120 Year Lifespan
I was curious about the blessing we give people to live till 120 years. What is the origin of the expression? Is that just a nice, very high number, or is that considered the upper limit? I wouldn’t think so since there was a woman who did live till 122 in recent years. In fact, there were many people in the Torah who lived much longer than 120.
The Aish Rabbi Replies
Thank you for your interesting question. There are two possible sources for that expression. One relates to the Flood. Before the Flood, when God first saw mankind sliding to evil ways, He stated: “My spirit will not contend regarding man forever since he is but flesh. His days will be 120 years” (Genesis 6:3).
Some of the commentators understand this to mean God had placed a new upper limit on man’s lifespan. God recognized that man was sinful because the antediluvian lifespan was so great. The average person, knowing he had so many centuries to go, did not fear death and his ultimate encounter with God. He had many years to live and enjoy himself first, with virtually no sense of his mortality. Alternatively, life is such a struggle between man’s body and soul, that with so many years to live, a person is bound to succumb over time. As a result, God decided to shorten man’s lifespan, making 120 years the new limit (Chizkuni, Abarbanel, Malbim, Ha’amek Davar, see also Talmud Chullin 139b and Midrash HaGadol).
Today we bless people to live as close to that limit as possible.
In truth, most of the commentators (Targum, Rashi, Ibn Ezra, Ramban, Radak, R. Bechaye, Sforno) understand that verse differently. The limit of 120 years was not a permanent decree on man’s lifespan, but a final deadline God had given mankind before his destruction. If man would not repent within the next 120 years, the Flood would ensue. (In fact, Noah was commanded to begin construction of the ark a full 120 years in advance (and on top of a mountain) so that people would notice and inquire – and perhaps Noah’s response would stir them to repent in time.)
A second possible source is Moses’s lifespan. Moses lived till exactly 120 (Talmud Sotah 13b) – and on top of it the Torah attests that his energy and vitality did not diminish in the slightest before that time (Deut. 34:7). We thus bless people today that they be granted the same long, productive life of our great teacher Moses. (See also Talmud Chullin 139b which sees a hint to Moses’s future lifespan in the 120 years mentioned before the Flood. The Torah thus implied that the perfect lifespan attainable would now be one such as his.)
According to the first explanation, that God decreed 120 as the upper limit, why do we find many postdiluvian human beings who exceeded that limit, from the days after the Flood and on? Why, Moses’s own brother Aaron lived till 123, and our forefathers down to his time lived well upwards of 120. In modern times, Jeanne Calment beat the limit by over 2 years.
The commentators explain that God’s decree of 120 years was a gradual one. Man’s lifetime slowly decreased from 900+ to 120 by Moses’s time. If we study the lifespans of the Biblical figures from the Flood and on, they declined from 950 (Noah) to 600 (Shem) to the 400’s, and then to the 200’s. Then going from Abraham to Moses, they went from the upper 100’s to the middle and lower, down to 120 with Moses.
In terms of later people who lived slightly longer, the commentators are not especially bothered. They explain that 120 is a rough limit, not a precise one. See also Ha’amek Davar who observes dryly that by then a person’s human faculties have virtually left him. I also seen quoted from the Jerusalem Talmud that a person’s body will decay by 120, although his body may continue to function a bit longer than that (especially with modern medicine). See likewise Pirkei Avot (5:21), which is even less forgiving: “At Ninety to be bent over; at one hundred it is as if the person has died and passed and is ‘nullified’ from the world.”
Based on this, it is definitely possible a person could live a bit longer than 120. But either way, it's a pretty good blessing to wish someone!
See also these articles on this topic:
I wish you till 120 years!