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How would a rationalist interpret the long lives of the ancient people enumerated in the Bible, from Methuselah on down? Virtually no person lives more than 120 years today, even with the assistance of modern medicine. Does the rationalist concede that at least in this one case, we must say "Nishtaneh haTeva," nature has changed?

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Clarification: Many scientific facts stated in our ancient texts are known to be incorrect. Rishonim have discussed some (e.g. a cow under 3yrs never gives birth) and have offered the resolution "Nishtaneh haTeva" (nature has changed). The rationalist position is that the authors of the ancient texts were relying on the scientific knowledge of their time. As for the Torah itself ("God got it wrong" obviously untenable for an Orthodox Jew), the verses are interpreted to mean something different, as in the six days of creation really meaning six eras. –  Barry Dec 30 '10 at 20:07
Do you mean rationalist or literalist? Rationally speaking there is very little in the Tanakh that we have found historical physical evidence of. So does that mean that it did or did not happen? Literally speaking does 3 days mean 3 24 hour periods and does 120 years mean 120 365 day periods? We do not have any proof either way of what really happened. We have the words given to us and we spend our time interpreting those words. At what point, was the story given to make a point and at what point was it written to document history? –  mTp Dec 30 '10 at 21:15
I think the rationalist approach Barry's referring to is what you find at rationalistjudaism.com . –  Isaac Moses Dec 31 '10 at 2:56
@mTp, in this context, "rationalist" and "literalist" are almost opposite viewpoints. I didn't quite follow the remainder of your comment. –  Barry Dec 31 '10 at 16:48

6 Answers 6

up vote 7 down vote accepted

That it is not intended literally, but rather the numbers have allegorical significance. (For example, Chanoch lived precisely 365 years, the number of days in a solar year.)

That it referred to dynasties started by the individual person, rather than just to the lifespan of that person.

Or that "shana" does not mean what we think it means. I tried to explain the latter in these two posts:

See how I interpret the Sumerian king list, where they have similarly extremely long lifespans.

kol tuv, josh

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Your interpretation of Shana I think has more questions than it raises. A much more satisfiying (to me) answer, is the concept of gematria and the general importance that numbers have as symbols for greater concepts in Torah and Jewish texts in general. –  avi Sep 4 '11 at 9:32
But you must concede that the word shana means actual year sometimes in biblical literature, right? You just say shana isn't literal when things become unreasonable to you? That's hard to accept. –  Baby Seal May 18 '14 at 1:26
re: the first answer, that is why I offered a text-internal reason to think it is allegorical, namely "For example, Chanoch lived precisely 365 years, the number of days in a solar year." –  josh waxman May 18 '14 at 11:26
re: the third, we often move one meaning to the other to give the more plausible reading. אכל means to eat, but we don't imagine a fire doing the eating when in that context. if (and it is a big if) there is evidence from other sources that שנה can mean a time-unit other than its current definition of 12 months, that its definition was fluid, then it is not as hard to accept. Certainly shana means actual year in Biblical lit, once the meaning became crystallized. –  josh waxman May 18 '14 at 11:31
Why do you assume אכל means to eat, as opposed to eating being one application of a more rigorous definition, i.e. consume? –  YeZ May 18 '14 at 19:49

Disclaimer: I do not claim to "know" in any way what Hashem means concerning certain parts of the Torah, and there are strong sources for different approaches to both the Torah and Chazal. Importantly, there should be a mesora and respect for variant approaches that are anchored in truth.

There is a very well chazal-sourced book claimed to be co-researched with R' Aryeh Kaplan called Immortality, Resurection and the Age of the Universe. Although sub-titled "A Kabbalistic View", I'll share an idea that I remember from the book (excluded by Google), though it's been a while since I read it.

