Triggered by either affection or frustration, “May you live “biz hundert und tsvantsig (until a hundred-and-twenty)!” is a commonly heard interjection in Jew-ish circles. But is it realistic? Why not! Only twelve years ago, Jeanne Calment of France passed away in France at the age of 122 years and 164 days, passing the 120 year benchmark by two-and-a-half years, and at a conference in Oxford University this March, scientists were confident that more people than ever will soon be surpassing this upper limit to normal human longevity. Mice have been induced to live 40 percent longer simply by limiting their calorie intake to starvation level. Would you care to try?
Potentially, man possesses eternal life thanks to his innate spirituality; death only came about because of the evil counsel of the snake (Shabbos 55b). As the Ramban (Bereishis 2:17) explains, Adam could have lived eternally, as the supernal soul provides life without limit; his physical body too could have persisted so long as Hashem willed it to do so.
In a second explanation, the Ramban explains that present day life is cut short because of our earthly diet. “Possibly, the fruits of Gan Eden were absorbed in the limbs as the manna was, and kept alive those who ate them,” he writes. “However, when it was decreed upon him, ‘You shall eat the grass of the field,’ and that he would eat the bread of the earth by the sweat of his brow, this became the cause of deterioration. He became dust, ate dust, and would return to the dust.”
Both explanations of the Ramban clarify a Medrash (Bereishis Rabah 19:5) that seems extremely puzzling at first glance. Describing how Chava persuaded Adam to eat the forbidden fruit, the verse (3:6) says, “She gave also to her man with her, and he ate.” “’Also,’ comes to add something,” the Medrash says. “That she fed the domesticated animals, the wild animals, and the birds. All of them listened to her except one bird named Chol. Because of that, the verse says (Iyov 29:18), ‘I will multiply my days like the Chol.’ The house of Rabbi Yanai said, ‘It lives for a thousand years, and at the end of a thousand years, fire comes from its nest and burns it. An egg-size fragment remains from which it rejuvenates its limbs and lives.’”
The question is obvious. If this bird never ate the forbidden fruit, why must it die every thousand years in order to survive? Freed from death, this bird should simply go on and on… According to the Ramban’s first explanation, we can answer that while Adam had the potential to live forever be-cause of his supernal soul, the Chol has no supernal attachment to keep it going. Ac-cording to the Ramban’s second explana-tion we can suggest that after Adam’s sin, all creatures began eating earthly food, which cannot keep any creature permanently alive. Because of this even the Chol needs to be reconstituted every thousand years. All this might explain why fish do not enjoy eternal life despite never having eaten the forbidden fruit at all.
When Did it Start?
Nowadays, a person’s average life span is seventy or eighty years. When did this trend begin?
Adding up the ages of people who lived before the Flood, we find that the people of those ten generations lived an average of 857.5 years. After the Flood until the Dor Haflagah, the four generations of Shem, Arpachshad, Shelach, and Ever lived an average of almost 484 years. Thereafter, the six generations of Peleg, Re’u, Serug, Nachor, Terach, and Avrohom lived an average of 206 years. Life expectancy was periodically dropping by fifty percent.
Subsequent to that, we find Yishmael dying at 137, Rivkah at 133, Yaakov at 147, Levi at 137, Yosef at 110, Kehos at 133, Amrom at 137, Aharon at 123, and Moshe at 120. Finally, Dovid Hamelech writes (Tehillim 90) that the days of man are 70 and with strength, 80. Indeed, Dovid himself is described as “old, coming on in days,” even though he only lived 70 years (Pirkei d’Rabbi Eliezer 19). Similarly, Barzilai HaGiladi who lived in those times is described as “very old, eighty years old” (Shmuel II 19:33), and pesukim describe how he could no longer taste or hear music (ibid. verse 36).
When exactly had seventy years become the benchmark of old age? Based on this verse of Tehillim stating that a man’s years are seventy, Chazal (Yevamos 64b) say that the years of one’s life were shortened to this length around the time of Dovid who wrote the Psalm. Tosafos there asks that since this verse appears in Tefillah l’Moshe, it should indicate that man’s life was shortened to seventy years not in Dovid’s time, but centuries earlier. The Ram-ban (Bereishis 5:4) extends this verse even earlier, writing, “It seems that people’s days in the generations of Avrohom, Yitzchok, and Yaakov were seventy, or eighty years, as Moshe says in his prayer.”
Why was man’s internal chronometer set specifically for 70 years? According to the Medrash Rabah (Bereishis parsha 19:8), this dates back to the sin of Adam Harishon.
