It is customary, upon wishing someone a happy birthday, to declare ad me’ah ve’esrim, to 120. This is based on the popular notion that according to traditional Jewish thought, one cannot live beyond that age. Indeed, it is customary among rabbinic writers, when addressing their correspondents by name, to append the phrase עמו״ש, short for “ad me’ah ve’esrim shanah.” I’d like to suggest, however, that this traditional custom might be little more than a myth or, at the very least, ought not be taken literally.
On what basis do I make such an assertion? For one, take the classic comment attributed to Rabbi Chaim Soloveitchik: Rav Chaim is cited as having declared it a problematic to wish someone “until 120,” believing this to be a curse, because such a “blessing” implies that the recipient will not live beyond that duration. This view has also been attributed to Rav Moshe Feinstein and Rav Yaakov Kaminetsky as well as adopted by Rav Shlomo Aviner.
In regard to factual evidence, there is at least one confirmed instance of a centenarian who lived beyond 120. In 1997 the New York Times ran an article entitled “Jeanne Calment, World's Elder, Dies at 122.” The article reports that the French woman “Jeanne Calment, born a year before Alexander Graham Bell patented his telephone and 14 years before Alexandre Gustave Eiffel built his tower, died today in a nursing home in Arles. At 122, she was the oldest person whose age had been verified by official documents.” Intriguingly, although the prediction remains speculative, scientists claim that with newly developing treatments such longevity will increasingly become the norm.
What, then, of the notion that humans live only until 120? This precept would appear to stem from a verse in this week’s parsha: “Lo yadon ruchi ba’adam beshegam hu basar, ve-hayu yamav me’ah ve’esrim shanah,” “And Hashem said: ‘My spirit shall not abide in man forever, for that he also is flesh; therefore his days shall be a hundred and twenty years’” (Bereishit 6:3). A handful of commentators (Rav Saadiah Gaon, Abarbanel, Malbim) understand God to be limiting the maximum human lifespan to 120. There may even be a passage in the Gemara (Chulin 139b) that is consistent with this view. Such an interpretation, however, encounters an obvious difficulty: subsequent to this verse we find that many personalities lived for much longer than 120 years, including every generation enumerated by the Torah from Noach until Terach, the patriarchs, Sarah Imenu, and Aharon.
For this reason, many commentators propose alternative explanations of this verse. Intriguingly, the Yerushalmi (Nazir 7:2) explicitly rejects the preceding reading (“Adam Ha-rishon lived for nearly 1,000 years and you say that his days will be 120?”) and instead proposes that while humans can live well past 120, the body only survives for 120 years after until completely decomposing. While the exact intention of the passage remains quite opaque (see Torah Temimah to Bereishit 6:3 for discussion), it is clear that the Yerushalmi sees no limit to the human lifespan in our verse.
Most commentators (Rashi, Ibn Ezra, Chizkuni, Radak, Seforno) proffer a third interpretation: in the wake of humanity’s sins, God granted 120 years in which to repent before He was to annihilate the world. The majority position, it turns out, sees this verse as decreeing no minimum lifespan at all.
What, then, of the traditional blessing? Perhaps it is simply based on a mistaken folk legend or incorrect science. An alternative rendering of the beracha is possible, though. Perhaps its true intention hearkens back to a verse we read just a few days ago on Simchat Torah: “U-Moshe ben me’ah ve’esrim shana be-moto, lo kahata eino ve-lo nas leicho,” “And Moshe was a hundred and twenty years old when he died; his eye was not dimmed, nor his strength dissipated” (Devarim 34:7). Despite his advanced age, Moshe’s vigor remained remarkably undiminished. Possibly, this is (or ought be) the true intention of the blessing to our friend or loved one: even when you reach 120 years – i.e. to the very end of your life – may your strength continue unabated like that of Moshe.
It would appear, in sum, on the basis of peshuto shel mikra (the simple interpretation of the verse) coupled with contemporary evidence, that there is no need to limit the human lifespan to a maximum duration. Consistent with the precedent of Moshe Rabbeinu, however, I nonetheless wish my readers ad me’ah ve’esrim, vigor and strength until the very end of your days.