Misconception: It is traditional to bless a person that he or she should live “ad me’ah ve’esrim shanah,” until 120 years, based on the assumption that living the longest possible life is desirable and that a verse in Parashat Bereishit indicates that God limited the human lifespan to 120 years.
Fact: This is a relatively recent blessing. According to most commentators, the pasuk in Bereishit is not the source of this blessing.
Background: At the end of Parashat Bereishit (6:3) just before the Flood story, though not explicitly linked to it, the Torah declares in an enigmatic passage: “Vayomer Hashem lo yadon ruchi va’adam le’olam beshagam hu vasar, vehayu yamav me’ah ve’esrim shanah—Hashem said, ‘My spirit shall not contend evermore concerning man since he is but flesh; his days shall be one hundred and twenty years.’”(Translation from the Stone Edition Chumash [ArtScroll, 1993]). It is possible to interpret this as God capping the human lifespan at 120 years. But that is not how most commentators understand it. Onkelos as well as Pseudo-Jonathan translate the verse to mean that God was giving that generation, i.e., humankind—not individual man—120 years from that point in which to repent and thereby avoid the Flood. This is also how Mechilta D’Rabbi Yishmael, Avot D’Rabbi Natan (aleph:32), Rav Saadya Gaon, Rashi, Ibn Ezra, Seforno and most of the traditional commentators understand the meaning of the verse as well. The Yerushalmi (Nazir 7:2) assumes that the verse is referring to each individual but not to the individual lifespan; rather it means that after death, most1 human bodies will be fully decomposed after 120 years.
There are, however, some who explain the verse as referring to the human lifespan. Additionally, some explain Rabbi Yehoshua bar Nechemiah’s statements in Bereishit Rabbah 26:6 that way. The Rosh (Hadar Zekeinim) says that owing to the extreme longevity during the first ten generations of humankind, even the spiritual side of man was becoming material-oriented. Thus God limited the human lifespan to 120 years. Yeshuot Yaakov on Tanna D’vei Eliyahu (16:2) and the Malbim (Bereishit 6:3) both state that by God limiting man’s time on earth to 120 years, he will fear sinning and will more readily repent due to fear of death.
Ibn Ezra and Rabbi David Tzvi Hoffman (1843-1921) adamantly reject this approach, because it would imply that the many subsequent Biblical characters who lived longer were exceptions. Throughout Bereishit and Shemot there were many figures whose lifespan exceeded 120 years—as well as others who lived many years later, e.g., Yehoyada, who died at 130 years of age (II Chronicles 24:15).
An alternative source for the berachah of “until 120” is the lifespan of Moshe Rabbeinu. He lived to the age of 120, and when he died, “. . . his eyes had not dimmed, nor had his strength waned” (Devarim 34:7). Chazal (Sifri to Devarim 34:7 ; Bereishit Rabbah, Vayechi 100:10; Rosh Hashanah 31b) explain that similar to Moshe Rabbeinu, three other Jewish leaders lived 120 years which, like Moshe, consisted of three periods of forty years. They were Hillel Hazaken, Rabban Yochanan ben Zakai and Rabbi Akiva.2 Further significance is given to Moshe’s age when the gemara (Chullin 139b) asks where the Torah foreshadows Moshe prior to his birth. The gemara suggests that Moshe is alluded to in the verse cited earlier: (Bereishit 6:3), “Hashem said, ‘My spirit shall not contend evermore concerning man since he is but flesh; his days shall be one hundred and twenty years.’” The unusual word beshagam, whose gematria is 345, has the same gematria as “Moshe,” who lived to 120 (cf. Bereishit Rabbah, Bereishit 26:6; Pirkei D’Rabbi Eliezer 32).
Evidently, in Chazal’s worldview 120 years indicates some level of completeness.3 This is also evident in the Midrash (Pirkei D’Rabbi Eliezer, ch. 39) that explains that since Yosef’s brothers referred to their father Yaakov in Yosef’s presence as “your servant, our father” ten times and Yosef remained silent, Yosef lost ten years of his life. Yosef died at 110 (Bereishit 50:26); the Midrash implies that in Chazal’s view he should have lived to 120.
There are other traditional sources that discuss lifespans that are far different than 120 years. Tehillim 90 (attributed to Moshe Rabbeinu and recited in the Pesukei D’zimra of Shabbat says [90:10]): “The days of our years are seventy, and even if by strength, are eighty. . . .” Malbim (Bereishit 6:3) explains that in early generations, when the world was “new,” conditions were ripe for long life, but God nonetheless limited the human lifespan to 120 years, while in later generations lifespans were, by nature, shorter, hence the seventy years in the verse.
The mishnah in Pirkei Avot (5:21) describes the different stages in life.
