Sources Of A Lifespan Of 120 Years – The Awesome Oasis Of Transcendence

We hear accounts of people in ancient times with the long lifespan of 120. What happened that nowadays this is rarely achievable?

This is a much longer discussion than we can do in one post, but I will present some not-so-kabbalistic sources here to shed light in the issue.

In Jewish circles, the phrase “May you live ‘biz hundert und tsvantsig’ (until a hundred-and-twenty)!” is often expressed, driven by feelings of affection or frustration. This saying raises an intriguing question:

Is living to 120 years a realistic aspiration?

Surprisingly, it might be more achievable than we think. Just over a decade ago, a certain woman called Jeanne Calment of France defied odds by living to 122 years and 164 days, surpassing the 120-year mark by a considerable margin.

Furthermore, at a recent conference at Oxford University, scientists expressed optimism that an increasing number of people will soon exceed this traditional upper limit of human lifespan. Research on mice has shown a 40% increase in lifespan through extreme calorie restriction.

While this approach may not be appealing to everyone, it highlights the potential for extending human longevity. Of course, all of this is neglecting the spiritual cause behind the decrease in lifespan which is the decline of generations.

long lifespan

Eternal Lifespan: A Philosophical Perspective

From a philosophical standpoint, humans have the potential for eternal life, rooted in their spiritual essence. According to Jewish teachings, death was not an inherent aspect of human existence but a consequence of the Nachash’s misleading advice in the Garden of Eden (Shabbat 55b).

The Ramban (Nachmanides) in his commentary on Genesis (Bereshit 2:17) suggests that Adam HaRishon was originally destined for immortality. His supernal soul could have sustained his physical body indefinitely, subject only to the divine will. In Kitvei Ari however we find that Adam HaRishon was not even a physical entity before his fall as his body was already in the spiritual world of Yetzirah.

The Ramban offers another perspective, linking our shortened lifespan to our earthly diets. He speculates that the fruits of Gan Eden, similar in essence to the manna from heaven, could sustain life indefinitely. However, following the decree that humanity must toil for their food (“You shall eat the grass of the field”), our sustenance became a source of physical deterioration, ultimately leading us back to dust.

These interpretations offer insights into a perplexing Midrash (Bereshit Rabah 19:5). This narrative describes how Chava (Eve) convinced Adam to eat the forbidden fruit, and in doing so, also fed various animals except for one bird, the Chol. This bird, which allegedly lives for a thousand years before being reborn from its ashes, raises questions about the nature of mortality and immortality (I believe this is the source for the “Phoenix” legend).

According to the Ramban’s first explanation, unlike Adam, who possessed a divine soul, the Chol lacks such a spiritual connection, necessitating its periodic renewal. The second explanation posits that after Adam’s transgression, all creatures, including the Chol, became dependent on earthly sustenance, which is incapable of sustaining eternal life. This theory could also explain why fish, despite not consuming the forbidden fruit, do not live eternally.

(D)Evolution of Human Lifespan: A Historical Perspective

In contemporary times, the average human lifespan typically ranges between seventy and eighty years. Tracing the origins of this trend reveals a fascinating journey through historical epochs.

From Antiquity to Present: A Decline in Lifespans

Initially, scriptural accounts depict extraordinarily long lifespans. Prior to the Great Flood, individuals in the first ten generations lived an average of 857.5 years. Post-Flood, this average lifespan markedly decreased. The subsequent four generations – Shem, Arpachshad, Shelach, and Ever – saw an average lifespan of nearly 484 years. This downward trajectory continued, with the following six generations – Peleg, Re’u, Serug, Nachor, Terach, and Avraham – averaging 206 years. A pattern emerges: a periodic halving of life expectancy.

In the ensuing generations, notable figures like Yishmael, Rivkah, Yaakov, and others lived between 110 and 147 years. King David, in Psalms (Tehillim 90), eventually established the benchmark of 70 to 80 years as the normative human lifespan. Interestingly, David himself, described as “old, coming on in days,” only lived to 70 (Pirkei d’Rabbi Eliezer 19). Similarly, Barzilai HaGiladi, an elder of the same era, was considered “very old” at 80, showcasing a significant perceptual shift in what constituted old age (Shmuel II 19:33).

The Spiritual Principles and Philosophical Underpinnings

The shift to a 70-year average lifespan is often attributed to the era of King David. However, Talmudic sources (Yevamot 64b) and commentaries like Tosafos propose that this reduction may have occurred earlier, during Moshe Rabbenu’s time. The Ramban (Nachmanides) even suggests that this lifespan reduction dates back to the generations of Avraham, Yitzhak, and Yaakov.

The rationale behind setting the human lifespan to 70 years ties back to the story of Adam’s transgression. According to Midrash Rabah (Bereshit Parsha 19:8), the lifespan was set following Adam’s sin, with him living 930 years and bequeathing the remaining 70 years of his divinely allotted millennium to his descendants. A different Midrash (Yalkut Shimoni, Bereishis 41) narrates how Adam, foreseeing King David’s premature death, donated 70 years of his own life to him.

The Megaleh Amukot (Vayeshev Pphan 95) offers a symbolic interpretation, linking the 70-year lifespan to the fulfillment of the 613 commandments (mitzvos), as this period roughly equates to 613,000 hours of life.

Contemporary Understanding and Scriptural Debate

Today, reaching 120 years is considered the upper limit of human age, reminiscent of the Biblical reference in Bereshit 6:3, “His days will be a hundred-and-twenty years.” However, this interpretation is debated. Ibn Ezra refutes this, arguing that lifespans far exceeded 120 years post-Flood and that the average lifespan was more closely aligned with the 70-80 year range.

