Jewish Views on the Afterlife

By Lisa Klug


Burning candles on a black background

When Jody Rosenblatt Feld was in high school, a teacher who was not Jewish told her that Jews don’t believe in heaven and hell. Only after a lot of study did she realize that wasn’t so.

“There is so much material on a Jewish afterlife, heaven and hell,” says Rosenblatt Feld, a scholar and teacher. “You’d be amazed at how much there is.”

Many Jews who grow up in a liberal context were taught that Judaism emphasizes the here and now and that we don’t have any notions about the afterlife. “There is some truth in that, but it is not the whole picture,” says Conservative Rabbi Rona Shapiro.

Jewish views on death are discussed in the Talmud and other Jewish texts, where heaven is called Gan Eden, the Garden of Eden, or Olam HaBa, the next world. Whereas Gan Eden is considered a place of spiritual fulfillment, Gehennom, or hell, is a place of intense punishment and cleansing. It takes its name from the Valley of Hennom, where pagans once sacrificed children.

There are, however, diverging views about the afterlife, even among Jewish scholars. “I don’t believe that there is one systematic view in the writings of Hazal, the early rabbis,” says Orthodox Rabbi Eliezer Finkelman. “Rather, there are various statements, some derived from traditions, speculation or the words of the prophets. These are not all necessarily compatible.”

But they all are Jewish. Here are a few:

In Pirke Avot, this world is considered preparation for the next. Ethics of the Fathers, as this text is called in English, discusses the need to prepare yourself in “the corridor so that you can enter the banquet hall.” Correspondingly, one way to look at mitzvot–commandments, such as giving to charity or observing the Sabbath—is to bring merit upon yourself [in order] to enter or enjoy the world to come, Finkelman says.

One line of thought argues that after death the soul has to be purified before it can go on the rest of its journey. The amount of time needed for purification depends on how the soul dealt with life, Finkelman says. One custom says that a soul needs a maximum of 11 months for purification, which is why, when a parent dies, the kaddish (memorial prayer) is recited for 11 months.

Even if a soul enters Gehennom (hell), it is not eternal. “There is not a lot of emphasis on the fires of hell, as there is in Christianity,” Rabbi Shapiro says.

Some Jews believe purification of the soul occurs in hell. In fact, different aspects of hell (Gehennom) address certain sins. A Gehennom-of-Snow purifies coldness toward the commandments or Torah. And a Gehennom-of-Fire, which is 60 times hotter than fire in this world, fights passions toward forbidden activities. “You fight fire with fire and coldness with coldness,” says Yehuda Ferris, a Chabad rabbi. “It’s a favor to sinners, because once you cleanse yourself in Gehennom, then you are assured of a place in the world to come.”

Other traditional texts about hell discuss Avraham the Patriarch, who is said to sit at the gates of hell, where he examines men for a brit milah, or circumcision. If the men are circumcised, Avraham turns them away because Gehennom is such a horrible place.

In contrast, in the Garden of Eden (Gan Eden), righteous Jews bask in the glory of the Shekhina (the Divine presence). “How much of G-d you take in, just as in this life, is in accordance with what you’ve earned,” Rosenblatt Feld says. “How much you’ve grown in this life determines how you experience the next.”

But all Jews have it better in heaven. “According to the Jewish picture, Jews are the favored in the next world (Olam HaBa),” Rosenblatt Feld says. “They have it hard in this world because they have it good in the next.”

This concept also addresses the problem of justice in this world, Finkelman says. The question of misfortune befalling a righteous person (tzadik v’ra lo), as described in the book of Job, bothered the rabbis a lot. “But the tradition understands that in some way justice is served in heaven (Olam HaBa),” Finkelman says.

Although there is disagreement about these views, most scholars agree that classical Judaism expresses a belief in the resurrection of souls and maybe even bodies, in the messianic age. “We say, ‘You are eternally mighty, Resuscitator of the dead’ (mechaiyeh metim atah rav l’hoshia),” Finkelman says of the Amidah, or silent devotion, said in daily prayers. (This applies only to Conservative and Orthodox prayer books. Reform and Reconstructionist prayer books do not use this terminology.) “The whole thing is considered to be a miracle of a heroic transcendence (g’vurot HaShem).”

This leads to other questions. Does it mean that only during the end of days, in the messianic age, do we experience the next world? Or does a person enter heaven shortly after he or she dies? Both possibilities are discussed in Judaism, Finkelman says.

Although this may come as a surprise, there is a Jewish concept of reincarnation (gigul nefesh)—transmigration of souls, which is described in Kabbalah, a collection of texts discussing Judaism’s mystical tradition. Every Jewish soul has to return to this world if it didn’t complete the performance of 613 commandments.

The concept of reincarnation developed in the mid-1500s, especially in the works of one of the students of HaAri, Reb Yitzhak Luria, who revolutionized kabbalistic thinking. This student, Reb Chaim Vital, wrote a book titled Sha1ar HaGigulim/The Gate of The Transmigration of Souls, which popularized the idea.

Vital’s complex version of reincarnation identifies several different types of souls. A person can be born, for instance, with a pure soul, a complete soul that belonged to another person. Or a person can be born with the good qualities of one soul and bad qualities of another.

The important thing, Rabbi Ferris says, is that only the good sticks with a soul for eternity. The bad falls away.

Traditional Jewish Views on the Afterlife:

  • Jews do believe in heaven and hell.
  • In Hebrew, heaven is called both Olam HaBa, the world to come, and Gan Eden, the Garden of Eden.
  • In Olam HaBa, righteous Jews are blessed with living in the Divine presence.
  • Jews are rewarded with a better life in Olam HaBa to make up for their misfortunes in this world.
  • Gehennom, the Jewish concept of hell, is a place of cleansing to prepare a soul for a place in the world to come.
  • Some sages believed that this world is merely preparation for the next and that fulfilling commandments earns a soul merit in the world to come.
  • Some believe the soul needs to be purified before its final rest, but that this purification takes, at most, 11 months–the same amount of time required for mourning a parent.
  • Judaism expresses faith in God as Resuscitator of the dead.
  • The Jewish term for reincarnation, as discussed in Kabbalah, is gigul nefesh, transmigration of souls.
  • A soul reincarnates, according to tradition, to make up for unfulfilled mitzvot (commandments), such as giving to charity or observing Shabbat.

Click here for more information and resources on death and mourning, including our Guide to Death and Mourning for Interfaith Families and our booklet on mourning the loss of a Jewish loved one.

About Lisa Klug

Lisa Klug is a freelance writer and the author and co-designer of Cool Jew: The Ultimate Guide for Every Member of the Tribe, her first book.