Monday, September 22, 2008

Until 120… NOT!

[This week's Haveil Havalim is here!]

עד מאה ועשרים שנה!
Bit a hundred un svuntzik (or however that should be transliterated)!
You should live to be 120!
Yes, there's even a website:

Not for me, though, sorry.

First, I am mortophobic. Deathly so, even.
Second, because I have never seen a source for the 120 limit in mainstream Jewish tradition (I do recall seeing one edition in Bereishit Rabbah many years ago, but not since) and I have seen mainstream sources militating against it.

So far as I can tell, this concept of human life being limited to 120 years arose from a decidedly minority reading of a pasuk in chumash and a passage in the gemara, and it is entirely at odds with at least one gemara. (Aside from the significant number of people in our own day who are recorded to have passed the 120 mark...)

The first source people cite to justify this artificial endpoint is Bereishit 6:3 לא ידון רוחי באדם לעולם בשגם הוא בשר והיו ימיו מאה ועשרים שנה. Before bringing the Flood, Gd declares that there will be an end to Divine patience with man's corruption, "and his days will be 120 years."
This source seems compelling, until we realize that the Torah records all sorts of people living long past 120 years, both before and after this decree. Indeed, the Talmud Yerushalmi (Nazir 7:2) asks this question explicitly.
The Yerushalmi explains that the Torah's sentence is not referring to human lifespan, but rather to the length of time it takes flesh to reach a certain stage of decay. Avot d'Rabbi Natan (v.1 #32) offers a different answer, which Rashi cites on the Chumash, that there will be 120 years from that moment until the Flood.
Either way, though, Jewish tradition does not accept the idea that this biblical verse limits man to 120 years - and we will soon see sources which say fairly clearly that we are not limited to 120 years.

The second source people cite is regarding Moshe.
Moshe informs the Jews, as he is about to deliver his last speech on the last day of his life (Devarim 31:2), בן מאה ועשרים שנה אנכי היום, "I am 120 years old today." The sages noted Moshe's emphatic "Today," and they explained (Rosh HaShanah 11a) that this was both Moshe's birthday and the day of his death, demonstrating that Gd "completes the days and years of the righteous." (Parenthetically, this is perplexing given that the Torah says Moshe's life was foreshortened as a specific Divine punishment!)
So some take this as an indication that a complete life is 120 years - an idea which is buttressed by the gemara's statement that R' Akiva and R' Yochanan ben Zakkai both lived 120 years.
However, that is clearly not the import of this gemara; the gemara's point is that Moshe gets a full year, dying on his birthday.

In fact, the gemara indicates that even post-Tanach, we have no limit of 120 years. Megilah 28a records that on his deathbed, R' Yehoshua ben Karcha gave Rebbe a blessing: "You should live half as long as I have lived."
As Tosafot (Bava Batra 113a ומטו) notes, that isn't much of a blessing, assuming a standard lifespan for R' Yehoshua ben Karcha. Even at 100 years old, who would say, "You should live to be half my age?" Rather, Tosafot says, R' Yehoshua ben Karcha must have been at least 140 at that point.
Tosafot there is not discussing age limits; his comment is part of a separate discussion about whether R' Yehoshua ben Karcha could have been the son of R' Akiva. But without batting an eyelash, he assumes that R' Yehoshua ben Karcha lived to be at least 140. And none of the supercommentaries jump on Tosafot to demand an explanation of this anti-120 heresy.

So, to me, it seems clear that we need not limit ourselves to 120. Mind you, I've sat at enough deathbeds with people who were grateful to pass on, and I have had plenty of elderly people tell me that the old punchline, "It's better than the alternative," is not eternally true. But, for me, I'd prefer you not use עמו"ש after my name.

שליט"א will do nicely...


  1. I actually posted on this very subject two years ago. At that time, I also mentioned the verse in Divrei HaYamim which states that Yehoyada the Kohen lived to 130 years... and he was certainly after Moshe's time.

    The Wolf

  2. Thanks, Wolf; I hadn't seen your piece, but your point about Yehoyada is a good one. Add it to the evidence.

  3. Rare exceptions to the rule notwithstanding, 120 is not yet the norm (see data at Given where I am standing in age, 120 sounds pretty good to me.

  4. Lion-

    Definitely not the norm, but when do we ever settle for the norm?

  5. שיפול לבור י' טפחים, אמן


    Shana Tova! Ketiva vaChatima Tova,


  6. Be nice, Jameel... and ksivah vachasimah tovah to you, too!

  7. The lion pointed me to this post ( based on mine How To Live To 100) i'm glad it isn't a real limit.