What does Judaism teach about the afterlife?
Jewish sacred texts and literature have little to say about what happens after death. This may seem surprising to non-Jews, since the sacred texts of Christianity and Islam (both of which have their foundations in Judaism) elaborate rather fully about the afterlife.
But Judaism is much more focused on actions than beliefs, so it is actually to be expected that its prophets and sages have not spent as much time on speculations about the world to come as elaborations on the mitzvot to be performed in this life.
The Torah and Talmud alike focus on the purpose of earthly life, which is to fulfill one's duties to God and one's fellow man. Succeeding at this brings reward, failing at it brings punishment. Whether rewards and punishments continue after death, or whether anything at all happens after death, is not as important.
Despite the subject's general exclusion from the Jewish sacred texts, however, Judaism does incorporate views on the afterlife. Yet unlike the other monotheistic religions, no one view has ever been officially agreed upon, and there is much room for speculation.
This section will begin with a look at biblical texts addressing the afterlife, then explore various Jewish views on subjects such as the resurrection of the dead, judgment, heaven and hell, and the messianic age.
The Hebrew word Olam Ha-Ba ("the world to come") is used for both the messianic age (see below) and the afterlife (see Gan Eden, below). The world to come is important and something to look forward to. A Mishnah passage says, "This world is like a lobby before the Olam Ha-Ba. Prepare yourself in the lobby so that you may enter the banquet hall." The tractate Moed Katan teaches, "This world is only like a hotel. The world to come is like a home."
Yet it is also emphasized that this world provides the ability and privilege of doing good works and performing the mitzvot: "Rabbi Yaakov also used to say, 'Better one hour in repentance and good deeds in this world than all the life in the world to come. And better one hour of tranquility of spirit in the world to come than all the life of this world.'" (Pirkei Avos, Chapters of the Fathers)
For the most part, the Torah describes the afterlife in vague terms, many of which may simply be figurative ways of speaking about death as it is observed by the living.
An early common theme is that death means rejoining one's ancestors. Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Moses, and other patriarchs are "gathered to their people" after death (see Gen. 25:8, 25:17, 35:29, 49:33; Deut. 42:50; 2 Ki. 22:20). In contrast, the wicked are "cut off (kareit) from their people" (Gen. 17:14; Ex. 31:14). Other imagery emphasizes the finality of death: the dead are like dust returning to dust (Genesis; Ecc. 3:19-20) or water poured out on the ground (2 Samuel 14:14).
Another recurring biblical image of the afterlife is as a shadowy place called Sheol. It is a place of darkness (Psalm 88:13, Job 10:21, 22) and silence (Psalm 115:17), located in low places (Numbers 16:30, Ezekiel 31:14, Psalm 88:7, Lamentations 3:55; Jonah 2:7, Job 26:5). In 1 Samuel 2:6, God puts people in She'ol. In Isaiah 14:9-10, the departed in Sheol rise up to greet leaders who have now been brought low as they are. The author of Psalm 88 laments his impending death with these words:
I am sated with misfortune; I am at the brink of Sheol.
I am numbered with those who go down to the Pit;
I am a helpless man
abandoned among the dead,
like bodies lying in the grave
of whom You are mindful no more,
and who are cut off from Your care.
You have put me at the bottom of the Pit,
in the darkest places, in the depths.
Taken together, these early biblical descriptions of death seem to indicate that the soul continues to exist in some way after death, but not consciously. Later in the Torah, the concept of conscious life after death begins to develop. Daniel 12:2 declares, "And many of them that sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake, some to everlasting life and some to reproaches and everlasting abhorrence." Neh. 9:5.
More developed concepts of the resurrection of the dead and afterlife seem to have entered Judaism under Hellenistic influence after the Torah was completed. It became one of the fundamental beliefs in rabbinic Judaism, the intellectual successors of the Pharisees. The Sadduccees, familiar to New Testament readers as those who denied the resurrection, were an exception. As seen above, the resurrection of the dead is one of Maimonides' "13 Articles of Belief," and the frequently-recited Shemoneh Esrei prayer contains several references to the resurrection.
How this resurrection might occur has been a matter of speculation. Rabbi Hiyya ben Joseph suggested that "the dead will come up through the ground and rise up in Jerusalem... and the righteous will rise up fully clothed" (Babylonian Talmud, tractate Ketubot 111b). Saadia ben Yosef al-Fayyumi (892-942 C.E.), the head of the academy of Sura, offered this explanation:
Even fire, which causes things to be burned so quickly, merely effects the separation of the parts of a thing...causing the dust part to return to ashes....It does not however, bring about the annihilation of anything. Nor is it conceivable that anyone should have the power to annihilate anything to the point where it would vanish completely except its Creator, who produced it out of nothing.
