Olam Ha-Ba: The Afterlife
Judaism believes in an afterlife but has little dogma about it
The Jewish afterlife is called Olam Ha-Ba (The World to Come)
Resurrection and reincarnation are within the range of traditional Jewish belief
Temporary (but not eternal) punishment after death is within traditional belief
Traditional Judaism firmly believes that death is
not the end of human existence. However, because Judaism is primarily focused
on life here and now rather than on the afterlife, Judaism does not have much
dogma about the afterlife, and leaves a great deal of room for personal
opinion. It is possible for an Orthodox Jew to
believe that the souls of the righteous dead go to a place similar to the
Christian heaven, or that they are reincarnated through many lifetimes, or that
they simply wait until the coming of the
messiah, when they will be resurrected.
Likewise, Orthodox Jews can believe that the souls of the wicked are tormented
by demons of their own creation, or that wicked souls are simply destroyed at
death, ceasing to exist.
Biblical References to the Afterlife
Some scholars claim that belief in the afterlife is a teaching that developed
late in Jewish history. It is true that the Torah
emphasizes immediate, concrete, physical rewards and punishments rather than
abstract future ones. See, for example, Lev. 26:3-9 and Deut. 11:13-15.
However, there is clear evidence in the Torah of belief in existence after
death. The Torah indicates in several places that the righteous will be
reunited with their loved ones after death, while the wicked will be excluded
from this reunion.
The Torah speaks of several noteworthy people being "gathered to their people."
See, for example, Gen. 25:8 (Abraham), 25:17
(Jacob), Deut. 32:50
(Moses and Aaron) II
Kings 22:20 (King Josiah). This gathering is described as a separate event from
the physical death of the body or the burial.
Certain sins are punished by the sinner being "cut off from his people." See,
for example, Gen. 17:14 and Ex. 31:14. This punishment is referred to as kareit
(kah-REHYT) (literally, "cutting off," but usually translated as "spiritual
excision"), and it means that the soul loses its portion in the World to Come.
Later portions of the Tanakh speak more clearly
of life after death and the World to Come. See Dan. 12:2, Neh. 9:5.
Resurrection and Reincarnation
Belief in the eventual resurrection of the dead is a fundamental belief of
traditional Judaism. It was a belief that distinguished the
Pharisees (intellectual ancestors of
Rabbinical Judaism) from the
Sadducees. The Sadducees rejected the concept,
because it is not explicitly mentioned in the
Torah. The Pharisees found the concept implied in
Belief in resurrection of the dead is one of
Rambam's 13 Principles of
Faith. The second blessing of the Shemoneh
Esrei prayer, which is recited three times daily, contains several
references to resurrection. (Note: the Reform
movement, which apparently rejects this belief, has rewritten the second
The resurrection of the dead will occur in the
messianic age, a time referred to in Hebrew as
the Olam Ha-Ba, the World to Come, but that term is also used to refer to the
spiritual afterlife. When the messiah comes to
initiate the perfect world of peace and prosperity, the righteous dead will be
brought back to life and given the opportunity to experience the perfected
world that their righteousness helped to create. The wicked dead will not be
There are some mystical schools of thought
that believe resurrection is not a one-time event, but is an ongoing process.
The souls of the righteous are reborn in to continue the ongoing process of
tikkun olam, mending of the world. Some sources indicate that reincarnation is
a routine process, while others indicate that it only occurs in unusual
circumstances, where the soul left unfinished business behind. Belief in
reincarnation is also one way to explain the traditional Jewish belief that
every Jewish soul in history was present at Sinai and agreed to the covenant
with G-d. (Another explanation: that the soul exists
before the body, and these unborn souls were present in some form at Sinai).
Belief in reincarnation is commonly held by many
Chasidic sects, as well as some other
Olam Ha-Ba: The World to Come
The spiritual afterlife is referred to in Hebrew as Olam Ha-Ba (oh-LAHM
hah-BAH), the World to Come, although this term is also used to refer to the
messianic age. The Olam Ha-Ba is another,
higher state of being.
In the Mishnah, one rabbi 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." Similarly, the Talmud says, "This world is like
the eve of Shabbat, and the Olam Ha-Ba is like
Shabbat. He who prepares on the eve of Shabbat will have food to eat on
Shabbat." We prepare ourselves for the Olam Ha-Ba through
Torah study and good deeds.
The Talmud states that all Israel has a share in
the Olam Ha-Ba. However, not all "shares" are equal. A particularly righteous
person will have a greater share in the Olam Ha-Ba than the average person. In
addition, a person can lose his share through wicked actions. There are many
statements in the Talmud that a particular
mitzvah will guarantee a person a place in the
Olam Ha-Ba, or that a particular sin will lose a person's share in the Olam
Ha-Ba, but these are generally regarded as hyperbole, excessive expressions of
approval or disapproval.
