Life, Death & Thereafter  
By Jim Myers  

 Thank you for all of your very special cards and letters.  As many of you know, losing a father is a very difficult challenge - it is still sinking in very slowly.  Your prayers, along with your words of love and understanding, have been very comforting.  Please continue to keep my mother in your prayers daily.

Over the past few weeks I have received a number of requests for information about the Jewish view of death and beyond.  In this edition of DISCOVERING THE BIBLE we are going to look at the way death is viewed from the Jewish culture.  Some of our readers may be wondering why we would be interested in the Jewish viewpoint.  Since we have written for many years about the Jewish Jesus, our goal has been to learn as much about his Jewish world as possible, in order to understand him and his message better.  Since he is the one upon whom all Christianity is based, it seems like the logical starting place.

However, before discussing the subject at hand, I need to repeat some earlier warnings.  First, Jesus was a Jew of the first century and his Jewish culture, including his religious views, were not those of modern Rabbinic Judaism.  Neither Rabbinic Judaism nor Christianity existed at that time, and it appears that he would have differed with both on a number of points.  Second, there is no ONE Jewish viewpoint.  Just like Christianity, Judaism is divided into a number of different sects, each holding its own unique positions on many subjects.  Please keep this in mind as you read the following articles.

 First & Foremost - "To Life!"

"DEATH IS THE CRISIS of life.  How a man handles death indicates a great deal about how he approaches life." (Jewish Book of Mourning)

The way we look at life is determined by our Belief Systems.  Our Belief Systems provide the way we understand life and interpret the events through which we live.  Our Belief Systems include our specific views of God, our place in the grand scheme of things, and how we are to relate to one another.  It is through our Belief Systems that we measure our success or failure.  What may be comforting and special to you may be repugnant to someone else. 

The way we view life plays a major role in how we deal with it.  Some people have Belief Systems that view life as a test; it is something they believe that they must "just get through."  They believe that once they finish this test they will be able to move on to something much better.  Their main focus is on the "afterlife," but a much better term would be "afterdeath."  Wouldn't this Belief System create the feeling of "I can't wait to get away from this life"?

But, for others, this life is viewed as the most important thing, not as just an obstacle course to be run.  Enjoying the good that life brings and making this world a better place is their primary focus - not going to heaven.  Their goal is to live a long life and play an active role in living for as long as they are here.  Wouldn't this Belief System create the feeling of looking forward to each day and the experiences it will bring?

The Jewish culture values life above almost all else.  A famous Talmudic story teaches that all people are descended from a single person, therefore taking a single human life is like destroying an entire world and saving a single life is like saving an entire world.  From this position they conclude that there is an unwritten commandment that is above almost all other biblical commandments - "Preserve life at almost any cost."  Rabbinic Judaism teaches that only four commandments, out of the 613 total commandments of the Torah, are so important that they cannot be violated to save a life:

1.      murder

2.      idolatry

3.      incest

4.      adultery

The rabbis permit a person to violate 609 commandments if necessary to save a life, but they often require it.  For example, Jewish doctors are permitted to answer emergency calls on the Sabbath even though this may violate many Sabbath prohibitions.  Also, abortions, where deemed necessary to save the life of a mother, are mandatory.  This is based on the ruling that the unborn are not considered human life in Jewish law, therefore the mother's human life overrides.  To take a chance of losing the existing life of the mother is unacceptable.

Life is so valuable in the Jewish Belief System that the rabbis do not permit anything to be done that might hasten death, not even to prevent suffering.  Euthanasia, suicide and assisted suicide are strictly forbidden by Rabbinic Law.  But, where death is imminent and certain - and the patient is suffering - Rabbinic Law does permit one to cease artificially prolonging life.  Thus, in certain circumstances, Jewish law permits "pulling the plug" or refusing extraordinary means of prolonging life.


