Life After Death

QUESTION #3: Does Judaism believe in life after death?

By Rabbi Tully Bryks

YES![1] But the World to Come is only hinted to in the written Torah,[2] because the focus of Judaism is on this world.[3] We don’t believe that one needs to sacrifice this world in order to obtain everlasting life in the next world.[4] On the contrary, G-d demands that we enjoy this world to the fullest![5] This principle is so axiomatic to Judaism that if a person abstains from a  permitted physical pleasure in this world, such as enjoying a piece of fruit, the person is taken to task for this in the World to Come.[6]

Once we finish living this temporary life to the fullest, we can enjoy eternal pleasure![7] Since our life in the World to Come is eternal, one moment of pleasure in the next world is more enjoyable than an entire lifetime of pleasure in this world.[8] Conversely, one moment of pain in the next world is more painful than an entire lifetime of pain in this world.[9]

We only have a limited understanding of the nature of the World to Come. And since we are only accustomed to living in a finite world – confined by space and time – it is very hard for us to even relate to what life in an infinite world would be or feel like. Here is glimpse at some of the concepts we have information about:

When a person dies, the soul leaves their body.[10] The more materialistic a person was, the more painful that transition can be. The anguish of seeing bugs eat away at a one’s dead body is more painful than the feeling a live person has when being jabbed all over with needles.[11] Initially, the soul tends to linger with the body[12] and is certainly still focused on it during the funeral.[13] The departed soul even listens to the Eulogies being delivered.[14]

Before the soul can be admitted to the World to Come for eternal pleasure, it must first be purified of any sins it has committed in this world.[15]  The purification process lasts a maximum of 12 months,[16] but can be much shorter for a more pious individual. Loved ones of the deceased recite the Kaddish prayer, which has the power to ease the intense “pain” of the purification process.[17]  A child recites the Kaddish on behalf of their deceased parent for only eleven months, as we would like to believe that our loved one did not require the entire twelve months of purification[18] (If one knows with certainty that his parent was evil, the child should recite Kaddish for the full twelve months[19]).

Following the purification process, the soul experiences eternal pleasure.[20] The level and intensity of the pleasure corresponds to the good deeds and commandments that one observed while alive.[21] After death, we have full clarity of G-d and our purpose in this world.[22] It is too late for us to elevate our eternal status on our own.[23] There are several ways that one’s status can still be elevated even after death. For example, loved ones and friends who are still alive can perform commandments and good deeds in the merit of the departed soul.[24] Alternatively, if a person did a good deed that had a lasting impact beyond one’s lifetime, the soul would still be elevated from the ripple effects of the good deed. Common examples include charity,[25] kindness or teachings[26] to others that continue to have lasting and sustaining effects into the future. Saving a life is another great example, as the departed soul benefits from the continued good deeds performed by the one whose life was saved.

One of the many beautiful aspects of the Jewish concept of the World to Come is that departed souls can see and watch over their loved ones who are still alive.[27] This means that they can share in the joy of missed graduations, birthdays, weddings[28] and the like. Also, the departed souls would now have full clarity about the importance of spirituality and of following the Torah’s precepts.[29] As such, they are rooting for their loved ones to improve their relationship with G-d and His teachings. Unlike many other philosophies, Judaism maintains that the World to Come can be obtained and enjoyed by all of G-d’s children, Jews and non-Jews alike.[30]

To learn more about Life After Death, click on any of the items below:

Book Gateway to Judaism

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[1] Enoch 71:15; Talmud Sanhedrin, 90:1; Pirkei Avos (Ethics of our Fathers), 2:16 and 4:17; Rambam (Maimonides), Mishna Torah, Hilchos Teshuvah (Laws of Repentance), 8:1; Derech Hashem (Way of G-d), 1:3:4

[2] Bereishis (Genesis), 25:8, 35:29, 37:35 and 49:33; Devarim (Deuteronomy), 32:50; Melachim (Kings) II, 22:20; Amos, 9:2; It is more explicit in Daniel, 12:2 and Nechemia, 9:5

[3] Pirkei Avos (Ethics of our Fathers), 1:3; Talmud Eruvin, 22A; Kuzari, 1-109-111; Abarbanel, Vayikra (Leviticus), 26, question 1

[4] Talmud Shabbos, 127A; Talmud Brachos, 8A

[5] Mishna Sanhedrin 4:5; Talmud Yerushalmi, Nedarim, 9:20; Ramban (Nachmonides) on Devarim (Deuteronomy), 22:6; Sefer HaChinuch, 545; Nefesh Hachaim (The Soul of Life), 2:4: Likutey Maharan II, Lesson 24; Tehilim (Psalms), 100:2

