Ask A Jew: The Afterlife

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By Hyphen Parent

What do you believe concerning the afterlife?

The focus in Judaism is on the here and now, not an afterlife. We’re commanded to do or avoid certain things here in this world. Torah and Talmud are filled with rules pertaining to how we live. There’s very little in the Torah about an afterlife, although the rabbis have expanded on what that may entail.  

In Judaism, there’s a concept of an afterlife, but it can be very vague. Torah refers to Sheol, a place where the spirits of the dead go. Over our history, different sages have speculated about what the world to come (haolam haba) must be like.  Most of our concepts of life after death come from those rabbis, although different branches may interpret those theories differently.

Some compare the Jewish concept of Gehenom to Hell, but it’s really closer to the Christian concept of Purgatory. It’s a place that nearly every soul goes to for a period of time after death. After a brief stay, most souls move on to Gan Eden, which is closer to the Christian concept of Heaven. The souls of those who are wicked, however, will cease to exist.

Traditionally, there is a belief that, when Moshiach comes, the dead will rise from their graves, come back to life, and be reunited in Israel.  This belief is typically attributed to a section in Ezekiel containing references to dry bones that G-d brings back to life.

The hand of the Lord came upon me, and carried me out in the spirit of the Lord, and set me down in the midst of the valley, and that was full of bones

And He made me pass by them round about, and lo! they were exceedingly many on the surface of the valley, and lo! they were exceedingly dry.

Then He said to me; “Son of man, can these bones become alive?” And I answered, “O Lord God, You [alone] know.”

And He said to me, “Prophesy over these bones, and say to them, ‘O dry bones, hear the word of the Lord.’

So says the Lord God to these bones; Behold, I will cause spirit to enter into you, and you shall live!

And I will lay sinews upon you, and I will make flesh grow over you and cover you with skin and put breath into you, and you will live, and you will then know that I am the Lord.”

So I prophesied as I was commanded, and there arose a noise when I prophesied, and behold a commotion, and the bones came together, bone to its bone!

And I looked, and lo! sinews were upon them, and flesh came upon them, and skin covered them from above, but there was still no spirit in them.

Then He said to me, “Prophesy to the spirit, prophesy, O son of man, and say to the spirit, ‘So says the Lord God: From four sides come, O spirit, and breathe into these slain ones that they may live.’ “

And I prophesied as He had commanded me, and the spirit came into them, and they lived and stood on their feet, a very great army, exceedingly so.

Then He said to me, “Son of man, these bones are all the house of Israel. Behold they say, ‘Our bones have become dried up, our hope is lost, we are clean cut off to ourselves.’

Therefore, prophesy and say to them, So says the Lord God: Lo! I open your graves and cause you to come up out of your graves as My people, and bring you home to the land of Israel.

Then you shall know that I am the Lord, when I open your graves and lead you up out of your graves as My people.

And I will put My spirit into you, and you shall live, and I will set you on your land, and you shall know that I, the Lord, have spoken it and have performed it,” says the Lord.

Ezekiel 37:1-14

Some branches of Judaism see that resurrection as literal while others consider it to be more metaphorical.  Orthodox Judaism typically holds to the literal belief. Reform Judaism believes in an afterlife, but rejects the idea of resurrection and removed references to it from their prayer books. The 2007 version of the Reform Mishkan T’filah reportedly added the blessing back, but they continue to view the idea as metaphorical rather than literal.

Generally, all major branches of Judaism believe in an afterlife, but exactly what that means can vary widely among denominations and even among individual Jews. 

About Hyphen Parent

Dorothy-Ann Parent (better known as Hyphen) is a writer, a traditional Jew, a seeker of justice, a lover of stories, the self-proclaimed Jewish Molly Weasley, hobbit-sized, and best not left unattended in a bookshop or animal shelter.

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