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Why So Little About Life After Death in the Bible?

Why So Little About Life After Death in the Bible?

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Question:

Does Judaism believe in an afterlife? From what I’ve read of the Torah, it seems that there is no mention of life after death. Is this world all there is?

Answer:

You have hit on one of the most powerful messages of Judaism: there may be many worlds, but this is the one that matters the most.

As you wrote, the Torah doesn’t mention life after death. Although it is spoken about in the later prophets, the afterlife is conspicuously absent from the Five Books of Moses.

Having said that, there is certainly an indication that ultimate justice will be done someplace other than this world. A striking example is the story of Cain and Abel.

Cain and Abel bring offerings to G‑d; G‑d likes Abel’s offering but not Cain’s; Cain is jealous and kills Abel. End of story. But wait! In one line the Torah says that G‑d is happy with Abel; the next minute he is dead! And Cain, whom G‑d wasn’t happy with, walks away! Is this the reward for doing good?

The message is clear: this world is not always fair. But G‑d will not remain indebted. Ultimate justice will come later.

So why doesn’t the Torah mention the next world? Why is it left to later prophets to describe it?

Because the Torah is about this world, not the next. While other religions dangle exciting promises of what lies in store for the righteous in paradise, even giving vivid descriptions of who awaits you there and interesting facts about their biology, Judaism doesn’t see this as a valid motive for doing good. G‑d wants us to do good because it is good.

There is another lifetime, in which the righteous will be rewarded, and the wicked punished: we believe that, and the prophets spoke about it. But that is G‑d’s business. We have to concern ourselves with this lifetime. Our mission is to do good, fight evil, and make this a safe and comfortable world—a place where both G‑d and man can feel at home.

Without belief in an afterlife, there is no justice. The Cains of this world can get away with murder. But by overemphasizing the importance of the afterlife over this life, we run the risk of belittling the sanctity and preciousness of life itself.

Judaism has a different approach: Better leave the next world to G‑d; meanwhile, let’s work on this world. Starting with ourselves.

Aron Moss is rabbi of the Nefesh Community in Sydney, Australia, and is a frequent contributor to Chabad.org.
Sefira Ross is a freelance designer and illustrator whose original creations grace many Chabad.org pages. Residing in Seattle, Washington, her days are spent between multitasking illustrations and being a mom.
© Copyright, all rights reserved. If you enjoyed this article, we encourage you to distribute it further, provided that you comply with Chabad.org's copyright policy.
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Judith Katz Jerusalem August 1, 2016

Incorporeal beings came to my close relative while in his 20's. The being asked my relative's permission to heal people by using his body, as well as give spiritual guidance to people with life concerns. My relative agreed and was told many things about life's purpose, cosmology and the situation of humans in addition to 'reiki' healing and 'channeling' for people in troubling situations. Idk if this is relevant, but my relative was a kohen, but non-observant secular jew. He was not mentally ill, and had a family. After many years my relative died in his late 60's from an aggressive cancer attacking his central nervous system. It was a painful and ugly death. From this experience, I turned to Judaism for answers. There is much written about other worlds and angels in our siddur. In Shema, we are told not to deviate from hashem-the Creator-and to do as He instructs us and no other. The mystical deaths of Aaron's sons are reiterated to us, as a warning. Hashem is explicit about what He wants of BneiYisrael Reply

Chaim Portland July 31, 2016

Rona Leah,

MT tells us the Canaanites were confused by idolaters and magicians (actually, it continued well past the time of Moses, and even today some seek out idols, such as those related to Buddhism/Hinduism). So it is a characteristic of our people that we can be deceived by idols.

Why is preying on this tendency this punishable by death? Because those who enticed the Canaanites to worship false idols also enticed them to do far worse.

In this context M.T. and Rashi tell us that those who "consult ghosts" are in reality "speaking like a ventriloquist from [their] armpit, bringing up the voice of the dead." He does not say it is possible. He indicates it may be possible for "a necromancer, that is, one who raises up the ghost of the dead or converses with a skull." But M.T., 1:6:1 indicates that this communication is "conceived by imagination." In other words, if you believe this sort of thing is possible, you have been deceived. We cannot know what the next world may bring. Reply

Rona Leah Israel July 31, 2016

Survival of the soul, etc. Thanks, everyone for sharing views and comments. To Anonymous, I would like to know what you base your assertions on. What you say is, broadly, what most religions believe. I am trying to find out what this belief is based on, especially within Judaism, as the Bible tends to mention "Sheol"and not much else. Interesting, the
reference to prohibition on contacting the dead. This is one of the only implications that in fact it's possible, and that those who have passed on could be reached - i.e. Saul calling up the spirit of the Prophet Samuel with the help of the Witch of En-Dor. There seems to be some considerable contemporary evidence for the continuation of a spirit or soul, but I'm trying to find out specifically what Judaism says, and why. Reply