The author suggests that Adam was not the first human, but the first of his type. Adam was endowed with potential for immortality. Because of his sin, Adam lost this gift and was sentenced with mortality. Still, Adam remained with a biological clock which allowed for longevity. His descendents were able to keep this genetic longevity so long as they didn't dilute the gene pool. However, at some point, Adams descendents began intermarrying with the "others". (I don't know if this can be explained scientifically)

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OK, so I think you are saying that this view accepts "Nishtaneh haTevah" at least for this historical fact, with some additional scientific explanation that attempts to render it more palatable to the rationalist. –  Barry Dec 31 '10 at 16:51
I'm not sure whether to call it nishtana hateva where actual nature as we know it changes. This seems more like an evolutionary concept. –  YDK Dec 31 '10 at 20:11

One explanation given is that the atmosphere was very pure then, without the pollution which came about later, so things were healthier and people lived longer.

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I believe this is Ramban's answer. –  avi Feb 7 '12 at 18:12

This will only become a strong question once scientists get a better understanding of how aging works. Until then, one can reasonably claim that "nishtaneh haTeva" scientifically possible.

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There is a good understanding of how ageing works today. For someone to have such a long lifespan they would have to have a genetic mutation which does not activate the aging process properly. –  avi Feb 7 '12 at 18:09

Quoting Marc B. Shapiro:

The fourteenth-century R. Eleazar Ashkenazi ben Nathan ha-Bavli...assumes that the extremely long lifespans found at the beginning of Genesis are not to be taken literally (p. 29).

וימי חייהם אז היו כימי חיי אנשי דורנו לא פחות ולא יותר כי לא היו אז מזהירים כשמש ולא חזקים כנחושה, אבל היו מבשר ודם ומזרע אשה ומדם נדותה ככל אשר אנחנו עושים פה היום

If people never lived so long, why were these number included in the Torah? R. Eleazar claims that Maimonides’ approach is to regard the lengthy lifespans as simple figures of speech, not meant to be taken literally any more than the statement that the Land of Israel was flowing with milk and honey or that the cities in Canaan were “fortified up to Heaven” (Deut. 1:28).[17]

He also offers another explanation for the lengthy lifespans, namely, that the Torah recorded what the popular belief was, no matter how exaggerated, and Moses was not concerned about these sorts of things. In other words, just like today people say that the Torah is not interested in a scientific presentation of how the world was created, R. Eleazar’s position is that the Torah is not interested in a historically accurate presentation. In his mind, this has nothing to do with the Torah’s goals, and therefore there was no reason for the Torah not to present matters as they were believed at the time, even if these perceptions were inaccurate. The important thing, he says, is that the people would know that from the creation of the world until Israel stood at Sinai was close to three thousand years. This would help solidify belief in creation. The records of lifespans are just a means to illustrate this information.[18] He adds that when it came to events closer to Moses’ time, Moses was careful in preserving a more accurate accounting, while leaving the stories of the distant past cloaked in legend.

There are other ways rationalists have dealt with the lengthy lifespans. For example, R. Nissim of Marseilles regards these years not as indicating an individual life, but rather the “lifespan” of the way of life (i.e., laws, customs) instituted by the figure in question, or the time until another one like him arose. He also assumes that when the Torah says that someone bore a son, it doesn’t have to mean a literal son. Here is what he writes in Ma’aseh Nissim, p. 274:

יש מי שפירש שהכונה בחיים ההם קיום נמוסיו והנהגותיו הזמן [בזמן] הנזכר, בין בחייו בין אחר מותו. כי אלו, אפשר שהיו אנשי שם, מחקים חוקים ונימוסים, ומנהגים במידותיהם, גם במאכלם ומשתיהם ובמלבושיהם, ואחר הזמן ההוא אפשר שנשתכח הכל ובחרו דרך אחרת. או תאמר, שלא קם כמוהו עד זה הסך מן השנים במעלת ידיעת ההנהגה לבני דורו. ובזמן ההוא קם כמוהו במעלה, נמשך לדעתו וכונתו, ונחה רוחו עליו כאשר נחה רוח אליהו על אלישע. ואם לא ראה הראשון זה שקם אחריו ולא היה בזמנו, אפשר למד מספריו או התבונן בדבריו המקובלים, ועל זה כתוב: "ויולד" שהוליד בדמותו במעלה, כאלו הוא הוליד האיש ההוא מאשר הוא בעל הדעת ההוא שלמדוהו.‏

