I recently celebrated a birthday. It wasn’t a milestone birthday – just a day marking another year. Over the course of the day, a number of people greeted me with the traditional Jewish expression of “ad meah v’esrim” – “may you live until 120!”
I appreciated the sentiment, but this birthday blessing has always struck me as strange. Who but Jews would actually include a limit on the number of years one should live? In the U.S., the “Happy Birthday” song often includes a refrain that repeats “May you have many more!” Birthdays, that is. It leaves your lifespan open-ended. But not Judaism. Our greeting seems to acknowledge that, at a certain point, enough is enough.
The idea of saying “may you live until 120” can be traced back to Torah. We first see it in Genesis 6:3, where God is not happy that “divine beings” were taking human women as their wives. At that point, God decrees, “Let the days allowed him be one hundred and twenty years.” In his commentary, Nahum Sarna points out that the “duration of human life is reduced [as] a mark of moral and spiritual degeneration.” At first, living until 120 years is not considered such a blessing.
But then we learn in Deuteronomy that Moses lived to be 120 years old. And great rabbis of the Talmud such as Hillel, Rabbi Yohanan Ben Zakkai, Rabbi Akiva, and Rabbi Yehuda Hanasi, all lived to 120 as well. Pretty good company - suddenly living until 120 doesn’t sound so bad.
And why should it? The average life expectancy in the U.S. is 78. (It’s 80 in Israel – another reason to make aliyah!) Living more than 40 years beyond that could be quite a blessing. Assuming that a person still has their health. This caveat has given rise to a cute adaptation of this birthday blessing: “ad meah k’esrim” – “May you live until 100 [feeling] like you are 20!” That would truly be a blessing.
But I think there is deeper wisdom in putting a limit on the number of birthdays we celebrate. Capping our years at 120 reminds us, even on the happy occasion of our birthday, that our time on earth is limited. Sooner or later, our time will come. So we must try to make the most of every moment here. It sounds clichéd, but as author and dramatist William Saroyan is reported to have said on his death bed: “I know everyone has to die, but somehow I always thought an exception would be made in my case.” Isn’t that what we all think?
It may be, but this Jewish saying reminds us that there are no exceptions. Most of us won’t be blessed to live until 120, but the important word in this expression is “ad” – “until.” We all have an “until,” and we ought to do our best not only to count our days until then, but to make those days count.