Jewish Belief and Heaven

Yes, