How Long is a Long Life?

This week’s parasha, Mishpatim, presents the first extensive set of Torah laws. The list concludes with a blessing:

And you shall serve Hashem your God, and I will bless your bread and your water; and I will take sickness away from your midst; none shall miscarry or be barren in your land, and the number of your days I will fill. (Exodus 23:24-25)

God promises that He will fill the lifespan of one who observes His laws properly and sincerely. What does this mean? How long is a “full” lifespan? The Ba’al HaTurim (Rabbi Yakov ben Asher, 1269-1343) comments that the gematria of amal’e (אמלא), “I will fill”, is 72, suggesting that a full life span is 72 years. He then quotes Psalms 90:10 as support: “The days of our years are seventy years, or in strength, eighty years…” The Ba’al HaTurim reconciles the figure of 72 years in the parasha with 70 years in Psalms by stating that the year of one’s birth and the year of one’s death don’t count. A newborn is essentially unable to do anything, much like a frail and presumably ill elder in their last year of life. Therefore, one who has reached the age of 72 should be satisfied with having had a “fulfilled” lifespan.

It is interesting to point out that when it comes to the number of root nations in the world, these same two figures are commonly used. Some say there are 70 root nations (as listed in the “Table of Nations” in Genesis 10-11), while others say 72. The Sages reconcile this by saying that there are indeed 70 nations, and they are presided over by two overarching “nations”—Esau and Ishmael—each ruling over a “camp” of 35. Of course, when the Sages speak of Esau and Ishmael they are referring to Christianity and Islam, respectively. So, there are 35 root nations dominated by the Western-Christian-European sphere of influence and 35 dominated by the Eastern-Muslim-Asian sphere of influence.

The same goes for the number of people on the Sanhedrin: sometimes they are referred to as a council of 70 sages, and sometimes of 72 sages. The reason is that there were 70 sages on the council, plus the nasi (president) and av beit din (often translated as “vice president” though literally meaning “head of the court”, and perhaps comparable to today’s Speaker of the House). The Zohar (III, 275b), says this model began in the time of Moses, when there was a council of 70 Elders (as we read in this week’s parasha, Exodus 24:1) plus Moses and Aaron sitting at their head.

The number 72 is significant on a mystical level. One of God’s most concealed and elevated names is the Name of 72 (ע״ב). This name is derived by the numerological technique of milui, “filling”. When “filling” the Tetragrammaton by spelling out each letter with yuds, as follows: יוד הי ויו הי, one has a name with a value of 72. This name corresponds to the highest universe of Atzilut, the realm of pure divine emanation. Meanwhile, there is also a set of 72 three-letter names of God (as explained in the past here). Since each name has three letters, there are a total of 216 letters. This is the gematria of Gevurah (גבורה), “strength” or “restraint”.

The “Tree of Life” depicting the Ten Sefirot, with Chessed and Gevurah in blue and red (respectively)

Recall that Gevurah is one of the Ten Sefirot, and represents the entire left pillar of the Sefirot. Gevurah is the domain of the Sitra Achra, “the Other Side”, the source of evil in this world. It is also the place of judgement and punishment. Opposite Gevurah is the Sefirah of Chessed, “Kindness”, which represents the entire right pillar of the Sefirot. It is the place of love and compassion. The gematria of Chessed (חסד) is 72. So, the 72 three-letter names of God, which sum up to 216 letters, represent the balance between Right and Left, Chessed (72) and Gevurah (216). Moreover, the transformation from 72 to 216, and back, represents the temperance of God’s Gevurah with Chessed.

The Arizal (Etz Chaim, Sha’ar HaKlalim, ch. 3) points out that the Hebrew term for pregnancy, ibbur (עיבור), is composed of the letters ע״ב (72) and רי״ו (216). In the womb, too, God moulds a newborn through the two forces of Chessed (72) and Gevurah (216). This is indeed what happens embryologically, where cells proliferate (Chessed) while also being culled and “sculpted” (Gevurah) into the correct form. In fetal development, it is just as important for cells to die off in the right place at the right time as it is for new cells to form. This Chessed-Gevurah balance is referred to as Rachamim, “mercy”. Mercy is that point where a person is in a dominant, punishing position (Gevurah), but does not inflict more harm than necessary (Chessed). Rachamim is a balance between Chessed and Gevurah. Fittingly, the word for “womb” in Hebrew is rechem.

Eighty Years in Gevurot

In the Psalm above, we read that a full life span is 70 years, but “in strength”, b’gevurot, 80 years. There are several explanations for this statement. On the one hand, it can mean that after age 70 a person is likely to be in poorer health, so the additional decade of life is full of gevurot: restraints, severities, and difficulties. On the other hand, it can mean that if a person lives b’gevurot, with a lot of restraints, restrictions, and diets, they could perhaps extend their lifespan by another decade. Others say it simply means that a particularly “tough” or “strong” person will manage to live 80 years.

