Q. It bothers me when fellow passengers don't stand up for older people, yet I am reluctant to start giving moral instruction to complete strangers. What should I do?
A. The most important thing is to provide a seat for someone who has difficulty standing, whether due to age, some handicap, or even a healthy person you can just see is exhausted or sore. This is a simple fulfillment of the mitzvah to help the needy; the Torah tells us to help the needy person "what he is lacking" (Deuteronomy 15:8), whether this is money, aid, or any other need.
But it also appropriate to offer your seat to any older person. The Torah commands us, "Rise before the gray, and honor the old; fear you God, I am the Lord." (Leviticus 19:32.) The "rising" mentioned in the verse is a show of honor and respect, and the Talmud states that we are not obligated to suffer a loss in order to show this honor. (1) However, there is no doubt that rising to assist an older person, such as by giving him or her a seat on the bust, is a great honor and a praiseworthy act.
The great medieval authority Nachmanides gives this commandment as an example of how the Torah commands us to "do the right and the straight in the eyes of the Lord" (Commentary on Deuteronomy 6:18). In other words, honoring elders is a fundamental ethical principle.
In the Talmudic discussion on this verse, some sages were of the opinion that the "old" in the verse means elders in the sense of leaders and sages. But the conclusion is that any old person needs to be honored: "Issi ben Yehuda says, 'Rise before the gray' – any old person is implied." (1) One understanding is that Issi ben Yehuda doesn't dispute the understanding of "elders"; he merely maintains that we should assume that any older person has acquired wisdom and experience which should be honored and acknowledged.
What about nudging others to perform this mitzvah? Judaism certainly doesn't encourage us to be busy-bodies constantly paying attention to the conduct of others, but it also doesn't teach the extreme neutrality and privacy sometimes idealized in modern urban society. Encouraging others to do good deeds is encouraged, and the Talmud even states, "One who induces others to a [good] deed, is greater than one who performs a [good] deed himself." (2) So there is no reason to be ashamed to turn to someone in a gentle and respectful way and point out that there is an old or frail person standing nearby.
However, in this respect I would limit such an approach to the case of a passenger who has difficulty standing, where the mitzvah is to provide for his needs, and not disturb others in the case of a healthy elderly person, where the mitzvah is primarily one of honor. The main reason is that there is little honor in such an act. The moment this gesture of respect is motivated only by some external influence, like a fellow passenger, it loses most of its meaning. Another consideration is that some older people, especially today when many seniors look and feel quite youthful, may actually be embarrassed to be singled out for honor because of their age. This is not a reason for you yourself to refrain from offering them a seat as a gesture of respect; older people still deserve this recognition, even if they ultimately decline it. But it does make it superfluous to nudge others. Finally, even if you do your best to be gentle and inoffensive in your approach to the sitting passenger, there is always the slight chance that he or she may be offended, and honoring one person should never be achieved at the risk of embarrassing someone else.
Even in the case of a frail or handicapped individual, when it may well be appropriate to point out their presence to a sitting passenger, it is of the utmost importance to be understated. This is not only because of general principles of good manners but also because you need to judge the sitter favorably. Even a person who looks young and healthy may be tired or injured or otherwise find it difficult to stand. The same chapter of Leviticus which commands us to honor the old also tells us, "Judge your fellow man righteously" (Leviticus 19:15) – give him the benefit of the doubt.
SOURCES: (1) Babylonian Talmud Kiddushin 32b (2) Babylonian Talmud Bava Batra 9a.
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