What do Jews Believe About the Afterlife?

Posted: 22/11/2017

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Each religion has its own take on what happens to us after death, those who are not religious will often believe that there is no such things as an “afterlife”. Meanwhile, Jews do believe in the concept of an afterlife, but what do they think about it?

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Traditionally, Jews do not believe that life ceases to exist at the moment of death on earth. However, in Judaism, there does not seem to be a clear idea of what happens after death or what the concept of a Jewish afterlife is meant to be like – which opens up a lot of divide in opinion and room for personal interpretation.

Some people of the Jewish faith may think of the afterlife in a similar to a Christian, while others can permissibly believe in reincarnation through many lifetimes. Meanwhile, others may believe in a waiting place for when the Messiah comes to earth to establish the Kingdom of God on earth.

Within the the Holy Scriptures, the afterlife is mentioned. The Torah does indicate that there is the existence of life after death and mentions a few places where the righteous may be able to reunite with their loved ones after death, meanwhile, those who were not righteous will be excluded from this. There are parts in the Torah which mention certain sinners being “cut off from their people”.

Olam Ha-Ba: The World to Come

Olam Ha-Ba is a Hebrew word given to the spiritual afterlife, meaning the World to Come. This word is often used to refer to the eventual coming of the Messiah (messianic age), but also to connote another, higher state of being. Some believe that the World to Come will be the re-establishment of the Garden of Eden.

The concept of the World to Come is believed by scholars to have derived from the destruction of the First Temple in Jerusalem (586 BCE), where some of the prophets such as Hosea and Isaiah began to forecast a better future for the Jewish people. However, with a series of events which followed that was not in the favour of the Jews, this better future seemed to be something which was not going to happen in the near future. As a result, people began investing more heavily into the idea of the Messianic age, linking it with life after death.

Many Jews believe that once you die, your soul goes to a transitory place in which it resides and waits for the Messiah to visit earth – this place is known as Sheol. Once the messianic age is established, all souls will reunite with their physical bodies to live alongside the Messiah. This transitory place is sometimes described as a “washing machine” for the soul, so when it comes out pure when the Messiah graces the earth.

The main reason that Jews do not cremate their dead is so that they can be intact for when the Messianic age is established. Therefore, Judaism links the body with the soul unlike other religions such as Hinduism which believe the body is simply a vessel for a unique soul.

Gehinnom: Hell

Some Jews believe that only the righteous will be part of the World to Come. An average person, however, will descend to a place of purification and/or punishment, which is known as Gehinnom.

Again, the idea of Hell differs between people within Judaism. Some believe that Gehinnom is a place of eternal torture, while others view is less harshly – it is seen as a place where a person will have to spend time repenting for their past misdeeds. Typically, it is believed that a person will be sentenced to spend 12 months on Gehinnom, which reflects the yearlong mourning cycle.

It is only the evil people who can never leave Gehinnom to ascend to the World to Come. Some believe that the souls of the wicked are simply destroyed on arrival, whereas others see it as the souls of the wicked are tormented for eternity.