A more mystical explanation is that while a full lifespan is 70—by which point a person can happily move on to the next world—one might remain for another decade of gevurot, suffering in this world. The purpose of this is to spiritually cleanse here in this world to avoid the more painful cleansing that might await in the next world. (In general, there is an idea that the phenomenon of aging and suffering in health is for kapparah avonot, to spiritually cleanse for a lifetime’s worth of sin.)

The Sages (Avot 5:21) use similar terminology as in Psalms when they specify the various ages of one’s life: “At seventy, fullness of years; At eighty, the age of Gevurah; At ninety, a bent body; At one hundred, as if dead and gone from this world.” A basic reading seems to present a grim picture of aging. However, many of the commentators point out that these milestone descriptions are for the average person. We see that people can live past 100 in good health and strength. Of Moses, for example, the Torah (Deuteronomy 34:7) states that he was “a hundred and twenty years old when he died; his eye was not dim, nor his natural force abated.” Ironically, it was Moses who composed Psalm 90, where it is written that a full lifespan is 70 or 80 years!

On turning ninety, Rabbeinu Yonah (of Gerondi, c. 1200-1264) points out that the words can be read in two ways: Lashuach, from the word shiach, “pit”—because the person is ready for the grave—or lasuach, “to speak”. The latter is meant to teach that a person past age 90 should be conversing in Torah full-time to maximize their Torah and mitzvot now that their days are numbered. This is related to the idea that age 90 is an especially auspicious time to become a complete tzadik, alluded to by the fact that 90 is the value of the letter tzadi. If one successfully does this, by age 100 they can be like an angel, which is the deeper meaning of the Sages’ statement that one is “like dead”:

Saba Kadisha

The Lubavitcher Rebbe explained that “like dead” refers to a person’s yetzer hara, “evil inclination”, which dies at 100 (see Likkutei Sichot on Vayera). Because of this, a person is closer to being an angel than a human. Furthermore, 100 represents a fulfilment of the Ten Sefirot, each of which is composed of its own inner Ten Sefirot. That makes a total of 100 spiritual vessels, alluded to by the gematria of kelim (כלים) “vessels”, which is 100. As such, a righteous person who reaches the age of 100 is given another huge spiritual boost. Such a person has even more opportunities to do God’s holy work at that special age. Remarkably, we see multiple rabbis who did just that. Rav Kaduri (1898-2006), for example, taught and guided people until his last days, while Rav Shteinman (1914-2017) went on his last international speaking tour when he was nearing his centennial. The Saba Kadisha (Rabbi Shlomo Eliezer Alfandari, c. 1826-1930) only moved to Jerusalem around his 100th birthday, at the request of a number of great rabbis who sought his guidance.

To 120, and Lots More

As we saw above, Moses was healthy right to his last day at the age of 120. This is the origin of wishing someone 120 years on their birthday. The origin is not, as commonly believed, Genesis 6:3, which says: “And God said: ‘My spirit shall not abide in man forever, for he also is flesh; therefore shall his days be a hundred and twenty years.’” Many take this verse to mean that a person’s lifespan is limited to 120 years. That cannot be the case since people continued to live well past 120 after God made this declaration. Even after Moses there were people who lived past 120 years, such as Yehoyada who died at 130 (II Chronicles 24:15). Rather, the verse in Genesis means that God declared the Flood would come 120 years from that point. God gave mankind a lengthy period of time to repent and save itself. Having said that, in the Genesis verse there is an allusion to Moses’ lifespan of 120 years. The cryptic word b’shagam (בשגם), loosely translated as “also” or “because also”, has a value of 345, equal to Moshe (משה).

Today, in the Western world, average life expectancy is close to 85 years. More and more people are reaching their 90s, and even the 100 mark. With modern nutrition, sanitation, and medicine, living to 120 in relatively good health is well within reach. All of this is in line with what has been prophesied: “There shall be no more an infant of days, nor an old man that has not filled his days; for the youngest shall die a hundred years old…” (Isaiah 65:20) There is an amazing commentary on this cited by Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan in his Sefer Yetzirah: The Book of Creation (pg. 189). He quotes Rabbi Itzchak d’man Acco (in Otzar HaChaim 87a-b) as saying that if a centenarian is comparable to a three-year-old child, according to Isaiah, human lifespan well extend to over 2000 years! Many scientists today believe this is possible.

Rabbi Itzchak continues by saying that time will revert to “divine years”, in which a thousand current human years are equal to one divine day (based on Psalm 90:4). That implies a person will live 80 million years! At first glance, this may sound far-fetched. However, a couple of things need to be kept in mind: First, we know that time is relative, and that moving faster and closer to the speed of light “slows” aging. Second, rapid scientific progress continues unabated, and a time will soon come when we will have the technology to traverse vast stretches of space-time at near light-speed. So, it isn’t unreasonable to assume that perhaps a 2000-year-old person can stretch their life over millions of years. Considering the observable universe is about 93 billion light years across, even then a single person wouldn’t be able to journey very far! It seems God made sure that human beings would never run out of places to explore.

For more on how one can merit a long life, see “Keys to Living a Long Life” in Garments of Light, Volume One.