A Quick Guide to Jewish Beliefs on Afterlife & Death

Updated

If you know someone who practices Judaism, you might be interested to learn what their faith teaches about death and the afterlife. It can be especially useful to learn about Jewish afterlife beliefs if you’re attending a shiva or Jewish funeral. 

Whether you’re studying up on Jewish beliefs to support a friend or loved one, or you’re just interested in death in different cultures, there’s always more to learn about Judaism. 

Jump ahead to these sections:

Below, we’ll cover the basic teachings about the afterlife according to the ancient Jewish faith. We’ll touch on modern-day Jewish beliefs about the afterlife and death, as well as ancient teachings and beliefs throughout history.

What are Jewish Beliefs on Death and Dying?

The Hebrew scriptures have few solid descriptions of what happens to the soul after death. Seemingly in contrast to those scarce beliefs about death and life-after-death, the Jewish people have multiple rituals and traditions when it comes to death and dying. They include sitting shiva (“the seven”) and strictly forbidding cremation to maintain the sanctity of the body. 

The body is treated with the utmost respect, dignity, and importance, and Jewish families traditionally follow a strict order of operations when a death occurs. 

Dying in Judaism

One way to understand the apparent contrast between death teachings and death practices is by understanding how Judaism sees life. Judaism teaches that every moment of life is infinitely valuable and precious. Therefore, the body of a person has to be treated like a valuable thing. 

Additionally, many Orthodox Jews and some Reformed Jews believe that physical resurrection (with the body returning to life) could happen at a later date. That makes it even more essential to handle the physical body with care. Jewish funeral customs reflect that care and precision that come with a death in the religion of Judaism. 

Death in the Torah

As mentioned, Jewish texts only mention death briefly and in little detail. But the Torah does include some metaphors about death that help to show how many Jewish people view dying. 

A common theme in the Torah is the metaphor of rejoining one’s ancestors, which is meant to represent death. In the sacred texts, Abraham, Jacob, Moses, and Isaac are all described as “gathered to their people” when they pass away. 

On the other hand, less religious or righteous figures in the text are described as “cut off from their people” after death. This shows that your actions in life are considered extremely important in how you experience death. 

The sacred texts also illustrate death as “returning to dust” and “water poured out on the ground.” These metaphors show that Judaism, for the most part, views death as relatively final.

Immortality of the soul

Even though the Jewish sacred texts don’t talk much about death and the afterlife, there are some metaphors and imagery that indicate the immortality of the soul. 

From there, different schools of thought—like Traditional or Orthodox Judaism, Reformed Judaism, and Conservative Judaism differ in this aspect. But most are in agreement that the soul is likely immortal in some capacity. 

In Judaism, many believe the soul continues to the afterlife consciously and receives judgment. Others, however, believe the soul survives after death but does not maintain consciousness. Some believe that consciousness will be restored in the Messianic Age--a time known as the “world to come.” 

Do Jewish People Believe in an Afterlife? What’s It Like?

The religious texts of Judaism don’t address the concept of life after death directly. They focus on the present life, instead. In that way, Judaism is very different from other religions with similar sacred texts, like Christianity and Islam. 

Because the Hebrew Bible doesn’t specifically talk about an afterlife, there’s no official Jewish opinion regarding what the afterlife looks like. But the texts do state that righteous actions in this life will be rewarded, and that negative actions will be punished. Therefore, it’s important to lead a meaningful and generous life, even if we don’t know, exactly, what will happen when we die. 

Judgment 

Judaism is primarily focused on life in the here and now, rather than what happens after we die. It typically emphasizes physical rewards and punishments, rather than delayed ones that only happen in the afterlife. 

However, belief in the resurrection of the dead is also a central tenant for many Jews. In particular, Traditional or Orthodox Jews believe that physical resurrection might one day occur in the Messianic Age. 

Whether or not a soul goes directly to “heaven,” must wait in purgatory, or is allowed to participate in the resurrection depends on a judgment by God. This judgment takes a person’s righteous acts (and their wicked ones) into account before determining what should happen to them in the afterlife. 

Heaven (Sheol) 

Many Jews believe “heaven” is a place where pain and anxiety no longer exist. The Hebrew Bible speaks of the afterlife as a shady place called Sheol. According to the Bible, the souls of the deceased go “down” to Sheol after the body dies. A person can gain entrance into this utopian afterlife through righteous living, as well as repentance. 

Many Jewish people believe they’ll be reunited with other deceased family members after death. This reunion takes place in heaven, which gives even more incentive for members of the Jewish faith to live righteously and repent. According to Jewish teachings, you don’t have to be Jewish to gain entrance to heaven.

Hell (Genion)

Jewish beliefs about a hell or purgatory have varied throughout time. Traditional Judaism, for example, believes in a type of hell called Genion. But many Reformed Jews, on the other hand, believe that God has an ultimately caring nature, which eliminates the possibility of a torturous afterlife. 

Genion has its roots in an actual place, where a pagan cult conducted ritual sacrifice. It’s described as a dark pit in the Torah, and it’s an intermittent destination of unrighteous people (Jews and Gentiles alike). 

Some references state that after death, an unrighteous soul remains in Genion for 12 months, undergoing a purification process. Then, the soul is either annihilated, kept in Genion for additional purification, or sent on to Sheol

The world to come (Olam Haba)

After gaining entrance to Sheol, some Jews believe that souls await the “world to come,” or Olam Haba. The concept of Olam Haba isn’t original to the Hebrew Bible. It’s thought to have been developed about 2,000 years ago by religious scholars and rabbis. 

The “world to come” is often depicted as a future reality where the righteous will be resurrected, and the Jews will return to Israel. 

Some Jews believe the world to come is a literal prophecy of resurrection, while others believe it represents something more metaphorical. Many Jewish people fall somewhere in between, believing the “world to come” to be a future resurrection of the consciousness, rather than physical bodies. 

Resurrection (T’chiya Hametim)

As mentioned above, many contemporary Jewish people believe that we only live and die once. But others find truth in a religious doctrine called t’chiya hametim (resurrection of the dead) in Jewish theology, which says otherwise. 

Traditional Jews believe that the Messianic Age will bring a re-building of the temple in Jerusalem. Then the Jewish people will gather from the far corners of the Earth in the homeland. Finally, the souls of the dead will return to their bodies, which will come back to life.

Reformed Judaism rejects the idea of the resurrection as a concept that’s “not rooted in Judaism.” Some choose to interpret the legend as a metaphor, rather than a literal prophecy. But many Orthodox Jews still believe in the resurrection as a very literal prediction that will come true when the messiah returns to earth. 

Judaism and the Present Life

Many modern-day Jewish people embrace the idea that we don’t know what happens when we die. Instead, it’s more important to focus on making the most of this life.  

It’s each person’s responsibility, according to Judaism, to focus on living a meaningful life. It’s not a person’s role in life to speculate on what happens after death. 

However, it’s human nature to think about what happens to us after we die. Even those who practice a faith like Judaism, which focuses on this life, are likely to think about the afterlife now and then. 

Individuals who follow Jewish teachings and practice Judaism often hold their own beliefs about what happens after death, just like people of any other religion. It’s important to keep in mind that not every person who identifies as Jewish will have the same beliefs about life after death. 


Sources

  1. Filippo, David San. “Religious interpretations of death, afterlife, and NDEs.” National Louis University. January 2006. digitalcommons.nl.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1031&context=faculty_publications
  2. “Jewish Resurrection of the Dead.” My Jewish Learning. www.myjewishlearning.com/article/jewish-resurrection-of-the-dead/

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