteen years old, and after working for three years as a volunteer in our library, I went to bookstores who were hiring hoping to get a summer job. I was told that they didn't hire teenagers because we were "unreliable."
This has also occurred when I first got out of college and I was denied many a job because I was too "green" as they put it.
I think the person should get the interview or job based on their qualifications, not their age.

(4) paul-harvey du bois, July 29, 2003 12:00 AM

regarding age discrimination and the gist of your article

The ideas expressed in this article
are very important to a society which
seems to put a lot of stock in physical
beauty. Certainly, such ideas go beyond
consideration of human beings as mere
objects, to be tossed aside once the surface gleam has faded. Has anyone ever considered how much better the
"economy" might work if such ideas as expressed here were to be internalized
into the great decisions made by corporations. And thanks for the first
two paragraphs. They really made my day. I've just turned 57 and it is
gratifying to know that I've got a good
chance of having another "good" twenty-five years ahead of me.

(3) D, July 28, 2003 12:00 AM

illegal in the US

Age discimination is illegal in the US, so shouldn't the answer be, "yes, it's prohibited because of dina d'malchuta dina"?

(2) Anonymous, July 27, 2003 12:00 AM

age, sex & strength are factors in Judaism

Rabbi Dr. Asher Meir should take into consideration that the monetary "valuations" of a human being as declared in the Torah are based purely on age & sex and diminishes as they get older. (Lev. 27:1-8)
Similarly, the working (carrying) years of the Levites were set at 30 to 50 in the Torah irrespective of the Levites physical condition or strength at the time of the forced retirement. (Num. 4:2 & 8:23-26)

(1) Pesach ben Abraham, July 27, 2003 12:00 AM

Age dicrimination in the U.S.

I am amazed of the age discrimination in the United States, specailly in California. It seems persons in the US are judged more on their youth and looks than on their experiece. As an attorney at the age of 55 I have found it hard to even get an interview. I travelled to England and was offered a job with a prestigious firm after the first interview. I was amazed to find out later, that I was the youngest attorney in the firm! I was later told by the senior partner than "we value experience and acquired judgment here, more than age and looks" ---- something to think about.

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