What are the Jewish thoughts of the afterlife and where did they come from?

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Reading through the old testament we see several deaths. Some of these deaths, like Abraham for instance, are very detailed. Others, like those who have died in war, are not. According to Hebrew tradition, what happens to there souls after death? Is there an afterlife? In the reading so far, there is no clear belief system set up about life after death. Why is that? These are some of the questions that have prompted this blog.

My first question is, “do the Hebrew people believe in a life after death?”.  In Gensis 25:8 we see a description of Abraham’s death. We see that after he “breathed his last breath”, or died, that he was “gathered to his people”. These are clearly two different events. He dies AND THEN he is gathered to his people. This shows that death and being gathered to your people are not one in the same. From my study of the Old Testament, this is the only hint in of a life after death. So where do people go after they die according to jewish tradition? According to judaism.about.com, the Jews believed in, ” “Olam Ha Ba” literally means “the world to come” in Hebrew”(judaism.about.com). According to http://www.jw.org, this “world to come included a place referred to as Sheol, or Hades in Greek. The author states that, “it is the common grave of dead mankind, the figurative location where most of mankind sleep in death.”(www.jw.org). Are these places for the obedient or the disobedient to the protagonist’s laws or both?

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The author at Judaism.about.com goes to explain this Olam Ha ba by stating that, “Early rabbinic texts describe Olam Ha Ba has an idyllic version of this world. It is a physical realm that will exist at the end-of-days, after the Messiah has come and God has judged both the living and the dead. The righteous dead will be resurrected in order to enjoy a second life in Olam Ha Ba.”  (judaism.about.com) Is Olam Ha Ba heaven? According to myjewishlearning.com, “ rabbis use the term Olam Ha-Ba to refer to a heaven-like afterlife as well as to the messianic era or the age of resurrection, and it is often difficult to know which one is being referred to. When the Talmud does speak of Olam Ha-Ba in connection to the afterlife, it often uses it interchangeably with the term Gan Eden (“the Garden of Eden”), referring to a heavenly realm where souls reside after physical death.”  (myjewishlearning.com) We see through these two authors, that the obedient Jews have something to look forward to after death. Their lives didn’t merely end after their heart stopped beating, but what about the disobedient?

The authors at jewfaq.org state that, “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(jewfaq.org).  The author later states another option for those without immediate entrance into 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)”(jewfaq.org). What exactly is Gehenna? Is the same as the christian idea of Hell? No. Most christian thoughts of Hell are associated with eternity and torture. According to myjewishlearning.com it is not eternal. At it’s maximum it is only twelve months unless you are completely wicked, in which case there is no clarity on what happens after twelve months.(myjewishlearning.com).

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My final question is, “where do these ideas come from?”. Abraham and Moses didn’t teach on the afterlife. Solomon in all his wisdom did not teach his people of an afterlife yet they have a belief system anyway, but how? In order to understand this question, I believe the first course of action is to understand the almost silence on the subject. According to jewishvirtuallibrary.org, “I suspect that there is a correlation between its nondiscussion of afterlife and the fact that the Torah was revealed just after the long Jewish sojourn in Egypt. The Egyptian society from which the Hebrew slaves emerged was obsessed with death and afterlife. The holiest Egyptian literary work was called The Book of the Dead, while the major achievement of many Pharaohs was the erection of the giant tombs called pyramids. In contrast, the Torah is obsessed with this world, so much so that it even forbids its priests from coming into contact with dead bodies”(jewishvirtuallibrary.org). This theory coincides with everything we know about the ancient Hebrew culture, as well as its protagonist. There was such a emphasis on being separate in every way possible from the other religions around them. The Torah’s silence on the afterlife is just one more way to separate themselves from pagan religions. Through my research I have not been able to find a theory on where their belief system of the afterlife comes from. Not all Jews agree on any one idea and some even choose to dismiss them all and focus on the present world and nothing more. The Old Testament does teach that the obedient will be rewarded and the disobedient will be punished, these are the only definitive beliefs of all Jews as well as the only ones clearly seen in the text.

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In conclusion, though the Jewish beliefs don’t have any all inclusive, clear belief on the afterlife, they do believe that the obedient in this life will be rewarded for their efforts and the disobedient will be punished for lack there of. They also choose to continue to separate themselves, to be holy, and to concentrate on the current world while trusting the protagonist to take care of them in death.

In keeping with tradition…here’s the cat picture 🙂images (27)





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