It is commonly known that the age of majority in Jewish law is 12 for a girl and 13 for a boy, roughly the average age of the onset of puberty.
At this age, the Jewish adolescent becomes obligated to perform all positive commandments, refrain from all negative commandments, is liable to punishment in a court of law, and can participate in much of public Jewish life.
As such, it is the conception of many, that there is no real period of transition between childhood and adulthood recognized by the Torah, and that the term teenager really has no halachik meaning at all.
However, a closer look at various sources , including today’s daf, shows that this is not true at all.
In fact , there is no direct source for the age 13 being the age of majority in the Chumash itself- this is derived mainly through the equally authoritative oral law- we see in the text references to Yishmael having his circumcision at age 13, but given that Yitchak’s circumcision was at 8 days, this is hardly a clear proof for anything .
In fact, the most common age of adulthood referred to in the Torah is the age of 20, specifically when the teen years end.
This is the minimum age for army service, for counting, an important cutoff for ערכים ( evaluations), and the age at which people were sentenced to die in the wilderness after the sin of the spies .
And this is the age, according to numerous statements of Chazal, at which one becomes liable for punishment in the heavenly Court (דיני שמיים.)
One of the key statements about this is made on today’s daf (This source was first pointed out to me quite some years ago in Africa by our great teacher, haGaon haHagadol haRav Asher Weiss שליט”א)
In the future, Hashem approaches Avraham and tells him that the Jewish people have sinned.
He replies that they should be destroyed for the sanctification of Hashem’s name.
Hashem then goes to Yaakov, who gives the same reply .
Finally, he comes to Yitchak who asks Hashem to forgive them based on the following argument:
1. A person only lives 70 years on average
2. The first 20 years is not subject to punishment (in the hands of heaven)
3. Of the remaining 50 years, half are made up of nighttime ( while one is sleeping )
4. Of the remaining 25, half are spent davening, eating, and in the bathroom ( without much chance to sin)
5. Of the remaining 12.5 years , Yitchak offers to cover half with his own merit and asks Hashem to cover the rest .
6. If Hashem disagrees, Yitchak offers to cover them all, in the merit of the Akeida (binding of Yitchak)
There are multiple questions one should ask here, among them:
1. From where do we see that the first 20 years is not subject to punishment, and what exactly does that mean ?
2. Does one really sleep 50% of the time?
3. Does one really spend half one’s awake hours davening, eating, and in the bathroom?
4. Is there really no opportunity to sin during these 3 activities? I can think of plenty personally !
We will focus on the first question for now, bearing in mind the other three, as they might affect how we understand the first as well .
Rashi points out that we learn that the first 20 years are not subject to punishment from the generation of the spies .
After the nation believed the bad report that the spies brought back, they were condemned to wander in the desert for 40 years and die before entering Israel .
Those under 20 years were exempt from the second part of the punishment and would live to enter the land .
From this, we see that one isn’t punished by Hashem for one’s sins until the age of 20.
We said this idea in various other places too , among them :
In the beginning of Parshas Chayei Sarah, Rashi brings the Midrash that Sarah was free of sin at age 100 just like she was at 20.
In Parshas Korach, Rashi quotes Chazal who emphasize the severity of machlokes, in that whereas the heavenly court normally does not punish before the age of 20, due to the severity of the rebellion and machlokes it caused , even children died .
The question that cries out for an answer is as follows ?
How can it be that a 13 year old boy is treated as an adult in almost all regards, even to the point that he can be subject to capital punishment in a court, in the extreme case of the בן סורר ומורה ( wayward son), specifically at that age , but get off scott free for whatever he does, if he does not make it to a human court?
Paraphrasing the words of the נודע ביהודה, can we really accept that a teenage boy can party as much as he wants, sleep around as much as wants, eat whatever he wants, and get off the hook because he is not yet 20?
If he is mature enough to be liable in court and to be able to sign on legal documents, how can he just get off free in the hands of heaven , and not get kareis or מיתה בידי שמים for the worst of sins, or at least the יסורים ( suffering) required to atone for them ?
And if he does not, what motivation is there to hold him back from sin, at a time of life when sin literally crouches at the door?
Clearly this cannot be quite as straightforward as it seems .
Various approaches can be taken, and some have been suggested by various Achronim ( later authorities.)
1. Perhaps this is simply a concept exaggerated by Yitchak in order to speak in our favour.
Just like we clearly don’t sleep for half the 24 period, nor daven, eat, and go to the facilities for half our waking hours, not completely abstain from sin during that time, perhaps the idea is that the first 20 years are more prone to mercy and sometimes Hashem refrains from punishing during that period .
2. Perhaps the punishment is delayed until 20, but after that, one is punished for his earlier sins too.
3. Perhaps there is no punishment during one’s lifetime for sins done before age 20, but one is still punished after death in Olam Habah ( the world to come )
4. Perhaps one is not punished severely during this time, to the point of death or kareis, but one still gets some form of punishment
5. Perhaps one is not punished during this time at all, but one still does not get the great reward one gets for refraining from a sin one is tempted to do,
6. Perhaps one’s soul is still damaged by the aveira and requires repair through atonement