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Soul, Immortality of


In the Bible

Unlike the gods of Mesopotamia and Canaan, e.g., Apsu, Tiamat, Baal, and Mot, who, while they could not die a natural death, could incur a violent one, the God of Israel is the living God (Hos. 2:1; Ps. 18:47). His lordship extends from heaven to Sheol (Ps. 139:8; Job 26:6); He puts to death and brings to life (i Sam. 2:6; i Kings 17:17–22; ii Kings 4:18–37); and He can preserve His faithful from Sheol (Ps. 16:10).

Among the peoples of the Ancient Near East, the Egyptians were very optimistic about the afterlife. They believed that the dead lived a life almost identical with that in this world (cf. The Book of the Dead, 110). The Babylonians, on the other hand, were pessimistic about life after death. The average human being had no means of escaping his fate: one day he would die and descend to the netherworld, which was governed by a god and goddess of death. There were, however, special cases in which man could attain immortality. Theoretically, man could become immortal, or at least rejuvenated, by means of a mysterious food or drink (cf. Adapa, frag. b; Pritchard, Texts, 101–2; Gilgamesh, Tablet 11, lines 265–90, Pritchard, Texts, 96). Immortality could be acquired by a special favor of the gods in their assembly (see Gilgamesh, Tablet 11, lines 190–8). A god could also resurrect the dead: Ishtar threatens the gatekeeper of the netherworld, saying: "I will raise up the dead … so that the dead will outnumber the living" (Descent of Ishtar, line 20; Pritchard, Texts, 107).

In the Bible two persons are said to have left this world in a special way: Enoch "was taken by God" (Gen. 5:24) and Elijah "was taken up to heaven in a whirlwind" (ii Kings 2; cf. Ps. 49:16). The exact implication of these traditions is not clear.

The crucial passage of Proverbs 12:28 has been translated differently through the centuries. Saadiah Gaon already understood it as immortality, as did F. Delitzsch many centuries later. M. Dahood (in: Biblica, 41 (1960), 176–81) related the Hebrew אַל מָוֶת ʿ al mawet) in this verse to the Ugaritic blmt, "not dying."

It is also possible that the Masoretic Text of Proverbs 14:3 contains the hope of a better life than that in Sheol (cf. Ps. 16:9–11; 73:24; A.W. van der Weiden, in: vt, 20 (1970), 339–50). However in Daniel 12:2 the resurrection to eternal life for some is unequivocally predicted. Only in the post-biblical period did a clear and firm belief in the immortality of the soul take hold (e.g., Wisd. 3) and become one of the cornerstones of the Jewish and Christian faiths. See *Death; *Resurrection.

In the Talmud

The rabbis of the Talmud believed in the continued existence of the soul after death, but differed with regard to the nature of this existence. On the one hand, the view was widespread that the righteous person immediately after his death enters the Garden of Eden, where he is vouchsafed to be in a special section of the garden (Shab. 152b; bm 83b), while the wicked go to *Gehinnom (Ḥag. 15a; Ber. 28b; Er. 19a; whether in corporeal form or not is not mentioned). On the other hand, the view is expressed that the soul of man – at death – is severed from any connection with the body and its pleasures, ascends upward, and is gathered into "the treasury" beneath "the throne of glory" (Shab. 152b), where it had its pre-existential origin in the upper heaven called "Aravot"; "where are right and judgment and righteousness, the treasures of life, the treasures of peace, the treasures of blessings, the souls of the righteous, the spirits and souls yet to be born, and the dew wherewith the Holy One will eventually revive the dead" (Ḥag. 12b); while the souls of the wicked "continue to be imprisoned" (Shab. 152b), are "cast about on the earth" (Eccles. R. 3:21; arn1 12:50), and are cast from the slings of destructive angels (Shab. 152b).

