In his pioneering theological treatise “The Book of Doctrines and Opinions,” the tenth-century scholar Saadiah Gaon devoted a brief but significant discussion to the question of whether there is a set length to a person’s lifespan. As was his wont, he formulated his inquiry in terms of biblical texts. On the one hand, Scripture contains passages such as the divine blessing that “the number of thy days I will fulfill” that imply that a person is assigned a predetermined number of days. On the other hand, however, texts such as “the fear of the Lord prolongeth days, but the years of the wicked shall be shortened” seem to teach that your spiritual or moral stature can have a decisive impact on how long you live.
A central text for many Jewish discussions of this question is the Bible’s story of king Hezekiah who was informed by the prophet Isaiah that his death was imminent—and yet the king’s contrite prayers succeeded in prevailing upon the Almighty to add fifteen more years to his life.
Saadiah argued that the Almighty assigns to each of us a default lifespan that corresponds to the basic physical health of the body into which one is born. This is usually around seventy years in keeping with the words of the Psalmist that “the days of our years are threescore years and ten.” This lifespan, however, is by no means immutable. Indeed, it is within a person’s power to extend it by as much as thirty years or to shorten it, depending on lifestyle choices and other factors—including the inscrutable dictates of divine will and wisdom.
In discussing the question, Saadiah observed that it would make no sense to believe that lifespans are entirely unalterable and that everybody dies on a predetermined date. If that were the case, there would be no sense to those many tales in the Bible in which God or his agents smite the wicked through violence, plagues or other means; or where the righteous are rewarded with longevity.
Rav Hai Gaon also devoted one of his responsa to this question and its implications. His chief concern was with the concept of divine foreknowledge; specifically: how was God able to “know” the mutually contradictory facts about the times of Hezekiah’s promised and actual demise. Hai proposed a subtle logical differentiation between this case of God’s knowing what will occur the future, as distinct from the death being a fulfillment of the divine foreknowledge.
Hai Gaon discussed in considerable detail the thesis that if everyone dies at their predetermined time, then no guilt can be assigned to a murderer who happens to be the physical agent of the death. This question was also addressed by Maimonides in a responsum cited by a medieval commentator. The great philosopher was responding to a query from his disciple Joseph ben Judah Ibn Simeon: “Is the length of a person’s life set to a particular time, which the person will necessarily reach, so that it cannot be abbreviated or cut short? Or alternatively, are harmful circumstances capable of shortening a person’s lifespan when they affect a person who has failed to take appropriate precautions?”
Now, the answer to this question strikes us as quite straightforward—so straightforward, in fact, that it is hard to understand why the foremost philosophical minds in the Jewish world felt impelled to deal so seriously with the obvious truism that lifespans are subject to variation.
For a better understanding of the importance of this question, we must look to the Muslim intellectual environment in which Saadiah, Hai and Maimonides were all writing.
In the Qur’an, it is possible to point both to passages that assert that the length of a mortal life is inexorably predetermined, as well as to texts declaring that our lives are entirely subject to divine control. Alongside a statement such as “when their designated time has come, they cannot put it off by a single hour, nor can they advance it,” there are also also passages that speak of God’s striking down sinners before their time.
The concept of a pre-set length to people’s lives was known in Arabic as “ajal,” and it generated much discussion among Islamic scholars. Whereas Jews typically tended to avoid making dogmatic pronouncements on theological questions, Islamic authorities such as the influential theologian al-Ash’ari formulated an official position that reinforced the subordination of humans to divine decrees.
This was consistent with the broader Muslim approach to the questions of free will and determinism, regarding which the definers of orthodoxy usually opted for a fatalistic or passive outlook in which puny mortals are powerless against divine omnipotence. The political leaders of the early Muslim community, especially the Umayyad Caliphs, sometimes promoted this deterministic philosophy as a way of justifying the reigns of rulers whose religious or ethical standards were less than perfect. If this premise were followed to its logical conclusion, then a leader who seized power by assassination had not necessarily committed a sin, since the victim was destined to die at that time anyway. We have seen above that Hai Gaon discussed precisely this case. Saadiah too speculated about whether such a hypothetical plea might be used in order to exonerate Jezebel for her massacre of the prophets.
This fatalistic outlook on life and death may well have contributed over the ages to a reluctance in Muslim societies to protest or rebel against vicious and bloodthirsty tyrants. Indeed, the earliest school of rational theology in Islam, known as the Mu’tazila, originated as a movement of protest against corrupt leadership. One of the movement’s cardinal tenets was that people cannot be subjected to the final divine judgment unless they possess free will. Accordingly Mu’tazilites discoursed at length about the relationship between ajal and divine foreknowledge, as well as whether violent deaths fulfill the ajal or undermine it.
As a rationalist and a scientist, Maimonides had little patience for the theological hairsplitting of his Muslim and Jewish predecessors, especially when they claimed to have intimate understanding of the workings of divine wisdom. For Maimonides, God is essentially unknowable, and it is presumptuous to imagine that we can analyze his reasoning. Instead, he approached the question from more pragmatic directions—from the perspective of the Torah, as well as from a scientific or medical standpoint.
As regards the Torah, Maimonides cited a selection of biblical precepts that involve taking realistic precautions to ward off life-threatening dangers. These include the requirement to erect railings on rooftops; the institution of cities of refuge to protect unintentional killers from acts of vengeance; or the military exemptions granted to newlyweds and others to keep them from falling in battle.
Like Saadiah, Maimonides cited verses that invoked length of days as a reward for righteousness and obedience to God. He also agreed with Saadiah in declaring that there is no automatic correlation between righteousness and longevity.
As regards the scientific aspects of the question, Maimonides drew upon his thorough expertise in medical lore to provide a systematic listing of circumstances that, if not averted, might lead to fatal results. These range from the removal or destruction of vital organs to sudden shocks of joy or fear, which allegedly do their damage by altering the delicate balance of body heat. Reckless conduct (such as refusal to inoculate against potential illnesses) can bring on an early demise—but by choosing a cautious and sensible lifestyle, it is possible to steer clear of most of those threats and to live a long life.
That kind of prudent advice is unquestionably timeless.