‘When Unworthy, One’s Number Of Years Is Reduced’
Rabbi Akiva deduces from the verse (Shemos 23:26), “The number of your days shall I fill,” that a person does not live more than the number of years predestined for him prior to his birth, regardless of his merits. He notes that a person could lose years by sinning, but one cannot gain additional years by doing good deeds. The Sages disagree and maintain that just as a person can lose years by sinning, he can gain years by doing good deeds.
The King Takes Ill
II Kings, ch. 20, relates that when King Hezekiah took ill, the prophet Isaiah told him he was destined to die from his illness. Hezekiah immediately prayed and cried out to Hashem, whereupon Isaiah prophesied that Hashem had granted the king 15 additional years of life.
The Gemara cites this account to prove that a person has the ability to add years to his predestined lifespan, in accord with the opinion of the Sages. Rabbi Akiva deflects this proof by arguing that Hashem had originally deducted 15 years from Hezekiah’s predestined lifespan because of a sin he had committed. Through prayer and repentance, Hezekiah gained back those 15 lost years, but he did not live longer than his predestined lifespan.
The Gemara (Chagigah 4b-5a) relates an incident in which the life of a woman was taken prematurely by the agent of the Angel of Death due to a case of mistaken identity. The Angel of Death, not wanting to return the woman to life, explained that her remaining years would be given to a Torah scholar who was accommodating and forgiving in dealing with others.
Tosafot (Yevamos 50a, s.v. “Mi’shelo hosifu lo”) explain that this incident does not disprove Rabbi Akiva’s position because Rabbi Akiva agrees that years that were allotted to one person can be transferred to another as long as the total number of allotted years (for both people together) remains the same.
Whose Years Were They?
The Maharsha (supra 49b) asks why Rabbi Akiva did not answer the challenge posed by the story of Hezekiah by explaining that Hezekiah’s additional 15 years came from someone else who had died prematurely. Why did Rabbi Akiva feel constrained to say that Hezekiah regained his own years which had been taken from him?
The Maharsha brushes off his own question by explaining that only the Gemara can state definitively that a person received the years of another person.
The Aruch LaNer (Yevamos 50a) answers the Maharsha’s question by explaining that that a person who receives the years of someone else winds up being an extension of the other person. In the case mentioned by the Gemara, the Torah scholar was considered the replacement of the woman whose life had accidentally been taken prematurely.
With this premise in mind, it is clear why Rabbi Akiva couldn’t suggest that Hezekiah received the years of another person. If he had, he would have been considered an extension of that other person and would not have been able to continue serving as the King of Israel.
Fear Of Sin
R. Yochanan (Yoma 38b) states that if the majority of a person’s years have passed and he has not sinned, he need not fear that he will sin.
However, according to the assumption that a person may be living years that have been acquired from another person, perhaps he should be concerned and ever vigilant that he is now judged according to a new reckoning. Indeed, Scripture states (Proverbs 28:14), “Praised is one who is ever fearful…” (see Kunteres La’Maor, introduction to Shalmei Regalim).