Afterlife: Jewish Concepts
AFTERLIFE: JEWISH CONCEPTS
The concept of an afterlife in Judaism took shape gradually and was rarely cast into dogmatic or systematic form. The Jewish idea of the afterlife has focused upon belief in either corporeal resurrection or the immortality of the soul. While one or the other of these conceptions, and occasionally both together, has been present in every period in the history of Judaism, it can safely be said that these ideas underwent their most significant development during the rabbinic and medieval periods.
The Biblical Period
The notion of the afterlife in the Bible is decidedly vague. After death, the individual is described as going to Sheʾol, a kind of netherworld, from which he "will not ascend" (Jb. 7:9). God, however, is attributed with the power to revive the dead (Dt. 32:39, 1 Sm. 2:6), and the language of resurrection is several times used in a figurative sense, as in Ezekiel's vision of the dry bones (Ez. 37:1–4) and in the apocalypse of Isaiah (Is. 26:17–19) to describe the national restoration of the people of Israel. The earliest description of an eschatological resurrection of the dead is in Daniel 12:1–2, an apocalyptic text composed in the midst of the Antiochian persecutions (167–164 bce):
There shall be a time of trouble … ; and at that time your people shall be delivered, every one whose name shall be found written in the book. And many of those who sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake, some to everlasting life, and some to shame and everlasting contempt.
These verses probably do not imply a universal resurrection for all men but only for the righteous and the wicked of Israel. As some modern scholars have proposed, it is likely that the prominence the idea of resurrection began to assume in this period was a result of political and religious crises in which significant numbers of Jews suffered martyrdom. In order to maintain belief in God's justice and in his promises to the righteous that they would enjoy the restoration of Israel, it became necessary to extend the doctrine of reward and punishment beyond this life to the hereafter. (For an explicit statement of this rationale, see 2 Maccabees 12:42–45.)
The Hellenistic Age
The term ʿolam ha-baʾ ("the world to come"), in contrast to ʿolam ha-zeh ("this world"), first appears in the Hebrew Apocalypse of Enoch (71:15), a work composed between 164 and 105 bce, and throughout the Hellenistic period notions of an eschatological judgment and resurrection in the apocalyptic tradition begun with the Book of Daniel continued to develop in Palestinian Jewish literature. To be distinguished from this eschatological tradition is the conception of the immortality of the soul that was introduced into Diaspora Judaism under the influence of Greco-Roman culture. George Foot Moore succinctly characterized the difference between the two ideas of the afterlife:
on the one side [i.e., immortality] the dualism of body and soul, on the other [i.e., resurrection] the unity of man, soul and body. To the one the final liberation of the soul from the body, its prison-house or sepulchre, was the very meaning and worth of immortality; to the other the reunion of soul and body to live again in the completeness of man's nature. (Moore, 1927, p. 295)
The idea of immortality initially appears in Hellenistic Jewish literature in the Wisdom of Solomon (3:1–10, 5:15–16) and is more extensively developed in the writings of Philo Judaeus (d. 45–50 ce), who describes how the souls of the righteous return after death to their native home in heaven—or, in the case of rare individuals like the patriarchs, to the intelligible world of the ideas (Allegorical Interpretation 1.105–108; On Sacrifice 2.5). Although Philo's views were immensely influential in early Christian philosophy, they had no impact upon rabbinic Jewish thought as it developed in the subsequent centuries.
Belief in the resurrection of the dead is the cornerstone of rabbinic eschatology. Josephus Flavius (Jewish Antiquities 18.13–18; The Jewish War 2.154–165) and the Acts of the Apostles (23:6–9) both attribute such belief to the Pharisees, the rabbis' predecessors before 70 ce, and in one of the few dogmatic statements about the afterlife that exist in all rabbinic literature, the Mishnah explicitly states: "All Israel has a portion in the world-to-come" except "one who says, 'There is no resurrection of the dead'" (San. 10.1).
Rabbinic doctrine concerning reward and punishment in the hereafter is based upon belief in the reunion of the body and the soul before judgment. Although rabbinic thought was eventually influenced by Greco-Roman ideas about the existence of the soul as an independent entity, and although there exist some relatively late rabbinic opinions that attach greater culpability to the soul than to the body for a person's sins, there are no rabbinic sources that testify to belief in the immortality of the soul independent of the notion of corporeal resurrection. The unqualified importance that the latter article of faith held for the rabbis is reflected in the great exegetical efforts they made to find sources for it in the Torah (cf. Sifrei Dt., ed. L. Finkelstein, Berlin, 1939, no. 306, p. 341) and in the many references to resurrection that are found in the Targums. As testimony to God's faithfulness, the rabbis also made his power to revive the dead the subject of the second benediction in the ʿAmidah, the centerpiece of the Jewish liturgy, and they included several references to the resurrection in other prayers in the liturgy.
