QUESTION: The Gemara (27b-28a) relates a number of incidents wherein the
Talmidim of a Tana or Amora asked their teacher how he merited to live such a
long life. In each case, the Tana or Amora answered by relating an act or
acts of especially upright conduct which he practiced. In the middle of the
Sugya, the Gemara relates that Rebbi Akiva once asked Rebbi Nechunya ha'Gadol
how he merited to live so long. Rebbi Nechunya's attendants thought that
Rebbi Akiva was asking in a derogatory fashion, as if he was upset that Rebbi
Nechunya had lived so long, and they began to hit him. Rebbi Akiva escaped to
the top of a tree, from where he called to Rebbi Nechunya, "If the Torah
says, '[You shall prepare] a lamb' (Bamidbar 28:4), then why does it add the
word 'one (Keves *Echad*)'?"
From Rebbi Akiva's question, Rebbi Nechunya saw that Rebbi Akiva was a
genuine Talmid Chacham, and he ordered his attendants to leave him. Rebbi
Akiva then answered his own question -- the Torah adds the word "Echad" to
teach that the lamb must be the one which is the most special of its flock.
Rebbi Nechunya then told Rebbi Akiva why he merited to live so long. "I never
accepted any presents, I never stood up for my due (to get back at someone
who had pained me), and I was forgoing with my money."
Why were the attendants so upset with Rebbi Akiva's question to Rebbi
Nechunya, and what did Rebbi Nechunya see that changed his viewpoint about
Rebbi Akiva's question?
ANSWER: RAV YAKOV D. HOMNICK (in MARBEH B'SIMCHAH on Maseches Megilah)
explains as follows. The Gemara in Yevamos (49b) relates a Machlokes Tana'im
regarding the meaning of Hashem's blessing to His people, "The number of your
days I shall fill" (Shemos 23:26). The Beraisa there says that it is
referring to the days of a person's lifespan. Rebbi Akiva says that if a
person is worthy, then Hashem lets the person live his entire allotted time.
If a person is unworthy, then Hashem reduces his allotted time. The Chachamim
argue and say that if a person is worthy, then Hashem *adds* to his allotted
time, and not that Hashem merely keeps the person alive for his allotted
time. Since Rebbi Akiva is the minority opinion, the Halachah should follow
For this reason, the attendants of Rebbi Nechunya were upset with Rebbi Akiva
for asking how their master lived so long. Since his extra years were a
blessing of *addition* to the time he had been allotted to live, it is not
proper to speak about it openly, for a "blessing [of addition] exists only
upon something which is hidden from the eye" (Bava Metzia 42a). They feared
that by revealing the extra years granted to Rebbi Nechunya and discussing
why he was blessed with those extra years, it would become something that was
no longer hidden, and the blessing would not continue.
Rebbi Akiva, though, was acting according to this own opinion (in Yevamos),
that when a person lives for a very long time, it is not an *addition* to his
allotted life, but rather Hashem has granted him the ability to live out his
allotted time (which, in Rebbi Nechunya's case, happened to be a long time).
Therefore, Rebbi Akiva was searching for the proper manner of conduct which
would merit living out one's fully allotted time. Since that does not involve
a blessing of *extra*, additional years, it is not subject to the requirement
that it remain "hidden from the eye!"
Rebbi Akiva conveyed his intention by hinting to the lamb of the Korban
Tamid. If one uses each day of his life to fulfill Hashem's will, such as by
fulfilling a daily obligation like the Korban Tamid, then he will merit
living out all of his days.
This is also evident in Rebbi Nechunya's response to Rebbi Akiva. When Rebbi
Nechunya understood that Rebbi Akiva was asking how he managed to live out
his fully allotted time (and not how he merited to have additional years
added to his lifespan), he answered, "I never accepted any presents," meaning
that he felt full and satisfied with his portion in life and needed nothing
else. Measure for measure, he was awarded with the full portion of his
lifespan. Similarly, "I never stood up for my due, and I was forgoing with my
money" -- but rather he trusted in Hashem to repay his due in full measure,
for which he was rewarded with fully living out his allotted years!
This is the only incident in this Sugya which discusses the ways to deserve
fully living one's allotted time, since it is Rebbi Akiva asking the
question. The other cases are in accordance with the Chachamim in Yevamos,
and thus they discuss how to *add* to one's lifespan.
A remarkable support for this is what the MESILAS YESHARIM writes about the
Sugya. The Mesilas Yesharim (ch. 19) writes that these stories teach how to
act with Chasidus, adding to the requirement of the law, for which one will
be rewarded measure for measure by Hashem *adding* to one's allotted
lifespan. The Mesilas Yesharim cites a number of the stories in our Gemara
*before* the one with Rebbi Akiva, and he also cites the story of Rebbi Zeira
that *follows* the one with Rebbi Akiva, and he omits the story of Rebbi
Akiva! The reason for this, says Rav Homnick, is that the story of Rebbi
Akiva does not demonstrate how to *add* to one's lifespan, but rather how to
merit completing one's allotted time!
This explains why, when Rebbi Nechunya said that he never accepted any
presents, the Gemara brings an example for this attribute from the conduct of
Rebbi Zeira, who never accepted presents.
In the very next case of the Gemara, though, Rebbi Zeira was asked how he
merited to live so long. He answered with six reasons, but he did not mention
that he never accepted presents! It must be that the conduct of not accepting
presents is a reason for one to have his allotted time completed, but not to
have more years added, while Rebbi Zeira was explaining why extra years were
added to his life!