Alongside the belief in the heavenly "treasury" to which the soul returns after death, the ancient belief was widespread in the talmudic era (and later) that the soul of man after death continues with the body in the netherworld, either for a brief or for an extended period. In one passage (tj, mk 3:5, 82b; tj, Yev. 16:1, 15c) R. Levi says that the soul hovers over the body for three days, hoping that it will return to it, and departing only when the hope is belied (a belief found also in Zoroastrianism). Elsewhere it states that "a man's soul mourns for him all the seven days of mourning" (Shab. 152a), and also that "for full 12 months the body continues to exist and the soul ascends and descends" and only after this period, when the body is decomposed, "the soul ascends nevermore to descend" (Shab. 152b). Similarly, there is neither uniformity nor consistency concerning the extent of the consciousness retained by the dead. In one passage it is stated that the dead hear everything spoken in their presence until the grave is sealed (ibid.), while elsewhere it is stated that the dead are aware (apparently eternally) of their own pain ("worms are as painful to the dead as a needle in the flesh of the living," Shab. 13b) and shame. For this reason it was forbidden to walk in a cemetery wearing *tefillin or reading from a Sefer Torah, since it seemed like a mockery of the dead (Ber. 18a). It is related that R. Ḥiyya and R. Jonathan were walking in a cemetery, and Ḥiyya told Jonathan to gather up his *ẓiẓit so that the dead should not say: "Tomorrow they are coming to join us and now they insult us" (ibid.).

The dead even have contact with the living and direct them in worldly affairs: the father of Samuel appeared to him, on returning from "the heavenly yeshivah," and revealed to him where the money of orphans, which had been deposited with him, was to be found (Ber. 18b); and similarly a woman innkeeper informed Zeiri after her death where the money he deposited with her was lying (ibid.). The dead also hold conversations with the living: Some men digging in the field of R. Naḥman heard the sound of the deep breathing of a corpse, and when Naḥman came he conversed with him (Shab. 152b). Deceased women adorn themselves in their clothes and ornaments. The innkeeper who came into contact with Zeiri requested that her mother send her a comb and cosmetics through a woman about to die. Another complained to her neighbor that she was unable to rise and wander about the upper worlds because she was buried in a matting of reeds (Ber. 18b). The dead wander about and hear "from behind the curtain" what was decreed upon the living (ibid.). The sages spoke especially highly of the power of the righteous after their death. According to Simeon b. Lakish, the sole difference between the living righteous and the dead is the faculty of speech (tj, Av. Zar. 3:1). Likewise they said that "if a statement is said in a person's name in this world, after his death his lips move in the grave" (Sanh. 90b). It is also related of Judah ha-Nasi that after his death he used to visit his house every eve of the Sabbath, and only ceased to do so out of respect for the scholars (Ket. 103a). All these views, however, did not prevent others from saying that "if one makes remarks about the dead, it is like making remarks about a stone" (Ber. 19a) and that at the most the dead know their own pain (Ber. 18b) but not what transpires in the world.

[Yehoshua M. Grintz]

In Medieval Jewish Philosophy

The doctrine of the immortality of the soul, as it appears in the writings of *Philo as well as in the works of some later Jewish philosophers, shows strong influences of Platonism (see Plato and *Platonism), which saw a complete separation between body and *soul.


Philo's statements that the human soul is mortal are usually ambiguous, but he often refers to the various ranks which the souls achieve after death. According to Philo, Abraham achieved the rank of the angels, which are incorporeal, Isaac ranks higher, and Moses achieved a yet higher rank, since he is close to God.


Saadiah Gaon held the opinion – apparently according to views of the Muslim *Kalām, which reflected a non-Platonic Greek philosophical tradition – that the soul is "a more pure, transparent and simple substance than are the spheres," i.e., that the soul is a fine body. At the time of death, the soul separates from the body of man, and "during the first period after its separation from the body, however, the soul exists for a while without a fixed abode until the body has decomposed; that is to say, until its parts have disintegrated. It consequently experiences during this period much misery, occasioned by the knowledge of the worms and the vermin and the like that pass through the body, just as a person would be pained by the knowledge that a house in which he used to live is in ruins and that thorns and thistles grow in it" (Book of Beliefs and Opinions, 6:7). Saadiah had no clear conception of the condition of the soul during the transition period from the time of death until the resurrection of the dead, which was characteristic of many medieval Jewish thinkers, and illustrates their difficulties in reconciling the notion of the immortality of the soul with a belief in resurrection. According to Saadiah, the soul is reunited with its body at the time of resurrection and this combined state continues thereafter.