Aside from the dogma of resurrection, however, the rabbis held differing opinions about nearly every matter connected to the afterlife. In regard to retribution in the hereafter, the first-century houses of Hillel and Shammai agreed about the reward the righteous will receive and the punishment the wicked will suffer, but they disagreed about the fate of most men who are neither wholly righteous nor utterly wicked. According to the house of Shammai, the souls of these men will be immersed in purgatorial fires until they are purified; according to the house of Hillel, God in his mercy will spare them all punishment (Tosefta, San. 13.3). In a lengthy Talmudic discussion, some authorities propose that upon death the souls of the righteous are gathered in "a treasury beneath the throne of glory" or, alternatively, are given habitation in paradise, while the souls of the wicked are imprisoned and cast back and forth from the slings of destructive angels until they are cleansed of their sins. Still another opinion states that the soul lingers with the body even after death, "lamenting all seven days of mourning," and for the following year it ascends and descends, unable to relinquish completely its ties with the body (B.T., Shab. 152a–b). Other sources attribute varying degrees of consciousness to the dead (B.T., Ber. 18b–19a).
On such questions as whether Gentiles or the children of wicked Gentiles can enjoy a place in the world to come, second- and third-century rabbis disagreed (Tosefta, San. 13.1); the law was decided in the affirmative (see Maimonides' Mishneh Torach, Repentance 3.5).
Some rabbinic views about the afterlife reflect beliefs commonly held in the ancient world. While the rabbis stated unequivocally that every Israelite has a place in the world to come, they also believed that persons who suffered violent or otherwise untimely deaths might not be permitted to enjoy the afterlife. The rabbis did not, however, accept the pagan belief that the unburied are refused entrance to the hereafter. While there exist a number of cases in rabbinic literature in which life after death is promised in return for a pious deed, these are relatively exceptional. A statement like the one attributed to the tanna Meʾir (second century), in which he is reported to have vouchsafed a place in the world to come to any person who lives in the Land of Israel, speaks Hebrew, and recites the Shemaʿ prayer daily (Sifrei Dt., no. 333, p. 383), should be understood partly as a rhetorical expression meant to emphasize the importance of the deeds Meʾir encourages.
In general, the subject of the future world does not appear to have obsessed the rabbis or especially to have exercised their imaginations. While there must have existed among Jews many folk beliefs concerning life after death (some of which can be extrapolated from burial customs), few have been explicitly recorded. A striking exception is the view that the body will be resurrected from the luz, an almond-shaped bone at the top of the spine that otherwise will turn into a snake (Gn. Rab. 28.3). About the ecstatic pleasures or harrowing tortures awaiting the dead, rabbinic speculations were decidedly restrained. Gan ʿEden (the Garden of Eden), the rabbinic equivalent of paradise, is sometimes described as an earthly garden; at other times, as a heavenly one. Geihinnom (Gehenna), the equivalent of hell, derives its name from the valley of Ben Hinnom south of Jerusalem in which, during the time of the biblical monarchy, a pagan cult of child sacrifice was conducted, thus endowing the valley with everlasting infamy. The exact location of the eschatological Geihinnom, however, was the subject of differing opinions: some rabbis locate it in the depths of the earth (B.T., ʿEruv. 19a), others in the heavens or beyond the "mountains of darkness" (B.T., Tam. 32b); and there is even an isolated opinion that altogether denies the existence of Geihinnom as a place, defining it instead as a self-consuming fire that emerges from the bodies of the wicked and destroys them.