 Death is not seen as a tragedy, even when it occurs early in life or through unfortunate circumstances - death is a natural process.  Deaths, like our lives, have meaning and are all part of God's plan.  In addition, there is a firm belief in a world to come, where those who have lived a worthy life will be rewarded.   Even though death is not viewed as a tragedy, mourning practices are extensive.  However, they are not an expression of fear or distaste for death.  Jewish mourning practices have two purposes:

1.      show respect for the deceased

2.      comfort the living who will miss the deceased


 Rabbinic Judaism firmly believes that death is not the end of human existence. It is primarily focused on life - the here and now - rather than on the hereafter.  Therefore, Rabbinic Judaism does not have a great deal of dogma about the afterlife, as do the more apocalyptic religions. It leaves room for personal opinion and subjective speculation and an abundance of both may be found in the Jewish culture. 

For example, within Orthodox Judaism you will find Jews who believe that the souls of the righteous dead go to a place similar to the Christian heaven, while others believe in reincarnation through many lifetimes.  Still others believe that they simply wait until the coming of the messiah and their resurrection.  Likewise, Orthodox Jews can believe that the souls of the wicked are tormented by demons of their own creation, or that wicked souls are simply destroyed at death, ceasing to exist.

Many of the rabbis, like their Christian and Islamic counterparts, also use the threat of not being able to share the afterlife on followers who fail to accept their core doctrines.  One example being the "belief in the Oral Torah."  The more Orthodox rabbis declare that those who reject the above doctrine will be excluded from the "afterlife." 

 Biblical References to the Afterlife

 Many scholars hold the position that the doctrine of belief in the afterlife is a teaching that developed late in Jewish history.  The Jewish Bible emphasizes immediate, concrete, physical rewards and punishments for one's actions, rather than abstract future ones.  This is seen in the following verses.

(Leviticus 26) 3 'If you walk in My statutes and keep My commandments so as to carry them out, 4 then I shall give you rains in their season, so that the land will yield its produce and the trees of the field will bear their fruit. 5 Indeed, your threshing will last for you until grape gathering, and grape gathering will last until sowing time. You will thus eat your food to the full and live securely in your land. 6 I shall also grant peace in the land, so that you may lie down with no one making you tremble. I shall also eliminate harmful beasts from the land, and no sword will pass through your land. 7 But you will chase your enemies and they will fall before you by the sword; 8 five of you will chase a hundred, and a hundred of you will chase ten thousand, and your enemies will fall before you by the sword. 9 So I will turn toward you and make you fruitful and multiply you, and I will confirm My covenant with you.'

(Deuteronomy 11) 13 'It shall come about, if you listen obediently to my commandments     which I am commanding you today, to love the LORD your God and to serve Him with all your heart and all your soul, 14 that He will give the rain for your land in its season, the early and late rain, that you may gather in your grain and your new wine and your oil. 15 He will give grass in your fields for your cattle, and you will eat and be satisfied.'

However, other scholars argue there are other scriptures that provide clear evidence in the Torah of belief in existence after death.

(Genesis 25:8) Abraham breathed his last and died in a ripe old age, an old man and satisfied with life; and he was gathered to his people.

(Genesis 25:17) These are the years of the life of Ishmael, one hundred and thirty-seven years; and he breathed his last and died, and was gathered to his people.

(Genesis 35:29) Isaac breathed his last and died and was gathered to his people, an old man of ripe age; and his sons Esau and Jacob buried him.

(Genesis 49:33) When Jacob finished charging his sons, he drew his feet into the bed and breathed his last, and was gathered to his people.

(Deuteronomy 32:50 - Moses) "Then die on the mountain where you ascend, and be gathered to your people, as Aaron your brother died on Mount Hor and was gathered to his people …"

(2 Kings 22:20 - King Josiah) "Therefore, behold, I will gather you to your fathers, and you will be gathered to your grave in peace, and your eyes will not see all the evil which I will bring on this place."  So they brought back word to the king.