isaac israeli

Unlike Saadiah, his older contemporary, Isaac *Israeli, was deep within the Platonic tradition. According to him, the soul is an incorporeal substance. Man's soul does not die with the death of his body: "he becomes spiritual, and will be joined in union to the light which is created, without mediator, by the power of God, and will become one that exalts and praises the Creator for ever and in all eternity. This then will be his paradise and the goodness of his reward, and the bliss of his rest, his perfect rank and unsullied beauty" (Book of Definitions, see A. Altmann and S.M. Stern, Isaac Israeli (1958), 25–26). While the upper souls are above the heavens, the lower ones are beneath them and are tortured by fire, according to a belief which was also held in Greco-Roman paganism.

solomon ibn gabirol

A similar Platonic spirit pervades the writings of Solomon ibn *Gabirol in his book Mekor Ḥayyim. He does not express a clear opinion in this book with regard to the immortality of the soul, but he does mention the idea of Platonic recollection (see S. Pines, in: Tarbiz, 27 (1958), 231). One section of Mekor Ḥayyim, which is cited by Moses ibn *Ezra, attests more clearly than does the Latin translation to the central role played by Platonic recollection in the thought of Ibn Gabirol.

This idea, if accepted simply, presupposes a belief in the existence of the soul prior to its conjunction with the body, since it assumes that it is this conjunction which caused the soul to forget its previous knowledge, which it may again recollect. In contrast to this view, in his poem Keter Malkhut Ibn Gabirol expresses a traditional Jewish outlook when he states that the souls of the righteous rest beneath the throne of glory.

joseph ibn Ẓaddik

Joseph ibn *Ẓaddik was influenced by both Ibn Gabirol and Israeli. According to him, the soul is incorporeal, existed before its conjunction with the body, and continues to exist after the passing of the body. If the soul attained the necessary level of knowledge, it returns after death to its place of origin, i.e., to the world of the intelligibles; but if it remained ignorant, it is pulled by the motion of the celestial sphere and tortured by fire. It is then likened to a traveler who cannot find the way back to his homeland.

abraham bar hiyya

Abraham bar Ḥiyya describes the intelligible soul by the term "form" (Meditation of the Sad Soul (1969), 46ff.) which continues to exist even after its separation from the body. Abraham b. Ḥiyya has a multiple account of what happens to the soul after death. If the man was wise and righteous, his soul ascends to the upper world "and attaches itself to the pure high form, enters into it and never separates from it." If he was wise and wicked, his soul arrives after death at the world of the spheres "and it revolves under the circles of the sun, whose heat appears to it as an image of a perpetually scorching fire, and it has neither the right nor the power to remove itself from the heavenly sphere in order to attach itself to the supernal light." If the man was ignorant and righteous, his soul returns "a second and third time" to bodies until it acquires wisdom and is able "to separate from the air of the lower world and to ascend above it; and its righteousness or wickedness at that particular time will determine the order of its ascent and its ultimate rank." If the man was ignorant and wicked, his soul too will die "a death of a beast and an animal."

judah halevi

According to Judah *Halevi (Kuzari, 1:103), Judaism is "the religion which insures the immortality of the soul after the demise of the body." It is nonetheless clear that the character of the Jewish scholar in the work (who expresses Judah Halevi's thought) wants to broaden and crystallize this idea. Thus, his interlocutor, the king of the Khazars, is able to point out, with certain justification: "The anticipations of other religions are grosser and more sensuous than yours" (ibid., 1:104).

It appears that Judah Halevi realized the difficulty with which his successors were to contend, namely, that Scripture does not express clearly the notion of the immortality of the soul. In answer, Judah Halevi was able to state that the nature of the Jewish prophets and godly men approaches, even in their lifetime, the condition of souls in their immortality (ibid., 1:109).

abraham ibn daud

Abraham ibn *Daud is considered – with certain justification – as the first Spanish Jewish Aristotelian. It appears, however, that because of *Avicenna's influence on him, he was not an orthodox Aristotelian. Like Avicenna, Ibn Daud maintains that the individual human soul continues to exist after the death of the body (Emunah Ramah, ed. by S. Weil (1852, ch. 7, 34–39). Contrary to Avicenna, however, he speaks at great length about the condition of the souls after death.


