Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Lifespans and Longevity

By: Rabbi Ari Enkin

We all know that when wishing people long life, we traditionally wish them a life of 120 years. What is the source of this idea?

Our first encounter with the concept of defining a lifespan to be 120 years is found early on in the Torah, as it is written: “And God says My spirit shall not always contend on account of man since he is but flesh, his days shall be 120 years.”[1] This verse, which appears almost immediately after the creation of man, is an obvious association of 120 years as being the ideal human lifespan. Some interpretations suggest that this may be because 120 years is the amount of time needed for a person to properly prepare to meet the Creator.[2] Indeed, God allowed Noah 120 years to complete the construction of the ark, in order to allow the rest of the world the opportunity to properly repent and perhaps avert the flood.

Click here to read moreNotwithstanding the above, the prominence and focus of the “120 years” adage likely emerged due to its association with Moshe Rabbeinu who lived to be 120. Before he died, Moshe said, “I am one hundred twenty years old this day, I can no longer go out and come in.”[3] Many commentators explain that “I can no longer go out” refers to a Divine decree that life must end by 120 years of age.[4]

According to tradition four people lived to be precisely 120: Moshe, Hillel, Rabbi Yochanan Ben Zakkai, and Rabbi Akiva.[5] There were some individual exceptions to this rule, but their explanations are beyond the scope of this discussion. Here are some Talmudic tips for a better chance of living to a ripe old age: never use a synagogue as a shortcut, be the first one to the synagogue every day, don’t call anyone by a nickname, never miss Kiddush on Friday night, and never stare at evil people.[6] Ladies – lighting your Shabbat candles with olive oil will increase your odds for a long life even more.[7]

Although living to 120 years old is certainly a commendable goal, we do see that it is not an absolute ideal, and that shorter lifespans are also considered dignified accomplishments. Among the exceptional lifespans was Rabbi Yehoshua Ben Karcha, who lived to 140. It is noted that Rabbi Yehoshua Ben Karcha had blessed Rabbi Yehuda Hanassi (author of the Mishna) that he merit to attain “half of my age,”[8] thus affirming seventy years as a legitimate lifespan. Moshe himself seems to certify seventy years as a complete lifespan as well when he says, “The days of our years are seventy years, and with might, eighty years.”[9]


[1] Bereishit 6:3.
[2] Sforno, Sanhedrin 108.
[3] Devarim 31:2.
[4] Rashi and Sforno, among others.
[5] Tosafot, Bechorot 58a.
[6] Megilla 27b, 28a.
[7] Sefer Chassidim 272.
[8] Megilla 28a.
[9] Tehillim 90:10.

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