Live Long and Prosper

There are a myriad of vitamins and other medications on the market that promise longer life through healthy living. The Talmud, written by medieval rabbis, also offered advice about how to achieve longevity, many of which were in Greek and folk medicine.  Over the years I have collected rabbinic advice on how to achieve longevity based on morality, ethics and piety rather than on medicine. 

There are two precepts in the Torah that explicitly promise longevity to their adherents. Deuteronomy 5:16 states: “Honor your father and your mother, as the Lord your God has commanded you, so that your days will be prolonged and so that it will be good for you in the land the Lord your God is giving you.”  And in Deuteronomy 22:7 the Torah commands that when one wishes to take eggs from a nest (in order to eat them): “You shall certainly send away the mother and take the young for yourself, so that it will be good for you and that you may prolong your days.” These two precepts emphasize the importance of honoring one’s parents and of being compassionate to animals.

The Talmud (Kiddushin 39b) presents a story related to the verses in Deuteronomy that may seem perplexing on initial reading:

“A father said to his son: ‘Climb up the tower and fetch me some young birds.’  The son climbed up the tower, drove the mother bird away and took the bird’s offspring. On the way back, the son fell and died. Where is the good life for this person and where is the long life for this person? Rather, ‘so it will be good for you’ refers to the world that is wholly good (i.e., the World to Come). And ‘so that your days may be prolonged’ refers to the world that is wholly long.”

According to the Talmudic explanation, although the son in the story who fulfilled the two commandments that promised longevity died, the promised reward does not refer to this world, but rather the world to come.

In another Talmudic story (Berachot 8a): “Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi said to his children: ‘Come early and stay late when going to the synagogue so that your life should be prolonged.‘”  Rabbi  Yochanan, who lived in Israel, had been surprised to learn of the existence of elderly people in Babylonia since he believed that longevity could only occur in Israel. But once he was informed that many Babylonian Jews prolonged their stays in their synagogue, he concluded that their longevity was a reward attributable to this practice.

Other Talmudic rabbinic advice  for prolonging life includes

  • Rabbi Yehudah (Talmud, Berachot 54b) suggested: “There are three things that if prolonged, result in the prolonging of the days and years of a person. They are: prolonging one’s meals, prolonging one’s praying and prolonging the time spent in the privy. (In stretching out a meal one is provided the opportunity of feeding a poor person who might happen to pass by. As for the privy, the rabbis were concerned with straining oneself which can cause hemorrhoids.  They believed that people who do not hurry while in the bathroom and thereby do not strain themselves, will prolong their lives)
  • Ben Azzai (Talmud Berachot 47a) said that people who respond Amen after a blessing is concluded must not hurry or slur it. Mispronouncing Amen could lead to a shortened life while enunciating it could help to prolong life.
  • Rabbi Yehuda (Talmud Berachot 55a) said: Three things shorten the days and years of a person. To be given a Torah scroll to read and out of arrogance refuse to read; to be given the cup of benediction over which to recite grace and to refuse; and to assume airs of authority. (arrogance shortens a person’s life)
  • Rabbi Nechunya ben HaKanah (Talmud, Megillah 28a) was asked by Rabbi Akiva: “On account of which meritorious practice have you attained longevity?” He replied: “Never in my life have I accepted presents, or have I ever insisted on exacting retribution when wronged, and I have been generous with my money.”
  • Rabbi Elazar (Talmud Kiddushin 33b) said:  “Any Torah scholar who does not rise before his teacher is called a wicked person, will not live long, and will forget his learning.” (I remember one year at summer camp when the Chancellor of the Jewish Theological Seminary of America, a great scholar, presented a dvar Torah for the entire camp before Kabbalat Shabbat. The campers and staff were taught this story so that when he came up to the podium, the entire camp rose to their feet)

I have been thinking about writinga book that compiles and explains rabbinic advice for longevity.  As a preview:  I am convinced that being benevolent, altruistic, compassionate, respectful and humble goes a long way in ensuring a healthy lifestyle.

Wishing you the traditional  blessing:  Ad meah v’esrim—May you live to be 120!


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