He [Yehudah ben Teima] used to say: Five years of age for studying Tanach; at ten, Mishnah . . . at forty, wisdom;4 at fifty, able to give counsel; at sixty, old age; at seventy, fullness of years;5 at eighty, the age of “strength”; at ninety, a bent body; at one hundred, as if dead and gone completely out of the world.
Some of these descriptors are based on verses, and others on observation. Regarding seventy, the verse in I Chronicles (29:28) says that King David, who lived until the age of seventy, died b’seivah tovah—“in fullness of years.” For eighty, the mishnah used the same word, strength, as the abovementioned verse in Tehillim. Rashi explains that in order to live past eighty, one needs to be granted Divine strength, due to one’s physical condition.
For ninety, Rashi reads the description in the mishnah (lamed-shin [or sin]-chet) as la’shuach, the root of which can either mean bent or a pit, to signify that a ninety-year-old either walks bent and is fairly helpless, or that he is ready for the grave. Rabbeinu Yonah (Sha’arei Teshuvah, Sha’ar 2:9; cited in Rabbi Akiva Eiger on Avot) says it can be read as la’suach, to converse, which is related to prayer, signifying that after ninety a person should spend his time in prayer. Rashi describes a one-hundred-year-old as generally unable to see, having no strength, and losing his mental faculties. This mishnah, certainly according to Rashi, presents a bleak picture of aging, such that one may not want to live to 100, let alone 120.
On the other hand, there are positive perspectives on old age as well. The Mishnah says (Kinim 3:6 [25a]; also Shabbat 152a): “Elders of Torah . . . as long as they continue to age, their minds become even more settled.” The Rambam explains that despite the natural physical decline, wisdom and knowledge increase with age. And regarding the mishnah describing one hundred “as if one is dead and gone completely out of the world,” Rabbi Yisrael Hopstein, the Maggid of Kozhnitz (1737-1814; Beit Yisrael on Avot) and Tiferet Yisrael explain it with a positive twist—the person merited that his physical desires diminished and he is therefore less interested in worldly matters, such that it’s as if he is in Olam Haba.
So where did the berachah “ad me’ah ve’esrim shanah,” come from? It seems that 100 or 120 was considered a very long life, longer than anyone could reasonably be expected to live. When Yeshayahu HaNavi describes the fantastic future he says (Isaiah 65:20): “ . . . for the youngest shall die a hundred years old. . . .” In other words, 100 was really old, and yet that would be the minimum. In his description of the Ten Tribes, the ninth century Eldad HaDani writes (Eisenstein, Ozar Midrashim, 1915, p. 23): “… they live long lives, living 100 or 120 years.”
A long life was always viewed as a blessing from God. Both the Torah and Chazal suggest in many places that the reward for following the commandments, both in general and various specific aspects, is long life. The tradition of blessing a person to live to 120 years, as a way of wishing someone long life, only began in the last few hundred years. The term ad me’ah ve’esrim appears in responsa literature from the eighteenth century through the present;6 there is no evidence of the phrase being used in earlier times.
The Torah declares in an engimatic passage: “Hashem said, ‘My spirit shall not contend evermore concerning man since he is but flesh; his days shall be one hundred and twenty years.’”
Not only might there be no real source for this berachah, but some may have not viewed it as a berachah at all. According to Rabbi Michel Shurkin (Megged Givot Olam, pp. 100-101), both Rabbi Chaim Brisker and Rabbi Yaakov Kamenetsky objected to wishing someone “ad me’ah ve’esrim shanah,” (and Rabbi Moshe Feinstein7 seems to have felt similarly) because in a sense it is really a curse; a person could theoretically live longer.
There are sources that indicate that too long a life is actually not desirable. The Gemara (Berachot 47a) states that the days and years of one who stretches his response of “Amen” are lengthened. Yet just a few lines earlier, Rav Chisda is quoted as saying that one who elongates “Amen” too much is simply mistaken. Maharsha (Chiddushei Aggadot, Berachot 47a) explains that those who extend the recitation of Amen too long believe that answering a really drawn-out amen will earn one an even longer life. But they err in their thinking, explains the Maharsha, because too long a life is not desirable, as stated by Shelomo Hamelech (Kohelet 12:1): “ . . .before the evil days come, and the years will come when you will say, ‘I have no pleasure in them.’” Rashi, quoting the Gemara (Shabbat 151b), says that the “evil days” refer to old age and feebleness.
The story is told (Yalkut Shimoni, Eikev, 871) about an exceedingly elderly woman who approached Rav Yossi ben Chalafta and complained that she had lived too long and life was no longer desirable. She said she no longer tasted food or drink, and expressed a desire to die. Rav Yossi inquired as to what mitzvah she had performed regularly and she responded that she attended morning minyan faithfully. He suggested she stay away from shul for three consecutive days. She obliged, and on the third day she became sick and died. Too long a life without much quality may not be desirable, and Rabbi Yossi ben Chalafta empathized with the woman.
A similar message can be learned from the elderly men of the city of Luz (see Sotah 46b).