In support of this approach, he refers to Va-Yikra Rabbah 21:9 which cites an opinion that Scripture intimated to Aaron that he would live 410 years. Although the Torah tells us that he only lived to 123 (Num. 33:39), the Midrash says that the righteous High Priests in the First Temple are called by Aaron’s name. In other words, they represent the spirit of Aaron, so in that sense it can be said that he lived so many hundreds of years. So too, R. Nissim thinks, when Scripture speaks of other people living so many hundreds of years it is to be understood in this fashion.

Another approach was suggested by R. Moses Ibn Tibbon, who is quoted by R. Levi ben Hayyim.[19] According to Ibn Tibbon, the years given for people’s lives are actually the years of the dynasties they established.[20] (His other suggestion is the same as that of R. Nissim, mentioned above.):

והחכם ר' משה פירש, כי כל אחד מאלו היה מלך או הניח נימוס, וכל זמן התמדת מלכותו ומלכות זרעו, או כל ימי המשכות נימוסו, קרא דור אחד, כאלו היה המלך או מניח הנימוס חי, וטעם "ויולד בנים ובנות" כי לאורך הזמן רבו ועצמו בני מלכותו או אנשי דתו, ושלחו קצתם אל ארץ אחרת.‏

R. Levi ben Hayyim offers basically the same approach (p. 326):

ונראה לי כי הדורות הנזכרים היו ראשי אבות, וזרע כל אחד נקרא בשמו כפי מספר השנים ההם. כי כל אחד, כמו שנאמר, הוליד בנים ובנות, כמו שנראה היום, עד שנשקע השם מהדורות הבאים אחריו, וקח מאתו זרע איש אחד מפורסם, וקראו בני זרעו ומשפחתו על שמו זמן מה, וכן התמיד עד שנתחדש דור אחר, נקרא [!] בניו ובני בניו על שמו [צ"ל שם] חדש. והורה ספור הדורות ההם מאדם ועד זמן משה על חדוש העולם.‏

[17] In Guide 2:47 Maimonides says that the people mentioned in the Bible who lived so long were exceptional in this respect, either because of their diet, mode of living, or due to a miracle. R. Eleazar obviously does not see this as reflecting Maimonides’ true view.

[18] He writes (p. 30):

ואל תתמה על זה ואל יקל בעיניך זאת התחבולה הנכבדת שנתכוון אליה כדי לאמץ האמנת החדוש . . . ולזה הוצרך ע"ה לספר לנו חשבון השנים שעברו מזמן חדוש העולם עד זמננו, וזה היה עיקר גדול וצורך נפלא

[19] Livyat Hen, ed. Kreisel (Beer Sheva, 2004), pp. 324ff. Here is the place to congratulate Howard Kreisel on the publication of the two volumes of Livyat Hen as well as R. Nissim of Marseilles’ Ma’aseh Nissim. As long as people study Jewish philosophy, they will use these editions. R. Joseph Kafih spent the last night of his life studying Ma’aseh Nissim. See Avivit Levi, Holekh Tamim (n.p., 2003), p. 226.

[20] R. Eleazar Ashkenazi, Tzafnat Paneah, p. 29, cites this approach in the name of Ibn Ezra, but he does not tell us where it is to be found in Ibn Ezra’s Torah commentary or other works.

אבל המשמע מדברי החכם ראב"ע ז"ל שהזקנים היו ראשי האבות לא שחיו המה כל כך

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The Malbim has a novel perush on Bereishit (8:22) that help may to understand longevity:

עֹד, כָּל-יְמֵי הָאָרֶץ: זֶרַע וְקָצִיר וְקֹר וָחֹם וְקַיִץ וָחֹרֶף, וְיוֹם וָלַיְלָה--לֹא יִשְׁבֹּתוּ.