The great majority of the Spanish Aristotelians, both Jewish and Muslim, did not follow Avicenna and did not believe in the immortality of the individual soul. Nothing remains of man after death, they held, except his intellect, which bears no trace of individuality and the exact nature of which was a source of controversy among them (see *Intellect). Judah Halevi had already established – possibly on the basis of the views of his Muslim contemporary, *Avempace, which were known to him – that the philosophers do not affirm the immortality of the individual soul. It may be thought that even *Maimonides, to the extent that he was a philosopher, believed in the immortality of the intellect rather than of the soul. It is possible to find traces, and even clear statements, of this idea in his Guide of the Perplexed.

In his Mishneh Torah, which essentially deals not with philosophic ideas but rather with halakhah and principles of faith, Maimonides states that in the *olam ha-ba there are no bodies, but only the souls of the righteous, without body, serving as the angels of God. Since there are no bodies in the world to come, there are in it neither eating, nor drinking, nor any of the things which human bodies need in this world. Neither do the souls perform any of the actions of the body, such as sitting and standing, sleeping and dying, weeping and laughing. It is obvious that there is no body since there is no eating and drinking (Yad, Teshuvah, 8:2). It becomes manifest, however, that these things refer not to the soul, as it was conceived by the Aristotelians, but to the intellect, which can be deduced from Maimonides' statements that the soul referred to in this connection is not the soul which is needed for the body, but is rather the form of the soul which is the knowledge it derives from God according to its ability. This is the form which is called "soul" in this reference (ibid., 8:3). This rejection of individual immortality, which is in accordance with the teachings of Averroes, caused a furor among Jews as well as among the 13th-century Christian scholastics and gave rise to bitter dispute. Echoes of the Christian notions, which reject the opinion of Averroes, can be seen in the Tagmulei ha-Nefesh of Hillel of *Verona, who argued for individual immortality.

isaac albalag and hasdai crescas

Isaac *Albalag also affirms the immortality of the individual soul, but it is doubtful that this was his true opinion (see G. Vajda, Isaac Albalag (1960), 239–49). On the other hand, the position of Ḥasdai *Crescas on this matter is entirely clear. He directs harsh criticism against the views of the Aristotelians regarding the intellect and states that, since man is a spiritual being, his soul remains immortal after its separation from the body (Or Adonai, 2:6). According to his view, which rejected Aristotelian intellectualism and saw love and not knowledge as the highest good, the love between man and God is what determines the immortality of the soul. The souls of the righteous after death enjoy the splendor of the *Shekhinah, i.e., they attach themselves to God to an extent which was denied them while they were in the body, and their union with God is constantly being strengthened. When the soul is unable to reach this union (because of its sins), it suffers great sorrow, which is so complete in some souls that it leads to their total destruction (ibid., 3:3).

joseph albo

Joseph *Albo devoted a large section of his Sefer ha-Ikkarim (fourth treatise) to the question of the immortality of the soul. Unlike the Aristotelians, he maintains that the soul is a spiritual being, which has an independent existence, is not intellectual in nature, but is capable of attaining knowledge (4:29).

[Shlomo Pines]

In Modern Philosophy

moses mendelssohn

Outstanding among 18th-century works on the immortality of the soul is Moses *Mendelssohn's Phaedon oder ueber die Unsterblichkeit der Seele ("Phaedon or On the Immortality of the Soul," 1767). In its methodology, this work follows Plato's Phaedo, but its content is based on modern philosophy. In it, Mendelssohn attempts to answer the question: How would Socrates prove to himself and his friends the idea of the soul's immortality if he lived in modern times?