Since then the matter can be thus explained, in view of the fact that none of the constituent parts of the human being who has been devoured could have been annihilated, they must all have been set aside, wheresoever they may have taken up, whether it be on land or sea, until such time as they are restored in their entirety. Nor would such restoration be any more remarkable than their original creation.
Today, most traditional Jewish movements accept the concept of the resurrection of the dead. A notable exception is Reform Judaism, which official rejects the doctrine.
Traditional Judaism includes belief in both heaven and hell, as we will see below. How is one's destination decided? The School of Shammai offered this description:
There will be three groups on the Day of Judgment: one of thoroughly righteous people, one of thoroughly wicked people and one of people in between. The first group will be immediately inscribed for everlasting life; the second group will be doomed in Gehinnom [Hell], as it says, "And many of them that sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake, some to everlasting life and some to reproaches and everlasting abhorrence" [Daniel 12:2], the third will go down to Gehinnom and squeal and rise again, as it says, "And I will bring the third part through the fire, and will refine them as silver is refined, and will try them as gold is tried. They shall call on My name and I will answer them" [Zechariah 13:9]... [Babylonian Talmud, tractate Rosh Hashanah 16b-17a]
The school of Hillel suggested a more merciful view, in which the middle group are sent directly to Gan Eden (Heaven) instead of Gehinnom after death. Rabbi Hanina added that all who go down to Gehinnom will go up again, except adulterers, those who put their fellows to shame in public, and those who call their fellows by an obnoxious name [Babylonian Talmud, tractate Baba Metzia 58b].
The Talmud teaches that all Israel will have a share in Olam Ha-Ba, but makes some notable exceptions:
All Israelites have a share in the world-to-come... [However], these are they that have no share in the world-to-come: one who says there is no resurrection of the dead prescribed in the Torah, and that the Torah is not from Heaven, and an Epicurean. (Sanhedrin 10:1)
General Jewish belief is that one need not be Jewish to enjoy Heaven. "Moses Maimonides, echoing the Tosefta to Sanhedrin, maintained that the pious of all the nations of the world have a portion in the world-to-come [Mishneh Torah, Repentance 3:5]."
In Judaism, the eternal destination for the righteous is Gan Eden (the Garden of Eden). It is generally described as a place of great joy and peace. Talmudic imagery includes: sitting at golden banquet tables (Babylonian Talmud, tractate Taanit 25a) or at stools of gold (Babylonian Talmud, tractate Ketubot 77b), enjoying lavish banquets (Babylonian Talmud, tractate Baba Batra 75a), or celebrating the Sabbath, enjoying sunshine and sexual intercourse (Babylonian Talmud, tractate Berachot 57b).
On the other hand, other sages have offered a more spiritual view of Gad Eden. Rav suggested that there will be neither eating nor drinking; no procreation of children or business transactions, no envy or hatred or rivalry; but sitting enthroned, their crowns on their heads, enjoying the Shechinah [Babylonian Talmud, tractate Berachot 17a (3rd century CE)] . Maimonides agreed, explaining:
In the world to come, there is nothing corporeal, and no material substance; there are only souls of the righteous without bodies -- like the ministering angels... The righteous attain to a knowledge and realization of truth concerning God to which they had not attained while they were in the murky and lowly body. (Mishneh Torah, Repentance 8)
The Jewish concept of the afterlife for the wicked is less developed. Known as Gehinnom (Gehenna in Yiddish) or Sheo'l, it has its foundations in the dark pit described in the Torah (see above) and an actual place where a pagan cult conducted rituals included burning children (see the description in II Kings 23:10 and Jeremiah 7:31).
Gehinnom is the postmortem destination of unrighteous Jews and Gentiles. In one reference, the souls in Gehinnom are punished for up to 12 months. After the appropriate period of purification, the righteous continue on to Gan Eden (Rabbi Akiba and Babylonian Talmud, tractate Eduyot 2:10). The wicked endure the full year of punishment then are either annihilated ("After 12 months, their body is consumed and their soul is burned and the wind scatters them under the soles of the feet of the righteous (Rosh Hashanah 17a)") or continue to be punished.
This belief is the basis for the Jewish practice of mourning and asking blessings on deceased loved ones for only 11 months (one would not wish to imply that the departed needed the full 12 months of purification).
The messianic age is a period in human history that will be initiated when the messiah comes. At that time the righteous dead will be resurrected, but the wicked will not. The messianic age will be a time of peace and the restoration of the land and organizations of Israel.
- Tracey R. Rich, "Olam Ha-Ba" at Judaism 101.
- George Robinson, Essential Judaism (Pocket Books, 2000).
- Rabbi Amy Scheinerman, "Is There Life After Death?" Scheinerman's Home Page.