Some people look at these teachings and deduce that Jews try to "earn our way
into Heaven" by performing the mitzvot. This is a gross mischaracterization of
our religion. It is important to remember that unlike some religions, Judaism
is not focused on the question of how to get into heaven. Judaism is focused on
life and how to live it. Non-Jews frequently ask me, "do you really think
you're going to go to Hell if you don't do such-and-such?" It always catches me
a bit off balance, because the question of where I am going after death simply
doesn't enter into the equation when I think about the mitzvot. We perform the
mitzvot because it is our privilege and our sacred obligation to do so. We
perform them out of a sense of love and duty, not out of a desire to get
something in return. In fact, one of the first bits of ethical advice in Pirkei
Avot (a book of the Mishnah) is: "Be not like
servants who serve their master for the sake of receiving a reward; instead, be
like servants who serve their master not for the sake of receiving a reward,
and let the awe of Heaven [meaning G-d, not the
afterlife] be upon you."
Nevertheless, we definitely believe that your place in the Olam Ha-Ba is
determined by a merit system based on your actions, not by who you are or what
religion you profess. In addition, we definitely believe that humanity is
capable of being considered righteous in G-d's eyes, or at least good enough to
merit paradise after a suitable period of purification.
Do non-Jews have a place in Olam Ha-Ba? Although there are a few statements to
the contrary in the Talmud, the predominant view
of Judaism is that the righteous of all nations
have a share in the Olam Ha-Ba. Statements to the contrary were not based on
the notion that membership in Judaism was required to get into Olam Ha-Ba, but
were grounded in the observation that non-Jews were not righteous people. If
you consider the behavior of the surrounding peoples at the time that the
Talmud was written, you can understand the rabbis' attitudes. By the time of
Rambam, the belief was firmly entrenched that the
righteous of all nations have a share in the Olam Ha-Ba.
Gan Eden and Gehinnom
The place of spiritual reward for the righteous is often referred to in Hebrew
as Gan Eden (GAHN ehy-DEHN) (the Garden of Eden). This is not the same place
where Adam and Eve were; it is a place of spiritual perfection. Specific
descriptions of it vary widely from one source to another. One source says that
the peace that one feels when one experiences
Shabbat properly is merely one-sixtieth of the
pleasure of the afterlife. Other sources compare the bliss of the afterlife to
the joy of sex or the warmth of a sunny day. Ultimately, though, the living can
no more understand the nature of this place than the blind can understand color.
Only the very righteous go directly to Gan Eden. The average person descends to
a place of punishment and/or purification, generally referred to as Gehinnom
(guh-hee-NOHM) (in Yiddish, Gehenna), but
sometimes as She'ol or by other names. According to one
mystical view, every sin we commit creates an
angel of destruction (a demon), and after we die we are punished by the very
demons that we created. Some views see Gehinnom as one of severe punishment, a
bit like the Christian Hell of fire and brimstone. Other sources merely see it
as a time when we can see the actions of our lives objectively, see the harm
that we have done and the opportunities we missed, and experience remorse for
our actions. The period of time in Gehinnom does not exceed 12 months, and then
ascends to take his place on Olam Ha-Ba.
Only the utterly wicked do not ascend at the end of this period; their souls
are punished for the entire 12 months. Sources differ on what happens at the
end of those 12 months: some say that the wicked soul is utterly destroyed and
ceases to exist while others say that the soul continues to exist in a state of
consciousness of remorse.
This 12-month limit is repeated in many places in the
Talmud, and it is connected to the mourning
cycles and the recitation of Kaddish. See
Life, Death and Mourning.
Adin Steinsaltz's The Thirteen Petalled Rose
is a complete mystical cosmology written by one of the greatest Jewish scholars
alive today. It discusses the various levels of existence, the angels and
demons that are created by our actions, the concept of reincarnation, and many
other subjects of interest.
For an outline of Jewish thought on the afterlife, see Neil Gillman's The Death
of Death : Resurrection and Immortality in Jewish Thought
. Gillman is a Conservative rabbi and a professor of Jewish philosophy at the
Jewish Theological Seminary (a most important school for Conservative rabbis).
For information about the wide variety of Jewish views on what happens after
death, see Simcha Paull Raphael's book, Jewish Views of the Afterlife.
Raphael, a Reconstructionist rabbi, takes a historical approach to
life-after-death theories, exploring the views that predominated in each era of
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