For the week ending 17 September 2011 / 17 Elul 5771

Old Ages

by Rabbi Yirmiyahu Ullman -
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From: Bob Mogel in Omaha, Nebraska

Dear Rabbi,

In the Hebrew Bible it states that in Biblical times people lived to be hundreds of years old. How is this possible given the fact that people don't live nearly as long today even with the advances in medical technology?

Dear Bob Mogel,

There are several reasons for the gradual reduction in life-span from Biblical times to the present.

G-d initially intended to grant people eternal life. According to Kabbalistic texts, if Adam and Eve had refrained from eating from the Tree of Knowledge until Shabbat, thereby exercising free will to perfect themselves, G-d would have allowed them to eat of the Tree of Life and then from the Tree of Knowledge (Arizal, Sefer HaLikutim, Gen. #3, p. 26; Ramchal, Tikunim Chadashim #8). They would have obtained a level of spiritual excellence entitling them to live with full knowledge forever.

However, Adam and Eve transgressed the Will of G-d, bringing upon themselves the consequence of the warning, "But of the Tree of Knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for on the day that you eat thereof, you shall surely die" (Genesis 2:17). This isn’t intended literally - they didn’t die on that day. Rather it means that they brought upon themselves mortality.

Based on the verse, "For a thousand years in Your eyes are like a day that passed" (Psalms 90:3), our Sages explain that man’s life-span was limited to one of "G-d’s days" which equals 1000 years. According to this, Adam should have lived to be a thousand years old. Why does the verse assert, "Adam lived nine hundred and thirty years, and he died" (Gen. 5:5)? The Midrash explains that Adam, with his great spiritual insight, foresaw that King David was destined to die as an infant, so he contributed seventy years of his own life to David (Yalkut Shimoni, Gen. 41).

Later, as a result of further "misconduct", man’s life-span was shortened even more: "And the Lord said, Let My spirit not quarrel forever concerning man, because he is also flesh, and his days shall be a hundred and twenty years" (Gen. 6:3). Rashi explains G-d’s intention: Behold My spirit is quarreling within Me whether to destroy or to have mercy. Let this quarrel in My spirit not endure forever, rather since man is only flesh, and nevertheless he does not subordinate himself before Me, let him live no more than 120 years. Ibn Ezra (c. 1100, Spain) explains that life-spans would gradually decrease, until the maximum will be around 120. (For example, Adam lived to 930, Shem 600, Abraham 175, Jacob 147, Moses 120.)

Finally, until the Flood, there were no extremes in seasons; the weather was always comfortable and temperate. After the Flood, G-d tells Noah that there will be constant seasonal changes (Gen. 8:22). Malbim (1800s, Eastern Europe) explains that until the Flood, the earth's axis had no tilt relative to the sun. As a result of the flood, the earth's axis tilted in relation to the sun. Thus, the earth's climate changed drastically, resulting in a weakening of the human constitution and ability to withstand these constant changes in weather.

As for technology's inability to slow the aging process, "The scientific study of aging is a young discipline" (National Geographic Nov. '97). Compared to many areas of science, relatively little is known about aging. Richard A. Knox refers to getting older as the "black box of aging," and calls it a "mystery" (The Boston Globe 1997).

By way of example, take the case of Jeanne Calment who died in Franceat the age of 122. How was she able to live that long? No one knows. Given that she lived that long, why only that long? "Officials gave no specific cause of death"(Houston Chronicle News Services 8/5/97). Medically speaking, it seems she could have lived another ten - or 100 years. Let's suggest it’s because of this universal decree - we'll know for sure after (app.) 120.

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