In explaining the (now) presence of the seasons he says that before the flood the Earth was not tilted. It was only after the flood that the Earth became tilted on its axis (he even says 23.5 degrees). The tilt of the Earth caused seasons which had previously not existed. He says that people (and animals) that used to live in a constant geo-climate now experienced changes that they were not used to and, as a result, got sick more easily and became generally weaker.*

The Ramban comments on longevity in Bereishit (5:4). He explains that the reason for longevity was that Adam was created by the 'hand of Hashem', meaning that he was made complete an built with an 'inner' strength (of some sort). He says that even after Adam had sinned and punished with 'death' (or more accurately spiritual death or banishment from Eden) the age of man decreased. After the mabul the air became polluted/contaminated leading to the shortening of years thereafter.

The psalm of Moshe mentions that the lifespan of people is 70-80 years old. Tehillim (90:10):

יְמֵי-שְׁנוֹתֵינוּ בָהֶם שִׁבְעִים שָׁנָה, וְאִם בִּגְבוּרֹת שְׁמוֹנִים שָׁנָה-- וְרָהְבָּם, עָמָל וָאָוֶן:

Rashi comments that the decrease in years is due to the 'iniquity and sins of our youth'. Our actions nowadays are a direct consequence of the shortening of our days. However, it could be argued that the great tzadikkim merited to live longer than this in any case. In pharaoh's encounter with Yaakov he is intrigued by Yaakov's longevity:

ח וַיֹּאמֶר פַּרְעֹה, אֶל-יַעֲקֹב: כַּמָּה, יְמֵי שְׁנֵי חַיֶּיךָ. ט וַיֹּאמֶר יַעֲקֹב, אֶל-פַּרְעֹה, יְמֵי שְׁנֵי מְגוּרַי, שְׁלֹשִׁים וּמְאַת שָׁנָה: מְעַט וְרָעִים, הָיוּ יְמֵי שְׁנֵי חַיַּי, וְלֹא הִשִּׂיגוּ אֶת-יְמֵי שְׁנֵי חַיֵּי אֲבֹתַי, בִּימֵי מְגוּרֵיהֶם.

It seems that Yaakov lives longer than average, and furthermore that his righteous ancestors also lived long. The Torah LaDaat in parashat Noach has an essay dealing with 'changes in nature' over time. He mentions that the Rambam in Moreh Nevuchim (source?) says that the long ages mentioned from Adam until Noach are only for those specific individuals mentioned in the Torah, but not the general populous. It could therefore be that examples of longevity in the Torah are only miraculous exceptions to the rule, but not the general trends of the time.

(* as an aside it is interesting to note that the Malbim used this reasoning to explain how it is that wooly mammoths, which he probably presumed were from temperate climates, became 'buried in ice'. However, there are obvious problems with this interpretation…)

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Kudos for a very thorough answer. Is the "could be" in last paragraph yours, Rambam's, or Torah LaDaas'? It seems to follow directly from the Rambam as quoted. –  YeZ May 18 '14 at 20:08
@Yez given the variety of opinions it is my "could be" –  bondonk May 19 '14 at 16:15
What's the alternative within the Rambam? (not trying to nitpick, just don't know what you mean) –  YeZ May 19 '14 at 17:33
@YEZ the Ramban and Malbim say that its related to state of health/environment changes, unlike the Rambam. I would imagine there are other opinions as well. Some 'could' work together, this is my speculation –  bondonk May 19 '14 at 17:51
Sorry I wasn't clear - I see the other opinions, as you clearly explained in your answer. I just don't see any other way to take the Rambam. Unless you mean the application of the case by pre-Noach is not obvious to extend to all other cases? I guess that was what you meant. –  YeZ May 19 '14 at 17:54

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