Chaim Portland July 28, 2016

David, dare goes first. Reply

Anonymous July 26, 2016

second death There is a death of the body here on earth and if we do good and follow G-d's commandments we go to Him and wait. If we do bad then we still go to Him and wait. However there is a second death, the death of the soul/spirit if we perish of the spirit we are separated from Gd forever. Reply

David Chester Petach Tikva, Israel July 26, 2016

An unholy messanger? What can we do to bribe a departing soul into sending us some message about what after-life is really like? Spiritualists claim that this connection has already been established, but according to Jewish law, such communications are forbidden. So its up to somebody (or rather some soul) to altruistically break the rules! Reply

Natan Brasil July 25, 2016

Science is already bringing explanations Seems still the tendency of throwing away such fundamental and highly important (and demanded) questions to our current lifetime condition the concepts like "justice" and a "better world" (paradise?) sending all it to the event after one's death, and cause sadness to many people... I think the tendency of religious views on this matter is always political baiased, due to it's insistent manteined affairs with hierarquical forms of social life, stablishment of authority, and with the only economic form of exchange. I indeed follow the jewish faith personaly, as a ben Noach, and admit I have many to learn yet about all its cultural richness and unexchangeable worth. But I see a general way that traditional communities deal with "death" and "justice" always as the same, as if the current World's state of affairs were just fine, and cannot be changed, questioned, even were forcibly to be understood as the "G'd's wish". Anyway, now Science is explaining it without biases. B'H', chonen haDaat Reply

Rona Leah israel July 25, 2016

Thanks, Chaim and David. Yes, I have been to shiurim and heard about the scenario described by Chaim - the details are not always the same, it has to be said, but the general idea is. It makes me wonder 'how does anyone know'? Kabbalah also recognises Gilgulim, but you don't see any references to reincarnation in a Jewish prayer book, nor do many Jews know it is part of Jewish belief. And then again, when we say 'Kabbalah' there are many sources. So the picture is quite confusing. Yes, today is the only day we have, but on the other hand, to have some evidence, for instance, of Reincarnation, would answer a number of questions about life, and perhaps about good and evil. That wouldn't make Today any less important, but would place it in a different context.
Best wishes to you both. Reply

David R. Silver Pikesville, MD 21208-4109 July 25, 2016

Today I have always heard that today is the best time. It may not seem that way some times but it is better to have today than a whole lot of yesterdays or even a lot of tomorrows. I do not know the name of the philosopher who said that today is the best time nor why he said it. I am still trying to find the answer. Reply

Chaim Portland July 24, 2016

Rona Leah, the party line is that the soul (neshama) hovers over the body during its first 12 months of decomposition, then proceeds to gehenom, where the soul itself is cleansed by fire (for up to 12 months, according to its righteousness). The actions that we take in this world can help our soul ascend the path of righteousness (the sfirot of kabbalic fame). After the last (Jewish) soul has made this journey, the next world will come.

Many of these ideas are rooted in kabbalism, with very few direct references to the Torah (Talmud/Tanach). That is to say the records of the Torah reference the mysticism that tells us about the path of the soul, but do not directly spell it out--and for good reason.

What I take away from all of it is that we are all here, on Earth, until the next world comes, and that we are practicing how to make choices that benefit one another (positive mitzvot) so that we may remember what steps to take along the final journey on the path to righteousness. Reply

Rona Leah israel July 22, 2016

Thanks for thoughtful and courteous responses. But it all seems to add up to a basic 'we don't know'. David, you are sure that a 'spirit' exists and continues after physical death. J. in Toronto, you are sure that the Creator and Creation are as recorded in Bereshit, but am not sure that this gives any info on an Afterlife. Chaim in Portland, it's true that the promise of 'pie in the sky when you die'has often been misused, but that doesn't give us any real info on the possibility of an Afterlife, does it?

I am particularly interested in what Judaism says about an Afterlife, which is not quite the same question as 'what happens after death.'

On a personal level, I know a number of people who seem to remember past lives, one has even written a book about it. I've also had experiences that seem to indicate that a spirit or personality survives. Reply

David Chester Petach Tikva, Israel July 21, 2016

Life after death must of necessity be very different since it is the spirit which passes on. How can this spirit feel pleasure or pain has not been properly explained, and the disconnection of it from our physical feelings and experiences is so great, as to make us become unable to imagine what this second or after-world is really like. All we know is that both physical pleasure/pain and emotional pleasure/pain exist on our world. Our souls might experience only the latter kind, but even that guess is undetermined. Reply

J. Toronto July 20, 2016

Eccesiates, just one of the 'ketuvim' Rona, i admire your question. Are G-d's appointed times something we could fathom? Can we really know HaShem's mysteries? Were the Rabbis' methodologies accurate?

