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The Afterlife: a Jewish Guide to Life After Death

One of the most fundamental questions we ask as humans is what happens after death. But, in truth, modern Judaism does not exert a huge amount of energy on the topic, comparatively…But even on a subject where we aren't entirely focused, there are centuries worth of readings and more opinions than there are Jews.


Modern Judaism doesn’t focus too much on what happens after death because we are often taught to focus on Olam HaZeh, this world, rather than Olam HaBa, the world to come.

To quote the tv show the Good Place, we should do good things because we are good, not because we are seeking moral dessert. We should do good things because we are in this together. We should focus our actions on creating a good, equitable world that we all live in now because it is the right thing to do, as opposed to doing it for the sole purpose of reaching heaven.


“A related story is told of a pious Jew who boasted to his rabbi that he had saved another Jew's soul. A beggar had asked him for a meal. He agreed but insisted that first, they must pray the afternoon Minchah prayers. Before serving him the meal, he ordered the beggar to wash his hands and recite the appropriate blessing and thereafter to recite the Motzi prayer over the bread. The rabbi showed his annoyance with his pious disciple. "There are times, my son, when you must act as if there were no God." The disciple, taken aback by this counsel, protested, "Should I act as if no God existed?" The rabbi replied, "When someone comes to you in need, act as if there were no God in the universe, act as if you alone are in the world and that there is no one to help him except you yourself." The disciple replied, "And have I no responsibility for his soul?" The rabbi replied, "Take care of your soul and his body, not vice versa.” (1)


Before beginning, it is essential to understand that Judaism is both vast and complicated. Many beliefs have evolved over centuries, with communities retaining differing levels of that evolution. While many perspectives have been included here, there will always be ones that I have been unable to fully cover. If you feel that I have missed a vital view on the afterlife, please feel free to reach out and let me know.


Jews will often vehemently reject the concept of Hell in our theology, but this is ultimately due to the perceptions of it as defined by Christianity. If using common Christian definitions, then no, Judaism does not have Hell. If also using common Christian perceptions of Heaven, we also would not have Heaven. Because of the often extreme views attributed to terms like Heaven, Hell, purgatory, resurrection, and reincarnation, Jews may be extremely hesitant to use them to describe their perception of the afterlife.


It is also important to understand that the messianic age refers to the arrival of the Moshiach or the Messiah. Ultimately, it will be an age of peace, Torah learning, and without pain, suffering, and famine. However, how this age will come about is interpreted differently by different movements of Judaism, as well as by members of those movements. Some envision a person, while others see it more as a concept.


Importantly, Jewish conceptions of death are not most heavily impacted by the texts of Tanakh, but rather later texts and discussions. Very few fully conceptualized beliefs of the afterlife cite more than a few verses or lines from the Tanakh, which leads to multiple, ever-evolving interpretations of what happens in the afterlife, or what the afterlife even is.


Chabad categorizes four stages of human life.


  1. The wholly spiritual existence of the soul before it enters the body;

  2. Physical life;

  3. Post-physical life in Gan Eden (the “Garden of Eden,” also called “Heaven” and “Paradise”);

  4. The “world to come” (Olam HaBa) follows the resurrection of the dead. (2)


Here is an alternate example:

  1. The wholly spiritual existence of the soul before it enters the body;

  2. Physical life

  3. Cleansing period

  4. Reincarnated life (rinse and repeat steps 2-4)

  5. Post-physical life in Gan Eden (the “Garden of Eden,” also called “Heaven” and “Paradise”);

  6. The “world to come” (Olam Haba) that follows the (possible) resurrection of the dead.


There are, in theory, countless combinations of the theories discussed below, with these two examples being just that: examples. Many of these concepts do not exist independently of one another. Reincarnation is not incompatible with heaven, nor is it incompatible with resurrection. Like all Jewish things, it is extremely complicated. Chances are, you may leave here more confused than you already were.


Nothing after death

One perception of the afterlife in Judaism cannot be ignored: when our bodies die, that is the last of it. There are many Jews who do not believe in any sort of supernatural soul transition, afterlife, or place we “go” once dead. This idea is just as Jewish as the next. It is also one of the easiest to understand.


Heaven

Heaven, while less controversial than Hell, is by no means clear within Judaism. Generally, it is regarded as the resting place of the divine and the heavenly court and is known as Shamayim. However, in regards to the afterlife, Heaven is often believed to be the Garden of Eden, or Gan Eden.


