By Rabbi Yair Hoffman for

It was 1984, when things kind of changed in the United States.

From the 1970s until 1984, the minimum drinking age in New York was 18. In New Jersey it was 21. So numerous New Jersey kids below the age of 21 would make the trip to New York, buy some serious alcohol, consume some serious alcohol, and cause some serious alcohol related deaths.

The idea came to cut the federal government’s highway funding to any state by 10 percent if that state did not raise the minimum drinking age to 21. Restaurants were furious. So were the liquor stores.

Senators flip-flopped.  It required serious and keen political skill to navigate the tides of business voters versus MADD – Mothers against drunk drivers.  What happened?  The law passed. Alcohol related deaths went down. Lives were saved.

WHY 21?

As far as the issue of why 21 – the simple explanation is that this is the point when one reaches maturity. But is there any Halachic significance to the age limit of 21?

Muslims look at adulthood at the age of 15. Catholics say that it starts at 18.  And Jews say that adulthood starts at 13 for boys and 12 for girls.  But there is a more nuanced issue too. The age of adulthood for punishment may be different.

There is a famous Rashi that describes Sarah Imeinu. She was 127 years old at her passing and at 100, she was as innocent as a 20 year old – for a 20 year old is not a bar onshim – is excused from Heavenly punishment of karais.

On a parenthetic note, the definition of this exemption or excuse, however, is not so clear.  Does it mean entirely excused or does it mean that it is note meted out before the age of 20?  This seems to be a debatable point in the Acharonim (See, for example, responsum of Chacham Tzvi #49).

Our question, however, deals with a different issue. What does the age of 20 actually mean?

Rav Gavriel Zinner cites the Sefer Haflaah in his work entitled, “Panim Yafos” (beginning of parshas Bamidbar) that one can stretch the understanding of 20 to mean entering one’s 20th year, that is 19 years old and a day. The Chida’s great-great grandfather, Rav Avrohom Azulai (1570-1643) writes that it actually means when one has completed 20 years, that is one’s 21st birthday. The simplest understanding, however, is when one reaches the age of 20. In short, we have a three-way debate here.

In Canada, the legal age limit for alcohol is 19 – paralleling the Sefer Haflaah.  Paraguay’s minimum age is 20, like the simple understanding. In the United States, the age is 21 – paralleling the age of maturity that is discussed by Rav Azulai.

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