Latest update: October 8th, 2013
A little while ago, I commented somewhere on Facebook (I think it was a Joshie Berger rant) that orthodox Jews don’t really believe that humans can’t live past 120 years old. Frum people know that humans can live past 120. So it’s not a challenge to orthodox Jewish faith that in recorded history, especially recently, humans have outpaced the 120 mark on several occasions.
I believe the popular source for the belief that 120 is the age limit for humans is a combination of this verse in Parshas Breishis “And the LORD said: ‘My spirit shall not abide in man for ever, for that he also is flesh; therefore shall his days be a hundred and twenty years.” (6:3) and the fact that Moses lived to 120 as well.
However, Rashi quotes the midrashic interpretation that the verse as referring to the years that God waits before punishing mankind. The Ibn Ezra explicitly rejects the opinion that people cannot live past 120 years that is based on this verse as well.
Interestingly enough, the Torah Temimah does this and more. He quotes the Jerusalam Talmud in Nazir that asks how it’s possible for people to only live to 120 if Adam lived to almost 1000?! The Talmud answer that the verse is referring to decomposition. The bones of a person decompose after 120 years. (7:2)
The Torah Temimah notes that the Talmud is bothered by the plain fact that the verse is contradicted by people who lived longer than 120 years and even other Torah verses that describe longer lifetimes. So the Talmud answers that the verse is not to be taken literally and is instead referring to decomposition.
But this is of little help. The Torah Temimah correctly points out that there are sources in our tradition of bones that lasted longer than 120 post mortem like the bones of Joseph. He also cites secular experts who have found old bones of people known to have died more than 120 years prior to their discovery. By the way, decomposition takes between 10-75 years depending on soil conditions according to my research.
So the Torah Temimah is forced to say that the Talmud is making a general statement for which there are more exceptions that situations where the rule applies. It cannot even be talking about every bone in a person’s body because the Talmud talks about the bone in our spine that never decomposes and is the place from where we will regenerate in the times of the Messiah. Therefore, the Jerusalem Talmud must be speaking in vague terms and is not meant to be taken as a definitive, universal statement.
I find this Torah Temimah fascinating. Evidence from the Torah and science can disprove the idea that people drop dead if they reach 120. So we are easily able to dismiss that verse as literally true. But the solution suffers from the same flaws as the question. There are fossils that are millions of years old. And not just the bone that “doesn’t decompose.” There are many more skeletons that have completely decomposed. Even that bone from the spine that is not supposed to decompose decomposes. These are demonstrable facts.
So now we have two options. We can say that the Torah Temimah and his interpretation of the Talmud are correct and our eyes deceived us or we can say he erred. The interesting thing is that I think we can be certain which path the Torah Temimah would choose. He would choose the latter. That is how he arrived at his position in the first place!
There is nothing frummer about the first option. Especially when we are using it to “help” an authority that chose the second option time and time again.
It’s no different when we talk abuot Chazal. They also chose the second choice whenever they found out they made a mistake. It’s not frummer to choose option one to “help” Chazal when they themselves chose the second option in various places.
Read the Torah Temimah here: PDF
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About the Author: Rabbi Eliyahu Fink, J.D. is the rabbi at the famous Pacific Jewish Center | The Shul on the Beach in Venice CA. He blogs at finkorswim.com. Connect with Rabbi Fink on Facebook and Twitter.
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