The reticence of rabbinic tradition about these subjects is summed up in a statement of the third-century Palestinian sage Yoḥanan bar Nappaḥaʾ: "All the prophets prophesied only about the days of the Messiah; but of the world to come, 'eye hath not seen it, O God' [Is. 64:4]" (B.T., San. 99a, Ber. 34b). Yoḥanan's Babylonian contemporary Rav (Abbaʾ bar Ayyvu) gives a more detailed description of what, at the least, will not be in the hereafter: "In the world to come, there is no eating, no drinking, no begetting of children, no bargaining or hatred or jealousy or strife; rather, the righteous will sit with crowns on their heads and enjoy the effulgence of the shekhinah, God's presence" (B.T., Ber. 17a). The rabbis usually imagined the world to come as the complete realization of all the ideals they valued most in this world. Thus, the Sabbath is once characterized as one-sixtieth of the world to come (B.T., Ber. 57b), and the late rabbinic midrash Seder Eliyyahu Rabbah records the opinion that in the hereafter there will be no sin or transgression, and all will occupy themselves with the study of Torah. The Midrash Eleh Ezkerah (Legend of the ten martyrs) concludes with a vivid description of the future world in which the purified souls of all the righteous are said to sit in the heavenly academy on golden thrones and to listen to ʿAqivaʾ ben Yosef preach on the matters of the day.
The Middle Ages
Between the eighth century and the fifteenth, Jewish views about the afterlife embraced virtually every position on the spectrum of conceivable beliefs, including extreme philosophical interpretations that altogether deny the existence of corporeal resurrection. The Spanish-Jewish philosopher Moses Maimonides (Mosheh ben Maimon, 1135/8–1204), in his Commentary on the Mishnah, criticizes several popular views of the world to come, all of which conceive of the eschatological bliss purely in material and sensual terms. German-Jewish pietistic literature of the twelfth and thirteenth centuries records numerous accounts of encounters with dead souls, visits to the otherworld, danses macabres, and other folk beliefs that were, to some degree, Judaized or otherwise rationalized. It is, however, in the literature of Jewish philosophy and Qabbalah (mysticism) that the most significant developments in Jewish eschatological thinking in the Middle Ages are to be found.
Most medieval Jewish philosophers conceived of the afterlife in terms of the immortality of the soul, which they then defined according to their individual philosophical views. For many of these philosophers, the notion of physical resurrection in the future world is clearly problematic, and although few dared to deny its status as a fundamental dogma of Jewish faith, they sometimes had to go to extreme lengths to reconcile it with their other ideas about existence in the hereafter.
Probably the most successful in doing this was the early medieval Babylonian philosopher and sage Saʿadyah Gaon (882–942), who, in The Book of Beliefs and Opinions, emphasizes the unity of body and soul. Saʿadyah foresees two resurrections, the first for the righteous alone at the beginning of the messianic age (when the wicked would be sufficiently punished by being left unresurrected) and the second for everyone else at the advent of the world to come. At this latter time, the wicked will be resurrected in order to be condemned to eternal suffering, while the righteous will pass into the future world, where they will enjoy a purely spiritual existence, sustained in bliss by a fine, luminous substance that will simultaneously serve as the instrument by which the wicked will be burned forever in punishment (Saʿadyah, Beliefs and Opinions 6.1, 6.7, 7.13).
After Saʿadyah, the eschatological doctrines of most Jewish philosophers can be categorized by their orientation as either Neoplatonic or Aristotelian. For Jewish Neoplatonists—including Yitsḥaq Yisraʾeli (d. 955/6), Shelomoh ibn Gabirol (d. 1058), Baḥye ibn Paquda (eleventh century), and Yehudah ha-Levi (d. 1141)—beatitude in the world to come was understood as the climax of the soul's ascent toward the godhead and its union with Wisdom. Some writers speak of this state of bliss as a divine gift; according to certain views, it can be attained even in this world if the philosopher can free himself from the influence of the flesh in order to devote his soul entirely to the pursuit of the knowledge of God.
In contrast, Jewish Aristotelian philosophers treated the soul as the acquired intellect and therefore defined the ultimate felicity as a state of "conjunction" between the acquired intellect of the individual philosopher and the universal Active Intellect. Immortality was understood by them mainly as the intellectual contemplation of God. Like their Muslim counterparts, the Jewish Aristotelians disagreed over such issues as whether this state of conjunction can be attained in this world or solely in the next and whether the soul in its immortal state will preserve its individual identity or lose it in the collective unity of the impersonal Active Intellect.
