It seems that from time immemorial, or more specifically from some time after G-d first declared that a person’s days shall be limited to 120 years, at best (Genesis 6:3), Jews have been blessing each other with the wish “May you live to be 120.” I have noticed, however, that many people look at that goal with trepidation, as if it is not necessarily something positive to live for.
Rabbi Avigdor Miller, z”tl, once – or in all probability more than once – remarked that people who do not believe in the World to Come look at all of life as one long march to the grave. But even many people who do believe in the World to Come tend to get a little nervous when contemplating the march to 120.
I passed the half way mark to 120 not that long ago, only to reflect on Rav Yehudah ben Tema’s classic description of the stages of a person’s life, “At 60 a man attains old age.” If this isn’t depressing enough (especially for a person like myself who still has the self-image of a teen-ager in various ways), ben Tema continues: “At 70 the hoary head, at 80 labor and sorrow, at 90 decrepitude, at 100 he is as though he were dead and had passed away and faded from the world.” Ben Tema doesn’t even have a metaphor for life as it actually approaches 120.
On the bright side, the Rambam, Moses ben Maimon, or Maimonides, world history’s greatest rabbi/philosopher/physician, who crammed the achievements of many rabbis, philosophers, and physicians into his own life of 69 years, quoted dietetic advice from the Talmud before concluding with optimistic words of general – if not literal – encouragement: “To every man who obeys these rules, I guarantee that he will never be ill, but on the contrary, will achieve old age and need no doctor (Hilchot De-ot 4:20). (Of course, if old age is 60, this still isn’t terribly comforting.) With further advances in science, the prognosis can be even more optimistic, however (at least for those who stay away from carcinogens and other toxic products of our time, and lead lives of moderation).
Some people mistranslate King David’s request of “al tashleechaynee l’et ziknah” as being “don’t send me into old age,” rather than “don’t abandon me in my old age.” Either way, life as it approaches 120 years may not seem like a very pleasant stage for most people, which recently led me to wonder whether people can honestly want their friends and relatives to actually live to 120, and whether the wish “until 120” is or even CAN actually be uttered in pure and complete sincerity. Of course, ideally, every Jew believes that every moment is precious and needs to be protected, fought for and savored. But the reality is that even many observant Jews, while doing whatever they can to extend human life, may not actually look forward to or savor a life that has become characterized by ill health, dementia and loneliness, G-d forbid.
The point has been made that when we are informed that Moshe Rabenu – the first Moses – lived to 120, he was still in good health, which is why the blessing to live to 120 is doubly significant, since it conjures up images of longevity with good health. However, in actuality, most people are not aware of this, and even those who are aware do not tend to articulate it or to think of a vigorous leader of the Jewish people every time they conjure up an image of life at 120.
Upon discussing this with some bright and creative observant Jews (who prefer to remain anonymous), we came upon a formula that can indeed be said with true sincerity, “Until 120, in good health” (bivree-ut). In a further discussion with additional bright and creative observant Jews (who also prefer to remain anonymous), the idea was proposed to add “uvitzleelut, and with clarity of thought.”
Some time after I mentioned this to some additional observant Jews, I received feedback that this blessing – with the add-on – was beginning to be incorporated into the vernacular. Upon still further consideration, it occurred to me that people of very advanced years often outlive all their friends and are abandoned by their descendents or confined to a nursing home. Hence my final proposed blessing for one and all to wish each other: “May you live to be 120, in good health, with clarity of thought, and with the emotional and physical support of friends and relatives.” In English, this is too cumbersome for routine usage. In Hebrew, it can be summarized in a way that is shorter and catchier, while still encapsulating these nuances by implication. I wish all of you readers, and suggest that all Jews consider wishing each other to live a life “ad meah v’esreem shanah, bivree-ut, bitzlee-lut, ubiyidee-dut.”