May You Live to 120 – Parshat Nitzavim-Vayeilech
by Rabbi David Kasher, Kevah’s Senior Rabbinic Educator
“May you live until a hundred and twenty!”
One of the most classic Jewish blessings, this phrase has found its way into several languages. If you have Yiddish-speaking grandparents, you may have heard it as ביז הונדערט און צוואַנציק (biz hundert un tzvantsig)! In modern Israel, it became popular once again as עד מאה ועשרים (ad meah ve’esrim)! The intention is clear: it is meant as a blessing for a long life filled with good health. But the number seems rather arbitrary. Why not just wish someone a long life and leave it at that? Or why not shoot even higher? Why is 120 the maximum?
There are two possible sources for the particular significance of a 120-year lifespan in Jewish tradition. One of them comes from this week’s parsha. We are headed towards the end of the Torah, and our story – we have already been told – will end with Moses’ death. As he begins his final speech to the people, he announces:
I am one hundred and twenty years old today. I can no longer come and go, and the Lord has said to me, you will not cross the Jordan. (Deut. 31:2)
Moses’ death has been foretold by God. He will not cross over into the Land of Canaan with the rest of the Israelites. And so he knows he will die soon, at the age of 120.
So if Moses, the ultimate hero of Israel, is some representation of the ideal Jewish life, then perhaps it makes sense to wish just such a lifespan – no more and no less – to those we love. When we say, “until a hundred and twenty,” perhaps we really are saying, “May you live as Moses lived!”
The more probable origin of the phrase, however, comes from a much earlier verse in the Torah – one that appears long before the life of Moses.
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