[6] Talmud Yerushalmi, Kiddushin, 4:12; Kitzur Shulchan Aruch, 59:19

[7] Daniel, 12:2; Talmud, Rosh Hashanah, 16B-17A; Talmud, Bava Metzia, 58B

[8] Pirkei Avos (Ethics of our Fathers), 4:17; Rambam (Maimonides), Mishna Torah, Hilchos Teshuvah (Laws of Repentance), 8:6-7

[9] Ramban (Nachmonides), Introduction to Iyov (Job)

[10] Koheles (Ecclesiastes), 12:7; Derech Hashem (Way of G-d), 1:3:11

[11] Talmud Brachos, 18B; Talmud Shabbos, 152a

[12] Talmud, Shabbos, 152A

[13] Talmud, Shabbos, 152B

[14] Talmud Shabbos, 153A

[15] Mishna, Eduyos, 2:9; Rambam (Maimonides), Introduction to Sanhedrin; Derech Hashem (Way of G-d), 2:2:4

[16] Mishna, Eduyos, 2:10; Talmud, Eruvin, 19A; Derech Hashem (Way of G-d), 2:2:4

[17] Talmud, Sanhedrin, 104A; Rema, Shulcah Aruch (Code of Jewish Law), Yoreh Deah, 376:4

[18] Rema, Shulcah Aruch (Code of Jewish Law), Yoreh Deah, 376:4; Be’er Heitev, Orach Chaim, 132:5

[19] Pischei Teshuvah, Yoreh Deah, 376:9

[20] Mishna, Eduyos, 2:10

[21] Talmud, Rosh Hashanah, 17A; Bereishis Rabbah, 3:6; Rashi on Bereishis (Genesis), 1:4; Derech Hashem (Way of G-d), 1:3:10-11

[22] Rambam (Maimonides), Mishna Torah, Hilchos Teshuvah (Laws of Repentance), 8

[23] Sha’aray Teshuvah (Gates of Repentance), 2:24

[24] Kalla Rabati, 2:9; Pirkei d’Rabbi Eliezer Zuta, 17; Chasam Sofer, Orach Chaim 159

[25] Talmud Yerushalmi, Peah, 3A; Shloh on Megillah, Chapter Ner Mitzvah, 132; Ahavas Chessed (Love of Kindness), 3:3-4; Gesher Hachaim (Bridge of Life), 12:4 and 12:6

[26] Chovos Halevavos (Duties of the Heart), Sha’ar Ahavas Hashem (Gate of Loving G-d), 6; Derech Chaim Toras Musar, 61

[27] Talmud Brachos, 18B; Tosafos, Shabbos, 153A

[28] Zohar, Section 3, Pinchas, 219B-220A

[29] Rambam (Maimonides), Mishna Torah, Hilchos Teshuvah (Laws of Repentance), 8; Sha’aray Teshuvah (Gates of Repentance), 2:24

[30] Talmud Avodah Zarah, 10B; Rambam (Maimonides) Mishna Torah, Hilchos Teshuvah (Laws of Repentance), 3:5 and Hilchos Melachim (Laws of Kings), 8:14

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    2 Comments

  1. When I was a small boy, my family lived next door to a Jewish family. We are members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Our two families were very close. Their son was grown and had left the home, so the only people who lived there was the husband and the wife and the wife’s mother. Because the husband was in poor health, I would shovel their driveway every time it snowed. I even referred to the wife’s mother as Grandma. They were family to us and us to them. When the husband died, it was a sad time and my mother and I spent more time than normal in their home trying to console the wife and help in any way. I am now grown, my parents have passed on and their family has passed on. Today, I recalled this time in my life. I remember when the husband passed on, the wife kept on repeating over and over “follow the light.” That stuck out to me then and I still remember it. I think it would help me if I understood what she meant. Can you explain what this means in the Jewish faith?

    • Rabbi Tully Bryks

      Firstly, I would like to commend you for your love and devotion to this family. In these times of so much conflict and intolerance, it is beautiful and inspiring to see how families of different backgrounds and different faiths can come together.
      With regard to “light” in Judaism, it can represent many different things, so I don’t know for certain what this widow may have intended. But here are a couple of suggested possibilities:
      1. “Light” can be used to represent the spiritual world, the world that souls travel to after they leave this world. So her message could have been for her husband, hoping that he would obtain a high spiritual place in the afterlife.
      2. “Light” can represent goodness. Her message may have been for you, and for the rest of us who are still here. While we cannot control what happens to us, we CAN control how we respond to it. And choosing goodness is ultimately choosing life.

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