The passage, “Mipnei seivah takum ve-hadarta penei zaken” commands us to stand up before an elderly person and revere the elder (see Vayikra 19:32). Nevertheless, the Gemara understands that honoring the zaken obligates us to stand before a Torah scholar. Isi ben Yehuda comments that the obligation to stand before the elderly applies to all old people. The Gemara records that Rabbi Yohanan who accepts Isi’s ruling made it his business to stand before elderly non-Jews, saying, “Kamah harpatkei adu alayhu d’hani – how many adventures this man must have experienced!”
The expression harpatka is used in modern Hebrew to mean “adventures.” It appears to have its source in middle Persian, perhaps from the word ahraftak meaning “time” or “the experiences that come with time.” The Arukh translates the word as “time” and specifically as “difficult times.” Rabbeinu Yehonatan explains that the fact that a person succeeded in surviving to an old age, living through good times and bad, is an indication that he is loved by God and that the world has a particular need for this person – thus he is deserving of honor. The Ḥatam Sofer writes that the honor given to an elderly person – even to a non-Jew – stems from a source similar to that of the Torah scholar, since the life experiences of an old person are also knowledge that deserves respect.
The Gemara continues, telling stories about Rava, Abaye and Rav Naḥman, Torah scholars all, who – according to Rashi’s understanding of their behaviors – chose not to offer personal honor to elderly people who were not scholars, but chose instead to send servants or messengers to assist and honor them. While Tosafot appear to suggest that these elderly people were Jewish, most of the mefarshim (commentators) understand that this follows Isi ben Yehuda’s ruling, and that it includes non-Jewish elderly, as well. According to the Shiṭṭa Meḳubbeẓet the people who were being honored were hassidei umot ha-olam – righteous gentiles.