Mendelssohn rejects the theory that the soul, after its separation from the body, enters a state similar to sleep or fainting. All rational beings, he states, are destined to increase their perfection. The whole world was created for the sake of the existence of rational beings who progressively increase their perfection, and herein lies their bliss. It is not possible that these beings, who struggle for their perfection in this world, should be frustrated in these efforts in the world to come. This would be a contradiction of the order of the universe. It was not in vain that the Creator instilled in man a desire for eternal bliss. It is both possible and necessary that this desire should be fulfilled, despite all the setbacks and obstacles. In the same way that certain disorders in the physical world, such as storms, earthquakes, diseases, etc. are negated within the infinite totality of the cosmos, so in the realm of morality all the temporary disorders lead toward the eternal perfection. Even suffering reinforces a person's powers, without which he cannot attain moral bliss. It is impossible to know God's design. In order to understand the life of even one man, it would be necessary to view all life in its totality, and then we would not complain but would rather revere the creator's mercy and wisdom, which are revealed in the life of each intelligible being, when viewed in its totality.

moritz lazarus

In the 19th century, with a general change in the intellectual climate, the question of the immortality of the soul lessened in importance. Several Jewish thinkers attempted to show that Judaism is not concerned with the immortality of the individual after death.

Moritz *Lazarus deals with this question in his Ethik des Judentums (1898, para. 137ff.). In his opinion, the attitude of Judaism was summarized in two sayings of R. Jacob in Pirkei Avot (4:16, 17). One states: "This world is like a vestibule before the world to come: prepare thyself in the vestibule that thou mayest enter into the banqueting hall." Lazarus sees this saying's "weak side" in that it speaks only of the individual, while in the realm of ethics it is the society which plays the major role. This saying is based only on the philosophy of the "I," while true knowledge of man's fate can only be attained by a philosophy of "we." Thus Lazarus rejects completely the notion of individual immortality or, at least, he is not concerned with this notion. This attitude emerges even more clearly in Lazarus' treatment of R. Jacob's second saying, which is inverted by Lazarus to read as follows: "Better is one hour of bliss in the world to come than the whole life of this world; [but] better is one hour of repentance and good works in this world than the whole life of the world to come." Lazarus does not hesitate to change the saying in order to make it conform to his own emphasis on this world rather than the next.

hermann cohen

Hermann *Cohen also holds that Judaism views the soul's immortality as applying to the people as a whole rather than to the individual (Religion der Vernunft (1918), ch. 15). The people never dies, he states, but rather has an eternal continuing history. The individual soul is perpetuated by means of this history and is real only within the context of the continuity of the people. This concept of immortality is taught by the Bible, while the place of individual immortality is in the realm of mythology. Individual immortality only means that the individual is constantly required to strive for his moral perfection. True immortality of the soul is its spirit, i.e., the possibility and the obligation to effect the principles of truth and morality in this world. The soul is spirit – beyond this there is no need to think about man's fate after death.

aḤad ha-am

*Aḥad Ha-Am regards belief in immortality of the soul solely as a sign of weakness. Many people, he says, lack the courage to face death and, in old age, fall back on a belief in immortality to give the "I" back its "future," a future in which they will compensate for what was lacking in the past. Thus Aḥad Ha-Am ridicules a belief in the world to come and in the immortality of the soul (see his article Avar ve-Atid). In his article Ḥeshbon ha-Nefesh, Aḥad Ha-Am characterizes the belief in an afterlife as a "sickness of the spirit." He attributes the manifestation of this belief to the desire to escape from life during times of depression. This belief, he states, does nothing to encourage positive activity in life, since it teaches that man's fate on earth depends on his continued fate after death.

rabbi kook

In dealing with the question of death and immortality, A.I. *Kook holds that death is a defect in creation. The Jewish people is called upon to remove this taint from the world and to save nature from death. Death is wholly imaginary, but it is difficult for man to free himself from this image. Original sin, which led man to a distorted world view, brought about death and fear of death, but repentance will overcome both. R. Kook saw indications of the retreat of death in modern times in the increase of life expectancy. The modern Hebrew poet Aaron Zeitlin gave a striking expression to this idea of the delusionary nature of death by coining the word lha-ma-m, formed from the initial letters of the Hebrew sentence, Lo hayah mavet me-olam ("death has never existed").

