The alligator snapping turtle is one of the largest freshwater turtles in the world. They sometimes reach weights of 250 pounds, and there are reports of outsize individuals reaching as much as 400 pounds!
Such monsters did not reach that size quickly. Turtles are slow-growing creatures, and it takes a very, very long time for them to reach such sizes. Although their lifespan is unknown, it is thought that they can reach a lifespan of two hundred years!
But it’s not just that turtles and tortoises can live a very long time—it seems that they actually don’t age. They just get older and older and older, without showing any decline in physical or mental faculties, until eventually they are overtaken by some disease or another.
The aging process seems to be linked to a specific set of genes that turtles and tortoises don’t possess. In experiments on fruit flies, scientists have managed to counteract the aging effect, causing the flies to live some thirty times longer than their usual life expectancy. If they ever find a way to do that for humans, we’ll be living for more than two thousand years.
Aging is a process that is bitterly resented and fought by almost everyone. Many people are obsessed with pursuing material pleasures, physical gratification, and other such goals that are limited to this world alone. Their soul plays a tertiary role to their body. Hence, people consider their twenties and thirties to be their prime, their heyday. The fortieth birthday presents a mid-life crisis, their forties and fifties are spent fighting the aging process, and after that they go into a decline.
For the person who lives life with his soul as his highest priority, things proceed somewhat differently. Abraham was well over a hundred years old when he was described as a person who was “ba bayamim,” which literally means “coming into his days.” He wasn’t past his heyday, he was just entering it.
Aging is a kindness. The young person is too easily caught up with his body and with material goals. The aging process reminds him that he isn’t going to live forever, and that only spiritual accomplishments are going to accompany him to the next world. He is reminded to increase his fulfillment of good deeds, things that he can take with him.
The great medieval Jewish statesman Abarbanel was once asked by the king how much money he had. He replied with a sum that was much smaller than his assets. The king asked him why he named such a relatively small sum. Abarbanel replied, “The assets that are currently in my possession could be taken away by the king tomorrow, or by a natural disaster. The sum that I named is the amount that I have given to charity. That is something that can never be taken away from me.”
Spiritual accomplishments increase with added age. The Torah does not consider the elderly person to be a fogey or a fuddy-duddy. He is called in Hebrew a zaken, which is said to be an acronym for zeh kanah chachmah – “this one has acquired wisdom.” He has seen the best of times and the worst of times, and these afford him a uniquely broad perspective on things. The Talmud says that “Rabbi Yochanan would stand up in the presence of elderly Arameans, and say: Imagine the experiences that these people have passed through!” (Kiddushin 33a).
Armed with the wisdom of experience, focused on spiritual pursuits, the zaken is able to work towards the next stage of his life. There are many parallels in Judaism between death and marriage. The day of entry into both is a quasi-Yom Kippur for which one dresses in white; they are both followed by seven-day periods. Some would use these parallels for jokes that compare marriage to death. But the truth is that death is to be compared to marriage. In marriage, one enters into a more advanced stage of life, which is a relationship with another. In death, too, one enters a more advanced stage of life in which one consummates a relationship with another – God.
The Talmud tells us that with the finest form of death, termed “the kiss,” the life departs from this world as easily as a hair being lifted from a saucer of milk. The story is told of a certain rabbi on his deathbed who was surprised to see his students weeping. “Why are you sorry for me?” he asked them. “All my life, I have been preparing for this moment!”
Alligator snapping turtles live a very, very long time, showing no decline in their physical strength. We can’t do that—but it can remind us to view the aging process as a blessing, helping us to focus on improving our characters and accumulating accomplishments in a way that turtles never will.
Rabbi Dr. Natan Slifkin is the founder and director of the Biblical Museum of Natural History in Israel, a unique institution which teaches about the relationship between the Bible, Judaism, and the natural world. For more information, see