The physicality of such a place is heavily debated, though decidedly does not include halos or harps (lyres are a maybe). Later Jewish texts discuss how Heaven is split into seven segments, named in the Talmud as: Vilon, Rakia, Shechakim, Zebul, Maon, Machon, and Aravot. However, there are alternate names. Along with the four rivers of Gan Eden, certain texts discuss the inclusion of many palaces within its borders, including but not limited to, the Palace of Nut, where the righteous study Torah after death, but before the resurrection. (3)


The soul of the righteous at death, after being separated from the body and its functions, ascended to Heaven where it was kept in the treasury beneath God’s throne of glory (Shabbat 152b). This soul then awaited the moment when it would be reunited with the body at the resurrection....Along with the view of the soul being kept in the heavenly treasury, the belief existed that the soul of the righteous remained in relation to its dead body until the final decomposition of the later. During this interim period the soul would be ascending to heaven and descending back to the grave (35).” (4)


As further discussed in the next section, many believe that all but the most insidious of souls will eventually make their way into Heaven, even if they must be cleansed beforehand.


Hell, Purification, & Purgatory

According to the common definition, hell is a “ location in the afterlife in which evil souls are subjected to punitive suffering, most often through torture, as eternal punishment after death” (5) However, in Judaism, ‘hell’ is defined very differently, so much so that many people don’t use the term at all.


“After death, the soul returns to its divine Source, together with all the G‑dliness it has “extracted” from the physical world by using it for meaningful purposes. The soul now relives its experiences on another plane, and experiences the good it accomplished during its physical lifetime as incredible happiness and pleasure, and the negative as incredibly painful” (6)


One great metaphor for the Jewish “hell” is that of the Supernal Washing Machine. (7) If a pair of socks are covered in filth, is it punishment to wash the socks on heavy-duty? Are you in any way punishing the socks for being dirty? No, of course not. The experience of what people call “hell” is merely the cleansing process. That is not to say that it isn’t painful or difficult. As mentioned above, the process includes experiencing all of the negatives that one caused in their life.


As used largely by people who subscribe to a place of punishment, the general term for Hell is that of Gehenna or Gehinnom. This name comes from the Valley of Hinnom, just west of the Old City of Jerusalem. It is believed that due to child sacrifices performed there by Canaanites, it became synonymous with evil and suffering. (3)


There are often comments saying that this was essentially a burning dumpsite. However, this appears to be from a commentary of Rabbi David Kimhi around 1200 AD which states, “Gehenna is a repugnant place, into which filth and cadavers are thrown, and in which fires perpetually burn in order to consume the filth and bones; on which account, by analogy, the judgement of the wicked is called “Gehenna.” (8)

What actually happens in this place varies greatly by both tradition and text. Enoch, however, gives the duration of one's stay in Gehenna. Though, of course, this is again argued by Jewish tradition.

Unlike the concept of an eternal hell as often touted by other religions, Judaism limits one's time in Gehenna to 12 months.


The judgment of the generation of the flood [continued] twelve months; The judgment of Job [continued] twelve months; The judgment of the Egyptians [continued] twelve months; The judgment of Gog and Magog in the time to come [will continue] twelve months; The judgment of the wicked in gehinom [continues] twelve months, for it is said, and “It will be from one month until its [same] month” (Isaiah 66:23)


A Divine Voice emerged and said to them: Did you emerge from the cave in order to destroy My world? Return to your cave. They again went and sat there for twelve months. They said: The judgment of the wicked in Gehenna lasts for twelve months. Surely their sin was atoned in that time. A Divine Voice emerged and said to them: Emerge from your cave. They emerged. Everywhere that Rabbi Elazar would strike, Rabbi Shimon would heal. Rabbi Shimon said to Rabbi Elazar: My son, you and I suffice for the entire world, as the two of us are engaged in the proper study of Torah.(Shabbat 33b).


It is agreed that the time that one spends being cleansed in Gehenna is limited to 12 months. Some have attributed this to the mourning period as discussed in, The Physicality of Death: Burial and Mourning in Judaism.


Certain thoughts believe that all people who go to Gehenna are cleansed within that year, while others disagree. Commonly, it is argued that the most evil of all simply cease to exist if they are unable to be cleansed in Gehenna. According to Rabbi Geoffrey W. Dennis, Gehenna “is about remorse, whereas Christian and Islamic notions of hell are all about despair. If there are any unredeemable souls, their fate is annihilation and nonbeing, not eternal torment.” (3)


After twelve months, their bodies are consumed, their souls are burned, and a wind scatters them under the soles of the feet of the righteous” Rosh HaShanah 17a.


However, unpopularly, others claim that those who are truly evil will remain in Gehenna until they have served out their time by reliving the suffering they have caused. If the greatness of their actions require more time to relive, they may remain there until it is completed or Gehenna itself crumbles.


Alternatively, some sources believe that “the wicked stay in Gehinnom till the resurrection, and then the Messiah, passing through it redeems them. (Emek ha-Melech, f. 138, 4)”. (3)


The majority of Jewish thought, however, agrees that once passed on, a soul only remains in Gehenna for a maximum of 12 months.