Citing the verse, “On the day you eat from it, you will surely die,” the Medrash says, “You do not know if it is a day of Mine or a day of yours. However, I will give him [Adam] one of My days which is a thousand years. He will live 930 years and leave seventy years for his sons as it says, ‘The days of our years are seventy, etc.’”
A better known Medrash (Yalkut Shimo-ni, Bereishis 41) explains that Adam foresaw that King Dovid was destined to die as an infant and contributed seventy years of his own life to Dovid.
The Megaleh Amukos (Vayeshev ophan 95) writes that the reason for man’s average age of 70 years is symbolic of his purpose in the world, since this number of years has almost exactly 613,000 hours (70 x 365 x 24 = 613.2). These correspond to the 613 mitzvos he must fulfill in his lifetime.
As mentioned earlier, the maximum old age nowadays is generally about 120 years, a fact seemingly hinted to (Bereishis 6:3) when Hashem warns before the Flood, “His days will be a hundred-and-twenty years.” The Ibn Ezra rejects this interpretation.
“Some say that this is the limit of every man’s [life], and even if we find [a few people living] longer than this, they are few and the verse is speaking of the majority,” he writes. “This is not true, because Shem lived six hundred years and all the generations after him lived many years, and in the days of Peleg the years lessened, and from the days of Dovid until today [man lives] seventy or eighty years.”
The Ibn Ezra thus rejects this interpretation for two reasons. First, he argues that people at the time of the verse lived much longer than 120 years. Secondly, people’s average life span is 70 or 80 and not 120. Instead, he explains the verse as the Targum cited by Rashi translates it, “I will give them an extension of 120 years [to see] if they repent.”
Change of Seasons
Why did people’s lives gradually shorten to their present length? The Ramban (Bereishis 5:4) explains that man’s lives grew ever shorter for a variety of reasons.
“The reason for their long days was that Adam Harishon was the work of the Holy One’s hands, made with the height of perfection in beauty, strength, and stature,” he writes. “Even after death was decreed upon him, it was in his nature to live a long time. When the Flood came upon them, the air degenerated for them, and their days became less and less. Until the Flood, their lives were that length [of Adam]… The days of [Shem’s] sons born after the Flood were shortened to four hundred years and you see that this is prevalent among them until the Haflagah. When the changing airs affected them after the Haflagah, their days were shortened to half their days… to two hundred years.”
The Ramban does not explain how this “degeneration of the air” came about. In his commentary, the Malbim theorizes that originally, before the Flood, there was no tilt to the world’s axis and subsequently, no seasons. After the Flood, Hashem introduced a tilt to earth’s axis, which pro-duces the seasons by facing half of the hemisphere more directly towards the sun every six months. This changing weather weakened man’s constitution and led to his shorter life.
Scripture and Chazal constantly emphasize that the royal road to longevity is to keep mitzvos, and particularly those associated with long life. In addition, Chazal record many individuals as living for hundreds of years even in later generations.
There are even animals that lived miraculously long lives, such as the bulls the nesi’im brought at the Chanukas Hamizbei’ach, which, according to the Medrash Rabah (Naso 12:18), were even-tually sacrificed by Shlomo in the Bais Hamikdosh. Rav Yaakov Emden explains (Avos) that these animals were not disqualified by their old age because the reason old animals are pasul is due to geriatric deterioration. These bulls, however, remained eternally young until Shlomo sacrificed them.
The Return of Eternal Life
Long age will return in the days of the Moshiach as Yeshayahu promises, “No more will there be from there young of days and an old man who did not fill his days. For the youngster will die at a hundred years, and he who leaves at a hundred years will be considered cursed” (Yeshayahu 65:20). The Radak and Mal-bim both explain that man’s longevity will revert to the days of Bereishis, and people will live for hundreds of years.
The Medrash Shimoni (ibid) raises an objection, arguing that this verse cannot possibly be describing our future in Messianic times.
“Ula found that this contradicts another verse,” the Medrash states. “It says (Ye-shayahu 25:8), ‘Death will be nullified forever,’ yet here it says, ‘The youngster will die at a hundred years.’”
The Medrash answers, “This is speaking of Yisroel [concerning whom death will be nullified], and this of non-Jews [concerning whom the youngster will die at one hundred years],” and goes on to explain that those who live for hundreds of years will be the people mentioned else-where in chapter 65 (verse 5), “Strangers will rise up and herd your flocks, and the sons of foreign people will be your farmers and vintners.”
This is the ultimate secret of passing the 120 year benchmark and enjoying endless life.