Our Gemara on Amud Aleph engages in a discussion regarding statistical trends in aging and longevity, which hold Halakhic implications concerning the assumption of a husband’s survival by the time a Get (divorce document) arrives through a messenger.
The Gemara states: “And if you wish, say that this is not a conclusive refutation. In the case of the baraisa, since it is so that the man reached an exceptionally old age, one cannot apply the general presumptions to him and must instead apply presumptions that are for one who has reached an exceptionally old age. However, in a case where someone has not demonstrated that he is an exception to the rule, once he reaches old age, there is a concern that perhaps he has died in the interim.”
This discussion presents an intriguing deduction based on statistics and logic. When a person exceeds a certain threshold of deviation from the norm, the usual statistical patterns no longer apply. According to Rashi, this threshold is around 100 years. In other words, an individual who lives to be 100 years old possesses remarkably robust health, and their chances of dying become lower than those of a 65-year-old.
Modern studies on lifespan also reveal similar phenomena. In fact, one study highlights an unexpected finding: beyond a certain age (80), individuals tend to be healthier, and their longevity rate seems to have no known limit yet (Stanford News, November 6, 2018). This does not imply that people are living forever, but rather it demonstrates a statistical reality. On average, life expectancy increases by approximately 2.5 years per decade (Elizabeth Arias, “United States Life Tables, 2006,” National Vital Statistics Reports 58, no. 21 [Hyattsville, MD: National Center for Health Statistics, 2010]: table 11). If there were a known limit, such as 120 years, we would expect to see a compression of deaths as individuals approach that age. However, the trend has shown no signs of slowing down, meaning that the same statistical increase in longevity occurs for people in their 80s, 90s, and beyond. Notably, the oldest recorded age ever attained was 122 years by Jeanne Calment, a Frenchwoman who died in 1997. She remains the only documented case of a person living past 120, which was previously considered the upper limit of human lifespan (https://www.prb.org/resources/age-100-and-counting/). This aligns closely with our tradition’s notion of 120 years as the upper limit, as sourced from the verse in Genesis 6:3.
Initially, the verse might seem to suggest that God decided to reduce human lifespan to 120 years. However, Rashi, Ibn Ezra, and Rav Saadiah Gaon reject this interpretation, pointing out that many individuals, such as Shem, lived significantly longer than 120 years during that time. On the other hand, Ramban, Rosh, and Radak argue that the verse refers to a new and shortened lifespan, specifically for the generations following the flood. According to these commentaries, the verse implies that humanity needs a shorter lifespan to accomplish a meaningful life. Within the allotted 120 years, one can either lead a righteous and purposeful life or succumb to increasing physicality, desires, and perversions.
Although contemplating aging and eventual death may be uncomfortable, the understanding that our time for life and love is limited adds to its sweetness and preciousness. It is a sad aspect of human nature that we often become less productive when given more time. Perhaps it is not coincidental that the very first halacha (Jewish law) in the Talmud (Berachos 2a) states that technically one has until dawn to recite the Shema prayer. Paradoxically, the sages established a shorter deadline of midnight to prevent procrastination.
If one aspires to complete the entire Talmud, from the first page to the last, avoiding procrastination and not assuming that there will always be time tomorrow is crucial. As stated in Pirkei Avot (2:4):
אַל תֹּאמַר לִכְשֶׁאִפָּנֶה אֶשְׁנֶה, שֶׁמָּא לֹא תִפָּנֶה:
“Say not: ‘When I have leisure, I shall study.’ Perhaps you will not have leisure.”
It is worth noting that the rabbis intuitively grasped the idea that death gives meaning to life, as depicted in a fascinating Midrashic parable about the people of Luz (Sotah 46b). The parable describes the city of Luz, where its inhabitants, the Elders, would go outside the city walls to die once they felt disillusioned with their lives. The city of Luz was known for its resilience, as it remained untouched by various conquerors and even by the angel of death himself.
Excessive gratification and indulgence without a sense of mortality can lead to ennui and listlessness. In the next 30 years, provided we don’t self-destruct, the increasing life expectancy and the potential advancements in AI, lab-grown meat and wood, fusion power, and other technologies will present the greatest challenge for finding meaning in life. It is expected that society will become more polarized, with religious and spiritually-minded individuals turning to intellectual and creative pursuits, while others may delve further into extremes of indulgence, perversion, and escapism through drugs and virtual reality.