[Samuel Hugo Bergman]

In Kabbalah

In contrast with speculations in medieval Jewish philosophy, in Kabbalah immortality of the soul is not a matter requiring justification and defense in the face of doubts and arguments. To the kabbalists, immortality of the soul was an incontrovertible fact based on the primary doctrine of the soul common to all, that the soul and all its parts are a spiritual entity (or spiritual entities), whose origin (or origins) is in the supernal worlds and from the divine emanation, and that it evolved downward and entered the body only in order to fulfill a specific task or purpose. Its special spiritual essence guarantees its immortality after death. The forms visualized for this immortality differ widely and are connected with the respective views of the kabbalists regarding reward and punishment. The reward is included in the many-staged ascent to the primal dwelling place of the soul. This ascent begins with the entrance of the soul into the earthly Paradise. From there it ascends to the heavenly Paradise, and from there into even higher spiritual worlds, until it reaches its original anchorage both in the world of creation and in the world of emanation – two of the four worlds acknowledged by most kabbalists after the *Zohar. The absorption of the soul or of its upper parts, such as the spirit (and in the Lurianic Kabbalah, also the life, ḥayyah, and the entity, yeḥidah) into the world of the Sefirot apparently does not cancel its personal individuality – in any case, not in the period preceding the universal resurrection of the dead. Afterward a more basic absorption is possible, to the extent of the abolition of the separate existence of the soul and its complete adherence to its divine source.

The punishment awaiting sinners, which is also connected with the immortality of the soul, takes on two forms: hell and reincarnation. In these two, the quality of justice which befits the soul exists according to the particular circumstances of its deeds. There is no general agreement in the kabbalistic systems on the details of reward and punishment, and there are many variations in the details, but these do not affect the principle of immortality of the soul, its designation for eternal life, and the rectification of its defects by different means. Only the question of the punishment of karet, which the Torah designates for several sins, presented the kabbalists with the problem that in special cases the existence of the soul may be completely abolished, and it would have no chance of immortality. For the most part the kabbalists gave the punishment of karet the interpretation which sees in it a special type of the punishment of reincarnation. The soul was indeed cut off from its supernal roots and lost its predetermined group. Despite this, its existence was not completely abolished; it only passed to other fields of existence of lower value than its source of origin. In the Lurianic Kabbalah the problem of immortality of the soul became complex, because, according to this doctrine, there are five different sources for the five principal elements of which the soul is composed – nefesh, ru'aḥ, neshamah, ḥayyah, yeḥidah. Life, spirit, and soul are the three lower souls; the two higher elements can be attained only by elects. In addition, the soul also has sparks (niẓoẓot) of other souls close to it, in accord with its essence. There is no one vision of what will happen to the different parts of the soul after their separation from the body, because each one undergoes individual refinements and purifications and ascends to a different place in the supernal worlds. Only with the resurrection of the dead do all the parts return and become unified, and from that time they remain connected to the total spiritual unity.

[Gershom Scholem]


in the bible: F. Delitzsch, Das Salomonische Spruchbuch (1873), 207ff.; J. Derenbourg, Oeuvres complètes de R. Saadia, 6 (1894), 70; J. Touzard, in: rb, 7 (1898), 207ff.; L.F. Burney, Israel's Hope of Immortality (1909); A. Heidel, The Gilgamesh Epic and Old Testament Parallels (19492), 137ff.; W.F. Albright, in: vts, 4 (1957), 257. in medieval jewish philosophy: Guttmann, Philosophies, index; Husik, Philosophy, index, s.v.Immortality; H.A. Wolfson, Philo, 1 (1947), 260ff.; H. Davidson, in: Jewish Medieval and Renaissance Studies (1967), 75–94; S. Horovitz, Die Psychologie bei den juedischen Religionsphilosophen des Mittelalters von Saadia bis Maimuni, 4 vols. (1898–1912); G. Vajda, in: Archives d'historie doctrinale et littéraire du Moyen Age, 15 (1946).

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