Afterlife in Rabbinic Judaism

  January 26, 2022   Read time 3 min
Afterlife in Rabbinic Judaism
Rabbinic doctrine concerning reward and punishment in the hereafter is based upon belief in the reunion of the body and the soul before judgment.

Although rabbinic thought was eventually influenced by Greco-Roman ideas about the existence of the soul as an independent entity, and although there exist some relatively late rabbinic opinions that attach greater culpability to the soul than to the body for a person’s sins, there are no rabbinic sources that testify to belief in the immortality of the soul independent of the notion of corporeal resurrection. The unqualified importance that the latter article of faith held for the rabbis is reflected in the great exegetical efforts they made to find sources for it in the Torah (cf. Sifrei Dt., ed. L. Finkelstein, Berlin, 1939, no. 306, p. 341) and in the many references to resurrection that are found in the Targums. As testimony to God’s faithfulness, the rabbis also made his power to revive the dead the subject of the second benediction in the EAmidah, the centerpiece of the Jewish liturgy, and they included several references to the resurrection in other prayers in the liturgy.

Aside from the dogma of resurrection, however, the rabbis held differing opinions about nearly ever nected to the afterlife. In regard to retribution in the hereafter, the first-century houses of Hillel and Shammai agreed about the reward the righteous will receive and the punishment the wicked will suffer, but they disagreed about the fate of most men who are neither wholly righteous nor utterly wicked. According to the house of Shammai, the souls of these men will be immersed in purgatorial fires until they are purified; according to the house of Hillel, God in his mercy will spare them all punishment (Tosefta, San. 13.3).

In a lengthy Talmudic discussion, some authorities propose that upon death the souls of the righteous are gathered in “a treasury beneath the throne of glory” or, alternatively, are given habitation in paradise, while the souls of the wicked are imprisoned and cast back and forth from the slings of destructive angels until they are cleansed of their sins. Still another opinion states that the soul lingers with the body even after death, “lamenting all seven days of mourning,” and for the following year it ascends and descends, unable to relinquish completely its ties with the body (B.T., Shab. 152a–b). Other sources attribute varying degrees of consciousness to the dead (B.T., Ber. 18b–19a).

On such questions as whether Gentiles or the children of wicked Gentiles can enjoy a place in the world to come, second- and third-century rabbis disagreed (Tosefta, San. 13.1); the law was decided in the affirmative. Some rabbinic views about the afterlife reflect beliefs commonly held in the ancient world. While the rabbis stated unequivocally that every Israelite has a place in the world to come, they also believed that persons who suffered violent or otherwise untimely deaths might not be permitted to enjoy the afterlife. The rabbis did not, however, accept the pagan belief that the unburied are refused entrance to the hereafter.

While there exist a number of cases in rabbinic literature in which life after death is promised in return for a pious deed, these are relatively exceptional. A statement like the one attributed to the tanna MeDir (second century), in which he is reported to have vouchsafed a place in the world to come to any person who lives in the Land of Israel, speaks Hebrew, and recites the ShemaE prayer daily (Sifrei Dt., no. 333, p. 383), should be understood partly as a rhetorical expression meant to emphasize the importance of the deeds MeDir encourages.

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