In the last decade or so, it has become commonplace for the media to note the decline of adulthood–meaning that childhood has been prolonged for so long that young adults are remaining at home and dependent on their parents’ support well into their twenties. Whether this is a factor of economics, or a result of the parenting choices of Generation X, or one of other numerous variables, this extended adolescence is most often presented as unnatural and negative…But is it? When one looks at the Book of Numbers, which starts with God’s directive to take a census of the Jewish people, one sees that Judaism itself recognizes a difference between young adulthood and true adulthood.

In Pirkei Avot (Ethics of the Fathers), Rabbi Judah ben Tema notes that “a 20 year old begins earning a livelihood, a 30 year old attains full strength” (5:25). This “schedule of life markers” is demonstrated in the varying ages that are used in taking the census of the Children of Israel as recorded in the Book of Numbers. In Numbers 1, God ordains that the census be taken counting the people from twenty to sixty years old. These were the ages of all those who would be eligible to serve in the army and go to war. The ages for counting the Levites, as directed by God, instructs that the Levites be numbered from ages “thirty years old and upward even until fifty years old, all that enter upon the service, to do work in the tent of meeting.” 

In the structure of the ancient Israelite society described by the Torah, there is no more important factor than a life centered on the Tabernacle in the Wilderness and the Holy Temple in Jerusalem. The work of the Levites was not necessarily difficult, but it required that those involved truly feel the responsibility of their work. This type of maturity, according to tradition, one only truly attains at the age of thirty. 

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