Maimonides, the most celebrated Jewish Aristotelian, appears to adapt conflicting opinions on these questions (Guide of the Perplexed 1.74 and 3.54). Although he lists the dogma of resurrection as the thirteenth fundamental of Jewish faith, he also writes that "in the world to come the body and the flesh do not exist but only the souls of the righteous alone" (Code of Law: Repentance 3.6). In Maimonides' own lifetime, this extreme formulation elicited much criticism and was sometimes interpreted as denying corporeal resurrection. To defend himself, Maimonides eventually wrote his Treatise on Resurrection, in which he distinguishes between existence in the messianic age and in the world to come. In the former, "those persons whose souls will return to their bodies will eat, drink, marry, and procreate, and then die after enjoying long lives like those characteristic of the messianic age"; in the world to come, the souls alone of the previously resurrected persons will be restored, and they will now enjoy eternal and purely spiritual existence. Maimonides' distinction between the two periods is unique, however; in fact, the notion of corporeal resurrection so poorly fits his general philosophy, with its overall emphasis upon the purely spiritual nature of true bliss, that some modern scholars have questioned whether Maimonides' repeated affirmations of dogmatic belief in resurrection were solely concessions to tradition and popular sentiment, motivated perhaps by fear of being persecuted for heresy.
A very different criticism of the Maimonidean position was put forward in the fourteenth century by the philosopher Ḥasdai Crescas in The Light of the Lord. Crescas criticizes Maimonides' intellectualism and proposes that salvation comes to the soul through love of God (2.6, 3.3). A century later, Yosef Albo (d. 1444) accepted the Maimonidean chronology for the afterlife but also argued with his predecessor's intellectualism, claiming that practice, not just knowledge, of God's service makes the soul immortal (Book of Principles 4.29–30). Still more revealing as to the changes in Jewish eschatology that occurred over the centuries is Albo's characterization of resurrection as a "dogma accepted by our nation," but not "a fundamental or a derivative principle of divine law in general or of the law of Moses in particular" (1.23).
Unlike medieval Jewish philosophers, Jewish mystics in the Middle Ages had no difficulty with the concept of resurrection or other such aspects of eschatological doctrine. Quite the opposite, these topics were among their favorites. In voluminous writings, the mystics described the fate of the resurrected souls, imagined the precise details of their existence in the afterlife, and charted its chronology in relation to the sefirot, or divine emanations.
The Spanish exegete Moses Nahmanides (Mosheh ben Naḥman, c. 1194–1270) devotes considerable effort in the Gate of the Reward to reconciling a mystical view of the afterlife with Maimonidean eschatology. Nahmanides posits the existence of three distinct worlds that follow this one: (1) a world of souls, roughly equivalent to the rabbinic Gan ʿEden and Geihinnom, which the soul enters immediately after death to be rewarded or punished; (2) a future world that is synonymous with the messianic age and will culminate in a final judgment and resurrection; and (3) the world to come, in which "the body will become like the soul and the soul will be cleaving to knowledge of the Most High."
A second stage in the history of qabbalistic eschatology began with the appearance of the Zohar (completed in approximately 1300), which describes the afterlife in terms of the separate fates of the three parts of the soul, the nefesh, the ruaḥ, and the neshamah. Since only the first two were considered to be susceptible to sin, they alone were subject to punishment. The neshamah in its unsullied state was believed to be stored up after death in a special place, often called the tseror ha-ḥayyim, "the bundle of life" (a term borrowed from 1 Samuel 25:29), which was sometimes identified with one of the sefirot. Because the doctrine of the preexistence of the soul was also widely accepted in these qabbalistic circles, the soul's final sojourn among the sefirot could be seen as simply a return to its birthplace.
Probably the most unusual aspect of qabbalistic eschatology is the belief in gilgul, or metempsychosis, the transmigration of souls after death. This belief gained increasing prominence in qabbalistic thought from the thirteenth century onward. Originally considered a unique punishment for extraordinary sins (particularly of a sexual kind), gilgul came to be viewed, paradoxically, as an exemplary instance of God's mercy, since the chance to be reborn gave its victims an opportunity to correct their sins and thus restore themselves as spiritual beings. As a form of punishment, however, the concept of gilgul conflicted with the idea of Geihinnom—a conflict that was never successfully resolved—and in later Qabbalah, the notion of gilgul gradually became a principle wherein everything in the world, from inorganic matter to the angels, was believed to be in a state of constant flux and metamorphosis. Thus, in order to repair the damage they had done in their earlier existence, certain souls were supposed to have been reincarnated at later moments in history that were similar to those in which they had first lived; accordingly, David, Bathsheba, and Uriah were considered to be the gilgulim of Adam, Eve, and the serpent; Moses and Jethro, those of Cain and Abel. In the later Middle Ages, the notion of transmigration was eventually absorbed into folk belief. By the sixteenth century, the dibbuq (dybbuk), which originally was simply the name for a demon, had come to represent a soul whose sins were so enormous that they could not be repaired even through gilgul. The poor soul consequently wandered through the world in desperate search of refuge in helpless living persons, whom it subsequently possessed and tormented.
