What Are the Beliefs of Death & Afterlife for the Jewish People?
As one of the world’s oldest religions, Judaism has a rich history of tradition and varying beliefs that have shifted over time. “Neshama” is a Hebrew word meaning both “life-giving breath” and “spirit.” Neshama can only be given by God, and though there are no specifics as to what happens to this spirit after death, the Talmud references a “world to come,” a righteous and just world that will materialize at the end of days. Most sects of Judaism, whether Orthodox or Reform, do believe in some type of afterlife.
Judaism originated over 3,500 years ago, and is considered one of the Abrahamic religions (along with Christianity and Islam). In the Old Testament, Abraham is called by God to be the father of the Jews, known as the “chosen people.” Jews worship in a temple or synagogue, and their spiritual leaders are called rabbis. Pre-dating the Torah, the first five books of the Christian Bible, much of Jewish law was passed down through oral tradition. The laws and traditions of Judaism are found in written form in the Torah, as well as in the rabbinical writings of the Talmud and the mystical teachings of Kabbalah.
2 The Soul
In Judaism, life is determined by breath, which is the life-giving spirit. “Neshama,” the word for both “breath” and “spirit,” can only be given by God, as is written in the Torah that "God blew the breath of life into Adam" (Genesis 2:7). The Zohar, the central text of Kabbalah, says that the soul is comprised of three parts: “There are three levels that comprise the soul, and therefore the soul has three names: nefesh, ruah, and neshamah. Nefesh … is the lowest of all. Ruah is the (power of) sustenance, which rules over the nefesh and is a higher level than (the nefesh), sustaining it throughout as is fitting. Neshamah is the highest (power of) sustenance, and rules over all, a holy level, exalted by all.” What happens to the Jewish soul upon death is a subject often discussed by rabbinic scholars, without a clear conclusion.
3 Jewish Traditions after Death
After death, the body is treated with the utmost care and respect, as it may still house the soul. The Chevra Kadisha, a sacred burial society, washes the body from head to toe with warm water, then wraps it in a plain white shroud. From the time of death until burial, someone will sit with the body reciting psalms, never leaving the body alone. Embalming and cremation are forbidden, as is autopsy (except in extreme circumstances), as they are considered to be a violation of the soul. It is Jewish tradition to bury the dead immediately. If it is not possible to have the burial the same day, then it should not be done more than three days after death. These laws may be attributed to early rabbinic folklore, in which it was believed that it took the soul three days to transition from death to the afterlife. Kabbalah teaches that the soul will linger until the burial and then move on, though it is not made clear how that happens or where the soul goes. In accordance with Jewish law, the body is to be buried in a plain pine box, and the Kaddish prayer is recited by family members at the gravesite. The family then sits in mourning, called “shiva,” for seven days.
4 The Afterlife
Though the Torah makes no specific reference to an afterlife, there are some passages that seem to suggest it, and this has given rabbis much to discuss for centuries. Christianity, in fact, derived its concept of an afterlife from its parent religion, Judaism.
Early Talmudic texts do, however, speak of Olam Ha Ba, a “world to come” that will materialize at the end of days, and also of Gan Eden (the Garden of Eden), a heavenly place where souls reside. During Olam Ha Ba, those who have lived a good and righteous life will rise from the dead, and if they have suffered in life, their reward in the world to come will be even greater. Only one’s ethical behavior will guarantee a place in this world to come, which is a place of righteousness, justice and overflowing abundance. Though many modern Jewish scholars have turned away from traditional thought regarding the afterlife, preferring to put emphasis on living a righteous life on earth, most Jews, whether Orthodox or Reform, do believe in some kind of afterlife.