As you saw in the above verses, the Torah speaks of several famous people being "gathered to their people."  Rabbinic scholars interpret this "gathering" as a separate event from the physical death of the body or the burial.  They see it as a literal "bringing them together with their ancestors - both being alive."

Later portions of the Jewish Bible speak more clearly of life after death and the World to Come.

(Daniel 12:2)  "Many of those who sleep in the dust of the ground will awake, these to everlasting life, but the others to disgrace and everlasting contempt."

(Nehemiah 9:5) Then the Levites, Jeshua, Kadmiel, Bani, Hashabneiah, Sherebiah, Hodiah, Shebaniah and Pethahiah, said, "Arise, bless the LORD your God forever and ever! O may Your glorious name be blessed and exalted above all blessing and praise!"

Resurrection and Reincarnation

 Belief in the eventual resurrection of the dead is also a fundamental belief of Rabbinic Judaism.  The resurrection of the dead will occur in the Messianic Age, a time referred to in Hebrew as the Olam Ha-Ba - the World to Come.  However, this term is also used to refer to a spiritual afterlife.  The rabbis teach that when the messiah comes to initiate the perfect world of peace and prosperity, the righteous dead will be brought back to life and given the opportunity to experience the perfected world that their righteousness helped to create.  They also teach that the wicked dead will not be resurrected.

 There are some Jewish mystical schools of thought that believe resurrection is not a one-time event.  They believe that it is an ongoing process in which the souls of the righteous are reborn in order to continue the ongoing process of "mending of the world."  Some indicate that reincarnation is a routine process, while others indicate that this only occurs in some very unusual circumstances, i.e., where the soul left unfinished business behind.  Belief in reincarnation is also one of the ways the rabbis attempt to explain one of their other core doctrines - the traditional Jewish belief that every Jewish soul in history was present at Mt. Sinai.  However, there is also another rabbinic explanation that holds that "the soul exists before the body, and these unborn souls were present in some form at Sinai."  Belief in reincarnation is a commonly held view of many Chasidic Jewish sects, as well as some other mystically inclined Jews.

The World to Come

As pointed out above, the spiritual afterlife is referred to in Hebrew as Olam Ha-Ba (oh-LAHM hah-BAH) - the World to Come.  Even though this term is also used to refer to the messianic age, the Olam Ha-Ba is another, higher state of being.  According to the rabbis:

"This world is like a lobby before the Olam Ha-Ba. Prepare yourself in the lobby so that you may enter the banquet hall."

"This world is like the eve of the Sabbath, and the Olam Ha-Ba is like the Sabbath. He who prepares on the eve of Sabbath will have food to eat on the Sabbath."

"We prepare ourselves for the Olam Ha-Ba through Torah study and good deeds."

The rabbis also teach that all Israel has a share in the Olam Ha-Ba. However, not all "shares" are equal. A particularly righteous person will have a greater share in the Olam Ha-Ba than the average person. In addition, a person can lose his share through wicked actions.  Rabbinic Judaism definitely believes that your place in the Olam Ha-Ba is determined by a merit system based on your actions, not by who you are or what religion you profess.  In addition, it definitely believes that humanity is capable of being considered righteous in God's eyes - or at least good enough to merit paradise after a suitable period of purification.

Do non-Jews have a place in Olam Ha-Ba?  The predominant view of Rabbinic Judaism is that the righteous of all nations have a share in the Olam Ha-Ba. However, there are some who do not agree with that position.  Statements to the contrary were not based on the notion that membership in Judaism was required to get into Olam Ha-Ba, but were grounded in the observation that non-Jews were not righteous people.  Generally, by the 12th century CE, the belief that the righteous of all nations have a share in the Olam Ha-Ba was firmly entrenched in Judaism.