If Cain had taken time to pull out the thorn of reactionary competitiveness, would he have 'clashed swords' with Abel? Did they dare wildly enough to step out of that space of self-righteous entitlement?

How were Adam and Eve together differently that they produced a 'Seth';

About how many years does just the Sefer Bereshit comprise?

Maybe the truth lies beyond the dualistic ideology of home versus homelessness. Two potential sanctuaries; no prisoners, no exiles. Reply

Chaim Portland July 20, 2016

Similar to the use of Christianity to enslave the Africans on the American continent (focus on the afterlife where your suffering will be reduced), the Egyptians also used the afterlife to enslave the Hebrews (you always have been and always shall be a slave). Since nobody really knows anything about the path of the eternal soul (except that living humans sometimes exhibit qualities of past humans they didn't even know), and since the "afterlife" has been used as an excuse for slavery on multiple occasions, it's a dangerous addition to any discussion of morality. Spirituality should benefit and enrich members of the community, and not lead to their enslavement. Reply

Rona Leah Israel July 20, 2016

Life After Death - if any Thanks for replies. Rabbi Brownstein's and Yehuda Shurpin give the usual accepted answer, but it's difficult to know on what this is based. There are other lines in Ecclesiastes which would make the reader draw very different conclusions. And the decision to include Kohelet in the Canon was made by mortal men, and only after some discussion. So a very slight piece of evidence on which to hang a whole system of belief, surely? Reply

Rolando VA July 19, 2016

I agree that the afterlife is G-d's business and that His justice implies either joy or suffering. Sadly, Muslim martyrdom claims joy as its reward, a non sequitur Reply

Julie Smith Sydney July 19, 2016

The Noahide laws state that systems of justice must be established. This is because God wants people to see justice in this lifetime, not to have to wait for the next. The motivation for this is pretty obvious. When people see injustice after injustice, even committed by those who dress like the righteous, they find it hard to believe in God, or at least a God they would want to love. So God tells us to right the wrongs we see on earth, bring about justice, because that will ultimately bring about the redemption.

Also, at the end of this week's parshah, 24,000 people died for soliciting prostitutes. When Dina was raped, 24,000 were killed to right that wrong. And 24,000 students of Rabbi Akiva died to right the wrong of senseless hatred.

The Rambam never spoke of the afterlife, but one of this 13 principles of faith is to believe in divine retribution. Punishment and reward will come either in this life or in the next - but it will come. To believe that is what it means to be Jew Reply

Rabbi Shmary Brownstein For Chabad.org June 8, 2015

To Rona Leah What you write is precisely the issue being addressed here: that there is no clear mention of the afterlife in the Tanach. It is likewise with the subject of reincarnation (see here.

The references to the finality of death in the Tanach relate to the idea that once one dies, they can no longer perform mitzvahs and transform the world. This can be done only by a soul in a body. The tragedy of death is that the soul is no longer effective, even if it can reside in Paradise. But at the time of a death we bless G-d as being "Dayan Ha'Emet," the True Judge, acknowledging that G-d can still exact justice for the soul after the body's death, whether for good or the opposite.

Ecclesiastes says this about the afterlife: "Before... the dust returns to the earth... and the spirit returns to G-d who gave it" [12:7] Reply

Rona Leah Israel May 30, 2015

Is the story of Cain and Abel really a striking example that ultimate justice will be done? Abel is dead, but Cain is actually given a protective sign, and will live out his life. It's true that "without belief in an afterlife there is no justice," but is that belief justified?

Over and over again in the Tanach there are references to Sheol, variously translated as 'the pit', 'the grave' or even 'hell', but it doesn't sound at all like a good place to be.

We are told that the dead do not praise God, neither they that go down to silence, and there are many other psalms and verses that offer praises for being saved in this world, as if death is to be avoided at all costs. Reincarnation (gilgulei nefashot) isn't mentioned at all as far as I can see. Different (orthodox) rabbis give quite different answers to the questioner.

Our mission here may well be to do good, fight evil, etc. but surely it's not unreasonable to want to know what our faith says about Eternity, if any. Reply

Anonymous Singapore, Singapore June 8, 2012

Amazing wisdom I have read several of the articles on chabad.org. My Conclusion: You folks truly posses no ordinary wisdom. Reply

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