“The core of the soul is unadulterated goodness; the good we accomplish is infinite, the evil but shallow and superficial. So even the most wicked of souls, say our sages, experiences at most twelve months of Gehinnom, followed by an eternity of heaven.” (6)


However, the discussion of what Gehinnom actually looks like is another altogether. Over the centuries, Jews have speculated heavily on the physical appearance and experience of Gehinnom. From Enoch’s writing which describes it as a “vast fiery furnace,””, to Masekhet Gehinnom describing seven madori (precincts or palaces).


When split up, the seven sections of hell are known as: Sheol, Abaddon, Beer Shachat, Bor She’on, Tit ha-Yeven, Domah, and Tevel. It is believed that the Nahar deNur (the river of light) separates Gehenna from the seven heavens. It is also believed that there are rivers of gall, pitch, and poison flowing between these circles of hell.


In some older, less common beliefs, there are angels of punishment within each circle which administer a specific form of suffering to the inhabitants of that circle. However, even in these versions, inhabitants are spared suffering on Shabbat. The angels remain, but their purpose of punishment has worn away with time.


Jewish tradition has given way to a consistent belief that punishment after death is solely by reliving and dealing with one's own actions, rather than being punished by some sort of devil figure.


Sheol, which is often referred to as hell in Christian circles, is one of the most common terms for where people live out their afterlives. It, like Gehenna, has evolved throughout the centuries.


Reincarnation

Referred to as Gilgul Neshamot, or the cycle or wheels of the soul. This form of reincarnation is largely accepted in conjunction with the above concepts of heaven, hell, and the world to come. Some believe that the reincarnation cycle ends with the coming of the Messiah, while others believe that it is finished when one has learned all the lessons it is required to learn (generally believed to be the mitzvot).


“Though the notion of reincarnation is not found in Talmudic literature, and though it was opposed by major medieval Jewish philosophers such as Saadia and Albo, and ignored by others such as Maimonidies and Yehudah Halevi, it becomes omnipresent and of increasing importance in medieval Kabbalistic literature and thereafter. And it clearly persists in the popular Jewish imagination to this day.” (10)


Importantly, the Jewish conception of the soul is somewhat different than other, more traditional discussions.


“The Kabbalists...understood the three Biblical terms that... came to characterize the independent part of the human person - nefesh, neshamah, and ruah - to define three distinct parts of the soul. Nefesh came to mean life itself, the vital part of a person; neshamah is the part of the soul which is concerned with mystical cognition; ruah involves the power of of ethical discrimination.” (10)


Essentially, gilgul posits that the Jewish soul leaves the body, experiences the cleansing of Gehenna, and returns to the earth in order to live out another life. However, this interpretation did not appear until later in the history of Jewish thought, largely informed by Kabbalah and other forms of Jewish mysticism.


While many traditional Jewish thinkers believed that human souls may only reincarnate into human bodies, the idea that a person may reincarnate as animals or even inanimate objects and plants soon came into play, particularly in Chasidic circles. First mentioned in Sefer ha-Temunah, the concept of reincarnation into an animal was seen as a punishment for sin as well as an opportunity for growth. (9)


The three distinct parts of the soul, as mentioned above, are believed to have different parts in the afterlife, but are able to split and reincarnate into different bodies. Supposedly, the souls of tzaddikim are reincarnated into the bodies of fish, lending to the tradition of eating fish on Friday nights. (3)

It is through gilgul that the concept of the Dybbuk comes into being. Parts of the soul, unwilling or unable to cross over, must find a human host to attach to. To read more on Dybbukim, read The Deal with the Dybbuk.


Alternatively, the belief that all converts have Jewish souls is supported by the idea of reincarnation: Jewish souls simply incarnate into non-Jewish bodies and are on the journey to once again find their way back home.


Resurrection

As seen in many of the above passages, it is believed that there will be some sort of resurrection (t’chiyat hameitim) when the Moshiach comes. However, there is no clear consensus on what the resurrection actually means or who will be resurrected.


Sefer haBahir is important because it sets the agenda for the discussion of the afterlife in the Jewish mystical literature that follows. The issue is not the grand resurrection to come. The fact that God will resurrect the dead is assumed. What is of primary concern to the mystics, however, and what remains their most distinctive contribution to the development of afterlife doctrines in Judaism, is their portrayal of the fate of the soul in the period between death and resurrection”(10)


In general understandings, the sounding of the shofar will resurrect the dead where they will once again be judged. Many believe that those buried in the physical land of Eretz Yisrael will return first, while, “[a]ccording to the Talmud , all bodies not already in Israel will be rolled through underground tunnels to the holy land.” (11) This underground tunnel system is supposedly not a comfortable ride on a spiritual level. (11)


What would happen after this resurrection is unclear, though Maimonides “believed that the resurrected will eventually die a second death, at which point the souls of the righteous will enjoy a spiritual, bodiless existence in the presence of God.” (12)


The Mishnah states that those who do not believe in the resurrection will have no share in Olam HaBa. (11)


“At the time of the resurrection, the individual soul will be split among the various bodies it once inhabited, and the portion of the soul whose mission was completed in a particular body will return to that body.” (11)