Gan Eden and Gehinnom

The place of spiritual reward for the righteous is often referred to in Hebrew as Gan Eden - the Garden of Eden.  For Rabbinic Judaism, however, this is not the same place where Adam and Eve lived.  Instead, it is a place of spiritual perfection and descriptions of it vary widely from one source to another.  One source says that the peace that one feels when one experiences the Sabbath is merely 1/60 of the pleasure of the afterlife.  Other sources compare the bliss of the afterlife to the joy of sex or the warmth of a sunny day.  Ultimately, though, the living can no more understand the nature of this place than the blind can understand color.

Since only the very righteous go directly to Gan Eden, where do the others go?  The rabbis teach that the average person descends to a place of punishment and/or purification.  It is generally referred to as Gehinnom (guh-hee-NOHM) (in Yiddish, Gehenna), but sometimes as She'ol or by other names.  According to one view, every sin we commit creates an angel of destruction (a demon), and after we die we are punished by the very demons that we created.  Some views see Gehinnom as one of severe punishment, a bit like the Christian Hell of fire and brimstone.  Other sources merely see it as a time when we can see the actions of our lives objectively, see the harm that we have done and the opportunities we missed, and experience remorse for our actions.  The period of time in Gehinnom does not exceed 12 months, and then one ascends to take his place on Olam Ha-Ba.

Only the utterly wicked do not ascend at the end of this period, say the rabbis.  Their souls are punished for the entire 12 months.  The rabbis differ on what happens at the end of those 12 months.  Some say that the wicked soul is utterly destroyed and ceases to exist, while others say that the soul continues to exist in a state of consciousness of remorse.  This 12-month limit is repeated in many places in the Talmud, and it is connected to the mourning cycles.

Obviously, there are many similarities between the various Belief Systems.  We will bring you more articles on this subject in the near future.                         

Has the Garden of Eden Been Discovered?

Wouldn’t it be nice to find the actual location of the real Garden of Eden?  In theological circles it would be a discovery that could equal that of the Dead Sea Scrolls.  Well guess what?  Archaeologist David Rohl claims to have found the site described in Genesis as “Eden” in a lush valley beneath an extinct volcano in northern Iran.

  The Jerusalem Report (February 1, 1999) broke the story in the article – “Paradise Found.” 

“Ten miles from the sprawling Iranian industrial city of Tabriz, to the northwest of Teheran, says British archaeologist David Rohl, he has found the site of the Biblical garden. . . `As you descend a narrow mountain path, you see a beautiful alpine valley, just like the Bible describes it, with terraced orchards on its slopes, crowded with every kind of fruit-laden tree,’ says Rohl, a scholar of University College, London, who has just returned from his third trip to the area, where mudbrick villages flourish today.

“The Biblical word gan (as in Gan Eden) means `walled garden,’”Rohl continues, `and the valley is indeed walled in by towering mountains.’  The highest of these is Mt. Sahand, a snow-capped extinct volcano that Rohl identifies as the Prophet Ezekiel’s Mountain of God, where the Lord resides among `red-hot coals’ (Ezekiel 28:11-19).  Cascading down the once-fiery mountain, precisely echoing Ezekiel, is a small river, the Adji Chay (the name of which also translates in local dialect as ‘walled garden’).  The locals still hold the mountain sacred, Rohl says, and attribute magical powers to the river’s water.

The Garden described in the Bible  places the headwaters of four rivers in it: the Tigris, the Euphrates, the Gihon, and the Pishon.  Obviously, the Tigris and Euphrates are well-known rivers, but the other two have been real problems in the past.  Rohl has identified them as the Araxes and Uizhun which puts the headwaters of all four rivers in his Eden.  Interestingly, the Uizhun, Rohl's equivalent to the Pishon which the Bibles identifies with gold, is known locally as the Golden River, and meanders between ancient gold mines and lodes of lapis lazuli.  Making his case even stronger, Rohl says that he has found the "Land of Nod" which the Bible describes as "East of Eden."  Nod was Cain's place of exile after the murder of his brother Able.  Today the area is called "Noqdi."

Recommended Reading

The definitive book on Jewish mourning practices is Maurice Lamm's The Jewish Way in Death and Mourning and David Rohl's Legions




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