Since no-one – with such rare exceptions that they do not count – knows the date they will die, the translators often decided not to render these words literally.
One version reads, “I know not how soon I may die”. Another says, “There is no telling when I may die”.
When the day of one’s death is addressed by the rabbinic sages in Pir’kei Avot, they find a remarkable lesson for life.
First comes the saying in the name of Rabbi Eliezer, “Repent one day before your death” (Avot 2:10).
Then in Avot D’Rabbi Natan we hear that the students of Rabbi Eliezer asked him, “Does anyone know the day he will die, so that he will be able to repent?”
The teacher replied, “All the more should one repent today, in case he dies tomorrow; let him repent tomorrow, in case he dies the next day. Thus all his days will be spent in repentance.”
The Talmud (Shabbat 153a) quotes Kohelet 9:8, “Let your garments always be white”, and adds a parable about a king who summoned his servants to a banquet without specifying a time.
The wiser servants immediately put on festive garb so as to be ready whenever the time was announced; the others thought there would always be time.
I knew a rabbi who always tidied his papers and books before going to bed at night so as to have things in order in case anything happened to him before the morning.
Many others I have known left things in a mess and never had the chance to clear them up. Maybe they thought they would live for ever.
They would have done better to keep Isaac’s statement in mind – “I know not the day of my death!”