According to the Talmud, My 30s Will Be My Prime

I take issue with a lot of commentary from rabbis (ancient and modern), but they were onto something here.

Back in my teens and even early 20s, 30 was this far-off destination — one more myth than reality — where everyone had their adult life together, where their sense of self and purpose was set in stone. In fact, it was like the ubiquitous happily ever after: a state of complete, accomplished perfection. By the time you were 30, it seemed logical to assume, you were officially a grown-up and knew what you were doing. (Anyone else 30-plus reading this right now: Are you laughing, too?)

It turns out that this is just a fairytale, like other happily ever afters — and I’m surprised by how OK I am with that.

While mulling over the transition from one decade to the next (and just how starkly the reality of 30 differs from what my younger self had envisioned), I recently stumbled upon a passage from the Talmud that talks about the significance of the various decades of a person’s life: “[Judah ben Teimah] used to say: At 5 years of age the study of Scripture; at 10, the study of Mishnah; at 13, subject to the commandments; at 15, the study of Talmud; at 18, the bridal canopy; at 20, for pursuit [of livelihood]; at 30, the peak of strength; at 40, wisdom; at 50, able to give counsel; at 60, old age; at 70, fullness of years; at 80, the age of ‘strength’; at 90, a bent body; at 100, as good as dead and gone completely out of the world” (P. Avot, Chapter 5).

There are some lines in this passage that have not aged well, such as “At one hundred, as good as dead, and gone completely out of the world” — like, geez, lighten up. Not to mention that the cringe-worthy idea of everyone being married by 18 is so last century. However, there are two lines I feel deeply in my core: “At 20, for pursuit [of livelihood]” and “At 30, the peak of strength.” There’s a lot of commentary from rabbis (ancient and modern) that I take issue with, but I have to agree that they were onto something here.

“At 20, for pursuit.” My 20s were, in keeping with the fairytale analogy, a true heroine’s journey through trials and tribulations. I kissed frogs that turned not into royalty, but into raging dragons I had to face down; I walked until my feet bled… let’s just say, the hustle is real. I was basically a broke, baby-faced tangle of insecurity and existential angst. I swiped endlessly through dating apps, worried that if I didn’t find “the one” (or the “good enough one”) soon, I would end up alone forever. I spent hours analyzing the gaps between vague, brief text messages from emotionally-stunted straight men, trying to determine if they were truly interested or just playing games. My “friends” reflected back and reinforced my own insecurities and self-limiting behaviors. I was afraid to set boundaries; I mistook validation and sex for love; I lived off snacks thanks to disordered eating habits. When I turned 25 and didn’t have my life figured out, I panicked (hello, quarter life crisis!). Basically: My 20s were a blur of scrabbling to find whatever work I could to make a living while thinking I should have my shit together and be a better grown-up by now (despite the fact that my brain was still developing until the end of my 20s — it’s a thing, look it up).

“At 30, the peak of strength.” Somehow, things started to shift right around my 30th birthday. Overnight, I found myself suddenly weirdly into tea. Not only are puns and dad jokes no longer intolerable, but I actually — dare I say — enjoy them? And I’m still discovering parts of myself newly capable of cramping and soreness (all of my fingers?!). But the thing that’s been the most surprising about entering my peak strength era is the release of the lifelong disparity within myself — and of letting my insecurities get in the way of my life and happiness. My priorities have shifted and, from this side of the fence, I have a completely different perspective on life.

These things didn’t happen overnight like tea or puns; they are the culmination of decades of seeking and striving. In fact, I have my messy, insecure, soft-brained 20s-era self to thank for making the harrowing journey so I could get here. She planted the magic beans, and now they’ve grown into green tendrils that are beginning to bloom.

Because my 20s truly were, as the Talmud says, about the pursuit of livelihood, I’m discovering the deliciousness of just… living life for the first time since early childhood. I finally have enough years behind me to see just how precious all the mundane daily moments are, and how much I want those little cozy moments as much as, or more than, the big flashy ones that get recognition on social media. I filled my 20s with things I thought were important that weren’t, with things I thought would make me happy but didn’t — an endless aching want that needed to be filled so badly I could never sit still. My 30s are more about authenticity and embracing life as it is.

I’m still flawed and working on a lot of self-growth, but now it’s focused on things like forgiving myself, taking more time to do less whenever possible and letting go of this idea that I need to be a fully actualized, perfect grown-up anytime soon. In fact, I’ve come to accept that this isn’t something that really happens. I’m focused on building the relationships I want to last for the decades to come with the people who feel like wholesome magic; I’m too tired for the games anymore. Nowadays, the traits that attract me to a potential romantic partner are reliability, reciprocity and respect — and I don’t have to analyze lackluster texts to know if someone is emotionally available. No longer do I spiral into existential angst at the FOMO of not going out to party with everyone else; I still don’t go out much, but no longer feel insecure about it. My personal vocabulary features words and phrases like “boundaries,” “good enough is good enough” and “I deserve.” Perhaps most important of all, I better understand that the relationship I’ll be in for the longest, that will carry me through all the decades to come, is the one I have with myself — so it’s important to invest a lot in it.

For me, this is why the Talmud is right that 30 is the prime of my strength: because I can finally slow down and be still in my kitchen with a cup of tea, enjoying the ever-shifting sunlight streaming in the window and the sounds of the world, embracing that change is constant, and appreciating each moment all the more because of it. My strength lies in being present, accepting myself and my life as it is, embracing that life is the imperfect, never-finished act of striving — and savoring it all.

Kate Hennessey

Kate Adina Hennessey (she/they) is the Education Director for an LGBTQ-founded synagogue in Atlanta. When she isn't writing about feminist Jewish things, she is posting her art on Instagram, going to therapy, and reading tarot for her friends after D&D sessions.

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