He suggests that the verse in Bereshit should be interpreted as a divine grace period for repentance, as translated in Targum and cited by Rashi.

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The Evolution of Human Lifespan and the Impact of Environmental Changes

The gradual reduction in human lifespan to its current average has been a subject of much speculation and analysis. The Ramban (Nachmanides), in his commentary on Bereishis 5:4, delves into this mystery, attributing the shortening of human life to a variety of factors.

The Initial Perfection and Subsequent Decline

Ramban posits that Adam Harishon, the first man, was created with an unparalleled level of perfection in beauty, strength, and stature by the Divine. This inherent perfection endowed him with the capacity for an extraordinarily long life. However, following the decree of mortality and the cataclysmic events of the Flood, there was a significant environmental shift.

The Ramban notes that the quality of the air deteriorated post-Flood, leading to a progressive reduction in human lifespan. Initially, lifespans mirrored Adam’s longevity, but they began to diminish over time, first to around four hundred years after the Flood, and then further halving to two hundred years following the event of Haflagah.

I’d assume all of this should be taken in spiritual terms. As we go further away from the time of Creation when Hashem’s light shone unimpeded, we see that all things physical end up deteriorating more.

And this is a little chiddush of mine:

If the human species, which is Created in the divine image suffered so much with the effects of sin, then the animal kingdom much more. And the vegetable kingdom even more. And the mineral/inanimate kingdom most of all. I believe the increased deterioration from one kingdom to another increases exponentially, which would then account for all the “measurements” scientists have done to guesstimate the “age of the Earth”.

This is one of the ways we can conciliate their position of the world being millions of years, while the Torah says 5784: The deterioration of matter is not linear, but exponential. It could be that a rock “shows” it’s millions of years old in their analysis , but in reality it is only over 5000 years. The reason is because its physical part deteriorates more with the passing of times so it simply looks older.

The Ramban, however, does not elaborate on the specifics of this environmental degradation.

That and the fact that time is also not linear, but circular. But we will have to deal with that in another post.

Miraculous Longevity in the Animal Kingdom

Scriptural sources and teachings of Chazal (the Jewish sages) frequently highlight the connection between observance of mitzvos (commandments) and longevity. This relationship suggests a spiritual dimension to life expectancy, where adherence to divine commandments could extend one’s life.

Interestingly, this concept of extended life is not limited to humans. The Midrash Rabah (Naso 12:18) recounts the extraordinary longevity of the bulls brought by the nesi’im (princes) during the Chanukat HaMizbeach (inauguration of the altar), which were later offered by King Solomon in the Beit Hamikdash (Holy Temple). Rav Yaakov Emden, in his commentary on Pirkei Avot, explains that these animals were exempt from the typical age-related disqualifications for sacrifices due to their unique preservation of youth and vitality.

This phenomenon further illustrates the idea that longevity, whether in humans or animals, can transcend normal biological constraints under certain circumstances. These instances, while miraculous, provide a fascinating insight into the potential for life extension beyond what is typically observed in nature.

The Return of Eternal Life

The Prospect of Renewed Longevity in the Messianic Era

The concept of longevity and eternal life takes on a new dimension when considering the prophecies associated with the era of the Mashiach (Messiah). According to the prophet Isaiah (Yeshayahu 65:20), the Messianic age will herald a return to an era of extended lifespans: “No more will there be a youth who lives but a few days, or an old man who does not live out his years. For the child will die a hundred years old, and the sinner being a hundred years old will be accursed.”

This prophecy suggests a dramatic increase in human lifespan, echoing the longevity of the early generations in Bereshit.

The Radak (Rabbi David Kimchi) and the Malbim (Rabbi Meir Leibush ben Yehiel Michel Wisser) both interpret this verse as indicating a reversal to the days of Bereshit. In their view, people will once again live for hundreds of years, much like the early biblical figures.

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The Midrash Shimoni’s Query and Resolution

However, this interpretation raises a theological dilemma, as highlighted in the Midrash Shimoni. The Midrash notes a contradiction between Isaiah’s prophecy and another verse from the same prophet (Yeshayahu 25:8), which states, “He will swallow up death forever.” The apparent contradiction is clear: if death is to be eradicated, how can there be a mention of people dying at a hundred years old in the Messianic age?

The Midrash resolves this by differentiating between the fates of Israel and the nations (non-Jews). It suggests that the promise of death being nullified applies to Israel, whereas the reference to people dying at a hundred years pertains to the nations of the world. This interpretation aligns with the larger context of Isaiah 65, which speaks of a division of roles and destinies between Israel and the nations in the Messianic era though, again, the Geulah (redemption) is for everyone.

I’m not so sure about this interpretation because death will probably continue, albeit in a different form since it is part and parcel of the Tikkunim (rectifications) of the spiritual worlds. Avodat Hashem never ends, because if it did, then the world wouldn’t have any purpose. And without purpose, the world could not endure because everything Hashem does has a purpose.

(yes, we are doing plenty of Tikkunim and Beirurim on Shabbat and the Festivals, so it makes sense that death will continue)

May we merit to enter the Geulah B’Rachamim and the Olam HaBah.

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Chaim Apsan

Chaim is a teacher and Kabbalah enthusiast. He loves helping Jews connect with true Torah teaching and enhancing their spiritual growth. With a focus on meditation, he guides individuals on transformative journeys of prayer, contemplation, and connection with Hashem. He lives in Jerusalem with his wife and kids, and is committed to sharing the wisdom and power of Kabbalah in a genuine way.

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