The Modern Period
With the change in religious temper that occurred during the Enlightenment and has deepened since then, the problem of the afterlife has lost much of its compelling urgency for Jewish theology. Orthodox Judaism, to be sure, maintains the rabbinic dogmatic belief in resurrection as part of its conception of the messianic age, and it similarly preserves the liturgical references in their original form. In contrast, the Pittsburgh Platform (1885) of the Reform movement in America expressly rejected "as ideas not rooted in Judaism the beliefs both in bodily resurrection, and in Gehenna and Eden as abodes for eternal punishment and reward." In general, when the afterlife is considered today, it is usually spoken about in terms of personal immortality, a heritage of the medieval philosophical temper, and as good an indication as any of the gilgulim through which the concept has passed in the course of Jewish history.
There exists no single book or study that treats the entire history of Jewish eschatological thought through the ages. On the notion of the afterlife in the Bible and in the apocryphal and pseudepigraphic literature, R. H. Charles's classic A Critical History of the Doctrine of a Future Life in Israel, in Judaism, and in Christianity (1899; reprint, New York, 1979) is still informative, but its value has largely been superseded by George W. E. Nichelsburg's Resurrection, Immortality, and Eternal Life in Inter Testamental Judaism (Cambridge, Mass., 1972).
For early rabbinic eschatology, the clearest and most comprehensive treatment remains George Foot Moore's Judaism in the First Centuries of the Christian Era, the Age of Annaim, 3 vols. (Cambridge, Mass., 1927–1930). Volume 2 contains (on pages 279–395) a useful discussion of the methodological problems involved in the study of rabbinic concepts of the afterlife and their historical background as well as translations of most of the relevant sources. An indispensable complement to Moore's summary, particularly for Greco-Roman parallels to the rabbinic concepts, is Saul Lieberman's "Some Aspects of After Life in Early Rabbinic History," in Harry Austryn Wolfson Jubilee Volume (English Section), vol. 2 (Jerusalem, 1965). For other special aspects of rabbinic eschatology, see Arthur Marmorstein's two essays on the afterlife in his Studies in Jewish Theology (London, 1950) and Martha Himmelfarb's Tours of Hell: An Apocalyptic Form in Jewish and Christian Literature. (Philadelphia, 1983).
On medieval philosophical views, the single book to attempt a comprehensive survey is Julius Guttmann's Philosophies of Judaism: The History of Jewish Philosophy from Biblical Times to Franz Rosenzweig, translated by David W. Silverman (New York, 1964), in which see the index, s.v. Afterlife. Moses Maimonides's Treatise on Resurrection has been translated into English by Fred Rosner (New York, 1982), and selected essays dealing with Maimonidean eschatology and its repercussions have been helpfully collected and edited by Jacob Sienstag in Eschatology in Maimonidean Thought: Messianism, Resurrection, and the World to Come (New York, 1983), which also contains a bibliography.
On qabbalistic views of the afterlife, the most important discussions are those of Gershom Scholem in Major Trends in Jewish Mysticism, 3d ed. (New York, 1961), and Kabbalah (New York, 1973). For folk beliefs concerning life after death, see Joshua Trachtenberg's Jewish Magic and Superstition (1939; reprint, New York, 1982), pp. 61–68.
Avery-Peck, Alan J., and Jacob Neusner, eds. Judaism in Late Antiquity, Part Four: Death, Afterlife, and the World-to-Come. Leiden, 2000.
Eylon Ripsman, Dina. Reincarnation in Jewish Mysticism and Gnosticism. Lewiston, N.Y., 2003.
Hallote, Rachel S. Death, Burial and Afterlife in the Biblical World: How the Israelites and Their Neighbors Treated the Dead. Chicago, 2001.
Lang, Bernhard. "Afterlife: Ancient Israel's Changing Vision of the World Beyond." Bible Review 4 (1988): 12–23.
Raphael, Simcha Paull. Jewish Views of the Afterlife. Northvale, N.J., 1994.
Scholem, Gershom Gerhard. On the Mystical Shape of the Godhead: Basic Concepts in the Kabbalah. Translated by Joachim Neugroschel. Edited by Jonathan Chipman. New York, 1991.
Shekalim, Rami. Torat ha-nefesh veha-gilgul be-reshit ha-kabalah. Tel Aviv, 1998.
Wexelman, David M. The Jewish Concept of Reincarnation and Creation: Based on the Writings of R. Chaim Vital. Northvale, N.J., 1999.
David Stern (1987)