Billy Joel famously sang that “Only the Good Die Young.” Today’s daf offers a counterpoint, continuing yesterday’s discussion about righteous rabbis who were rewarded with long life.
Today’s daf presents the cases of rabbis who were known for living until they were very old. Each rabbi explains why he was so blessed.
Rabbi Nehunya ben Hakana was asked by his disciples: Why were you blessed with longevity? He said to them: In my days, I never attained veneration at my fellow’s degradation. Nor did my fellow’s curse go up with me upon my bed. And I was openhanded with my money.
Rabbi Nehunya bar Hakana explains what he views as his life-extending virtues: He was careful never to trample others for his own esteem, and he always solved interpersonal conflicts immediately — as the adage has it, he didn’t go to bed angry. He was also generous with his resources, which the Gemara explains as never asking for change in the marketplace.
Rabbi Yehoshua ben Korha also merited long life, as we learn in this humorous exchange:
Rabbi Yehuda HaNasi asked Rabbi Yehoshua ben Korha: Why were you blessed with longevity? He said to him: Why do you ask me, are you wearied of my long life? Rabbi Yehuda HaNasi said to him: My teacher, it is Torah and so I must learn it. Rabbi Yehoshua ben Korha said to him: In all my days I never gazed at the likeness of a wicked man.
An old and apparently charmingly self-deprecating Rabbi Yehoshua ben Korha ascribes his good fortune to shunning those who are evil. But later in the Gemara, we learn that he actually has mixed feelings about living so much longer than many of his peers — offering us a chance to meditate on the difficulties of living an exceedingly long life. He blesses his student Rabbi Yehuda HaNasi and prays for his life to be only half as long — explaining that the old must pass away to make room for the younger generations. Perhaps his query — are you wearied of my long life? — was more in earnest than playful jest. If long life is the reward for righteousness, Rabbi Yehoshua ben Korha thinks it’s actually a rather mixed blessing.
Another sage, Rabbi Zeira, cites other virtues as the source of his good fortune to grow quite old:
Rabbi Zeira was asked by his disciples: Why were you blessed with longevity? He said to them: In my days, I was never angry inside my house. Nor did I ever walk ahead of someone who was greater than me. Nor did I meditate upon words of Torah in filthy alleyways. Nor did I walk four cubits without Torah or without tefillin. Nor did I sleep in a study hall, neither a deep sleep or a brief nap. Nor did I rejoice when my fellow stumbled. Nor did I call my fellow by his derogatory nickname (hanikhato). And some say: by his nickname (hakhinato).
On the one hand, we can read these aged rabbis’ statements as offering us a list of meritorious behaviors that will lead to a long life: respect for Torah, a commitment to mitzvot and a profound commitment to honoring our fellow human beings. We can create a checklist and make sure that we are crossing each of these actions off of it, to ensure our own long lives.
On the other hand, it doesn’t take a prophet or sage to look around the world and see that in fact lots of people who perform all of these things still die tragically young. The Amora Rami bar Hama, renowned for his wisdom and ethics — he opposed gambling (Sanhedrin 24b) and forcing one’s wife into relations (Eruvin 100b); he also championed orphans (Gittin 37a) — famously died young (see Bava Batra 12b and Berakhot 47b). In the latter of those two citations, the rabbis desperately cast about for a reason. I wouldn’t go so far as to agree with Billy Joel, but looking at the world makes it clear that righteousness just doesn’t promise long life. So what are we to make of these rabbis’ statements?
Whether or not the rabbis can offer us a guide to a long life, their statements offer us a model for how to live a kind life — not getting ahead at the expense of others, not calling people by derogatory nicknames, not taking more honor than we have earned, respecting and honoring the Torah, being generous with our money. Today’s daf suggests that, at the very least, those are the things that make life worth living.
Read all of Megillah 28 on Sefaria.
This piece originally appeared in a My Jewish Learning Daf Yomi email newsletter sent on January 9th, 2022. If you are interested in receiving the newsletter, sign up here.