Many rabbis of previous generations emphasize ages other than 120. For example, Rabbi Akiva Eiger, when leaving instructions regarding what should be done upon his demise, wrote “after 100 years . . .”8 In a certain sense, sixty was classically considered a full lifespan, because, as the Gemara explains (Moed Kattan 28a), once a person reached sixty it was clear that he had not died as a result of the punishment of karet (being cut off early). In recognition of that, Rav Yosef made a party upon reaching sixty. Later authorities such as Leket Yosher, Ben Ish Chai, and Kaf Hachaim relate variations on Rav Yosef’s party.
Rabbi Avraham Shmuel Binyamin Sofer (Ketav Sofer) made a siyum and party upon reaching age fifty9 (Shu”t Ketav Sofer, YD:148). Chavot Yair (70, cited in Pitchei Teshuvah, YD 217:16) suggests that upon reaching seventy, one should recite Shehecheyanu and make a meal, although it is not quite a seudat mitzvah. Teshuvah Me’ahavah (2:239) and Peri Megadim (Mishbetzet Zahav, OC 444:9) understood the logic for making the berachah but found it hard to agree practically because there is no source for it. Others, such as Ben Ish Chai (Parashat Re’eh:9), also mention making a party for one’s seventieth birthday. And in Rabbi Moshe Meir Yashar’s biography of the Chofetz Chaim, he reports that on his seventieth birthday the Chofetz Chaim made a lechaim with his star students Rabbi Elchonon Wasserman and Rabbi Yosef Shlomo Kahaneman and recited Shehecheyanu. In a tour de force, Rabbi Dov Meir Eizenstein (Moriah, Av 5769 [349-350], pp. 63-75) demonstrates that one should acknowledge God’s benevolence via a party upon reaching sixty and seventy, and even fifty.
In conclusion, it seems that the berachah “ad me’ah ve’esrim” is of recent vintage. The notion that God limited human life to 120 years is found in some very early sources but is not generally accepted by traditional commentators. Viewing Moshe Rabbeinu’s 120 years as “complete” is a traditional idea, which may have contributed to the development of the berachah.
The concept of praying for long life and viewing long life as a Divine reward is found in classical sources. In addition, it seems that it is also important to appreciate each milestone along the way, while accepting what God gives us.
1. See Torah Temimah, Bereishit 6:3, n. 6.
2. Moshe was in Egypt forty years, in Midian forty years and led the Jews in the desert for forty years. Hillel lived in Bavel forty years, studied in Israel forty years and led the Jewish people for forty years. Similarly, Rabban Yochanan ben Zakai was a businessman for forty years, studied Torah for forty years and led the Jewish people for forty years. Finally, Rabbi Akiva was a shepherd for forty years, studied Torah for forty years and served as a Jewish leader for forty years.
3. Not just regarding years, but in other contexts as well, 120 (as well as 12, 60, and 360) is considered a complete number. The number 120 (and 120,000) appears in numerous contexts in Tanach and Chazal. The only place the phrase “ad me’ah ve’esrim” appears in Shas is in Erachin 13b in describing the maximum number of chatzotzrot (trumpets) blown in the Beit Hamikdash.
4. On the wisdom of age forty and its connection, or lack thereof, to the study of Kabbalah, see my article, “The Age to Study Kabbalah,” Jewish Action (fall 2016).
5. Based on this and on the verse in Tehillim, some level of completeness is associated with seventy. Ba’al HaTurim (Shemot 23:26) explains that when the Torah promises “a full lifespan” as a reward for fulfilling the Torah, it means seventy-two years and that the “seventy” of the pasuk in Tehillim is excluding the person’s year of birth and year of passing. Maharsha (Chiddushei Aggadot Kiddushin 38a) accepts the “seventy” in Tehillim as referring to actually seventy years, and explains the above verse in Shemot as implying seventy-one, referring to a person who dies on his birthday and thus is into his seventy-first year.
6. See, for example: RaBaZ (3:CM:34); Seridei Eish (2:4); Tzitz Eliezer 19:60; Asei Lecha Rav 1:61); Teshuvah M’ahavah 1:84; Siach Yitzchak 469; Mishneh Halachot 4:246.
7. See, however, Iggerot Moshe, YD:3:145 where he responded to a query in which he used the term “120 years” in the context of a blessing for long life. It may be that he responded that way because that is how the questioner phrased the question and he did not want to make him feel badly.
8. Asher Yetzaveh, vol. 2 (Jerusalem, 5765), 535.
9. He did not explain why he chose to highlight his fiftieth birthday, but it might relate to Yerushalmi, Bikkurim 2:1 cited in Tosafot, Yevamot 2a and Shabbat 25a that state that karet would be at age fifty. It should be noted that he died in 1871 at age fifty-six.
Rabbi Ari Z. Zivotofsky is a professor of neuroscience at Bar-Ilan University in Israel.