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Genesis 6:3: 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.'

In Deut. 34:7 the age of Moses upon his passing is given as 120, but most importantly it says "his eye had not dimmed, and his vigor had not diminished." To have one's mental and physical faculties—that is what we wish someone via "till 120."

These two verses seem to be the basis for the tradition that people should live until 120 but if that is the case why do people (especially in the Bible) live much longer than 120?

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i don't think it was meant as an absolute rule. its pretty rare for people to live past 120. –  Ariel K Nov 30 '11 at 17:11
    
See judaism.stackexchange.com/a/3815. –  msh210 Nov 30 '11 at 17:24
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Actually, isn't this a duplicate of that question? I mean, that one's asking "why say 120 is the max if people live longer", and this one's asking "why do people live longer if 120's the max". –  msh210 Nov 30 '11 at 17:25

3 Answers 3

up vote 7 down vote accepted

Although, as @DoubleAA noted, Ibn Ezra, as well as other commentators, identify the relevant verse (Bereshis 6:3) to be referring to the deluge and irrelevant to the human lifespan in general, still other commentators (Abarbanel and Malbim are ones I know of) interpret this verse as placing a cap on the human lifespan. But how do they reconcile this with the people (especially people in the Torah) who lived longer? I will quote Abarbanel on the topic:

ואין להקשות על זה מה שהקשה הראב״ע שאחר זה חיו בני אדם נח והאבות יותר מק״כ כי לא היתה הכונה בגזרה הזאת שמיד ולדורות יתחילו האנשים לחיות זה המספר מהשנים כי איך יתכן שיעתקו השנים מן הקצה אל הקצה פתאום אלא שילך חיות בני אדם ומספר ימיהם הולך ומתמעט בחסרון בירידה תמידית עד שיגיע אל הגבול ההוא ושם יעמוד הטבע האנושי ולא יוסיף

So not that the lifespan would revert immediately from the 800-900 range to 120, but rather that the lifespan would gradually decrease to like 400-500 years in the generations after Noach, to the 150-200 years in the times of the Avos, finally to 120 after the time of Moshe, who actually lived to 120.

Now what about the people after Moshe who lived longer that 120 years? (This means born after Moshe, for clearly Pinchas lived a very very long time, and this doesn't bother anyone.) Well, one could answer that Abarbanel and likeminded commentators weren't aware of anyone post-Moshe living past 120, and based their interpretations accordingly. But, I don't think this would even pose much of a problem to their interpretation. Another quote from Abarbanel (linked above):

ומשה בן מאה ועשרים שנה במותו לא כהתה עינו ולא נס לחה ועל זה נאמר לו הן קרבו ימיך למות כי היתה הקורבה ההיא הגזרה שנגזרה בכלל על בני אדם. וכן אהרן חי קכ״ג שנים שהם בכלל ק״כ שנה

Aharon, who lived to 123, lived "within the bound of 120". In other words, the limit is not 120 as much as "120 give or take", or "in the 120s".

The people who we find living past 120 do not live much longer than 120, maybe a few years at best.

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Abarbanel and likeminded commentators probably knew about this mechon-mamre.org/p/pt/pt25b24.htm#15 –  Double AA Nov 13 '12 at 1:04

I have since found the following information about people that did live over 120 years in the Bible AFTER Moses. There seems to be some explanation for why given here, but I am not with the actual source I found this in. I do not know who is interpreting the comments. Can anyone find more details? Thanks.

