Till 120

Hy Rosenfeld from Phoenix writes:

“This week, while lighting a yahrzeit candle in memory of my mother, I remembered that, when somebody did a good deed or performed an act of kindness, she would say — in Yiddish, of course — ‘till 120.’ I have heard this expression used by others, too. Why the specific number 120, and what is its significance?”

The Yiddish expression biz hundert un tsvantsig, short for “May you [or he or she] live to the age of 120,” is indeed a frequently heard one, much more so than its nearest English equivalent, “May you live to a ripe old age.” (In fact, it appeared in a column of mine not long ago.) Besides being used to thank or to praise someone, as Mr. Rosenfeld remembers his mother doing, it also can indicate that one is well disposed toward a person in general, or it even can be a disclaimer of animus. (“What, I bear him a grudge? Not at all, biz hundert un tsvantsig!”) And as a way of wishing good health, it is the Yiddish version of “Bless” or “God bless you” after a sneeze. “Ah-chooo!” “Biz hundert un tsvantsig!”

Why 120? In the first place, because this was, according to Chapter 6 of the Book of Genesis, the maximum age set for humankind by a God distressed by the evil behavior of the first, much longer-lived men whom He created. (If He then nevertheless let Abraham live to 175 and Isaac to 180, this was presumably only because of their great righteousness.) And secondly, we are told by the Bible that 120 was the age of Moses when he died, and Moses is the only biblical character whom we are also told remained in good health, sound of mind and of body, until his last moment. (“And Moses was a hundred and twenty years old when he died: his eye was not dim, nor his natural force abated.”) Moreover, according to Jewish legend Moses died the most painless and even pleasant of deaths, since God Himself drew his soul from his body with a kiss. To this day, in Hebrew, when one wishes to say that someone has died peacefully — as when an elderly person passes away in his or her sleep without suffering — one says that he or she died “the death of a kiss,” mitat neshika.

To wish someone biz hundert un tsvantsig, therefore, is to wish them a life as long and healthy as God permits and a death as quick and easy as Moses’. And although such a wish contains an element of exaggeration, 120 being beyond the range of even abnormal human-life expectancy, it is not so beyond the range that it seems totally absurd — as it would seem, for example, if, wishing you a life as long as Methuselah’s, I were to say, “Till 969!”

This pretty much answers Mr. Rosenfeld’s question. And yet it is possible to probe the matter more deeply — as did Israeli scholar Meir Bar-Ilan in a Hebrew monograph published several years ago under the title “Genesis’ Numerology.”

Bar-Ilan starts out with a good question. The Bible, he says, particularly the Book of Genesis, is chock full of numbers: “And all the days that Adam lived were nine hundred and thirty years….” “And the waters prevailed upon the earth one hundred and fifty days….” “And when Abram was ninety years old and nine, the Lord appeared to Abram….” But why these particular numbers rather than others? Why didn’t Adam live to be 940, and the flood waters take 163 days to recede, and God appear to Abraham when he was 87? No one ever has asked these questions before, Bar-Ilan writes, because religious believers took it for granted that the numbers in question were historically true and religious skeptics took it for granted that they were arbitrary fictions, and in either case there appeared to be nothing to investigate.

Yet suppose these numbers are neither true nor arbitrary — that is, suppose that although they are fictions, they are fictions that were chosen by the author or authors of Genesis for a reason. Or to put it differently, suppose they were picked on the basis of a system of numerological symbolism known to the biblical authors and subsequently lost, so that we no longer possess the key to it?

“Genesis’ Numerology” is Bar-Ilan’s attempt to hypothesize what this key may have been. And since this is not the place to discuss the extremely intricate details of his hypothesis, suffice it to say that, in regard to the number 120, he takes it to be the product of 10, which symbolizes “human perfection” in the Bible, multiplied by 12, which symbolizes the “cosmic order.” Moses lives to 120, therefore, because he is the perfect man who, as the recipient of the Torah at Sinai, is maximally in touch with this “order.”

It’s an interesting thesis, and although I can’t say that Bar-Ilan makes a totally convincing case for it, I wouldn’t sneeze at it, either. And even if I did, you still could say “biz hundert un tsvantsig.

Questions for Philologos can be sent to philologos@forward.com.

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