Ahijah, the prophet of Shiloh, instigated Jeroboam's secession and predicted the downfall of his kingdom. The Midrash, basing itself on the fact that, according to 2 Chronicles 9:29, Ahijah is described as extremely aged in Jeroboam's time (1 Kings 14:4), and with no pedigree, identified him with Ahiah, son of Ahitub, the oracle-giving priest at Shiloh in King Saul's time (1 Samuel 14:3). He is accordingly singled out by rabbinical tradition as one of the seven long-lived saints whose successive lives extend over the whole history of mankind; each having transmitted the sacred lore from his predecessor to the one succeeding him, while shielding the generations of his time by means of his piety. These saints are: (1) Adam; (2) Methuselah; (3) Shem (Tanna debe Eliyahu R. xxiv.); (4) Jacob (Gen. R. xciv.); (5) Serah, the daughter of Asher, or, as others have it, Amram, the father of Moses; (6) Ahijah of Shiloh; (7) Elijah the prophet, who lives until the coming of the Messiah (Ab. R. N. version B. xxxviii., Seder 'Olam R. i., and B. B. 121b). For the underlying idea, see Ḥag. 12b, and Yoma, 38b, with reference to Proverbs 10:25, Heb., "The righteous is the foundation of the world," and Proverbs 9:1, "Wisdom hath hewn seven pillars." According to this tradition Ahijah lived over six hundred years, having received his "wisdom" from either Amram, the father of Moses (see Amram), or from Serah, the daughter of Asher (see Serah).

If from Serah, his age was considerably less, since she was supposed to have lived for more than four hundred years, until the days of David (YalḲ., Sam. § 152). The reason why Ahijah was regarded as having attained so unusual an age seems to be that, according to 2 Chronicles 9:29, the history of Solomon's reign was written by him; and that he was supposed to be identical with Ahijah the Levite, who was placed by King David in charge of the treasures of the house of God and of the treasures of the dedicated things (1 Chronicles 26:20; see B. B. 121b, Rashi).

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Only two of those seven lived after Moshe. Re Achiya HaShiloni: I don't seem to recall any textual evidence that he lived extraordinarily long. Re Eliyahu HaNavi: Clearly the p'shat reading indicates that Eliyahu HaNavi died at a relatively normal age. –  jake Nov 30 '11 at 18:59
    
Ahijah is said to have lived over 600 years, having received his wisdom from either Amram or from Serah. –  morah hochman Nov 30 '11 at 19:29
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Yes, "is said". I see two options: (1) It is not true (or at least, not literally true), or (2) He was born before Moshe died. –  jake Nov 30 '11 at 19:34

The Ibn Ezra discusses this in Gen 6:3

אבן עזרא בראשית ו:ג

והיו ימיו י"א שזה קצב כל האדם. ואם מצאנו יותר כן, מצאנו מעט, רק על הרוב ידבר. ואין זה אמת, כי הנה שם חיה שש מאות, וכל הדורות אחריו חיו שנים רבות. ובימי פלג חסרו השנים. ומימות דוד עד היום שבעים או שמונים שנה. והאמת מה שאמר המתרגם ארמית שנתן קץ לאדם, כטעם עוד ארבעים יום (יונה ג, ד). ואם ישובו ימלטו, ואם לא ישובו וימותו. ואל תשים לבך אל מספר ויהי נח בן חמש מאות שנה (ברא' ה, לב) כי אין מוקדם ומאוחר בתורה. והנה כתוב וימת תרח בחרן (ברא' יא, לב), ואחריו ויאמר ד' אל אברם לך לך מארצך (שם יב, א). ואנחנו נדע, כי לא מת תרח עד שהי' יצחק בן ל"ה שנה. ורבים כמוהו:

He rejects the reading of this passuk as a maximal lifetime and concurs with Rashi that it means that God warned the people 120 years before the flood.

Hence it seems the general tradition is a misconception.

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This doesn't completely answer the question. Although it eliminates the question according to the view of Ibn Ezra and others, there were still others that believed the p'shat of that pasuk to be referring to a maximum on the human life span. The question still stands according to them. –  jake Nov 30 '11 at 18:05
    
@jake Apparently the Ibn Ezra was right! –  Double AA Nov 30 '11 at 18:12
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How so? Apparently, the other commentators also knew of the people recorded to have lived longer. How do they justify it? –  jake Nov 30 '11 at 18:16
    
@jake what other commentator knew of anyone to live past 120 post-moshe? According to wikipedia, only one person in the last 150 years has done so, and that is with the help of modern medicine! –  Double AA Nov 30 '11 at 18:20
    
I was referring to the people in the Torah who lived past 120, which Ibn Ezra seems to be bothered by, and also what seems to be @morahhochman's main issue. Anyhow, I posted my own answer here. Check it out. –  jake Nov 30 '11 at 18:45

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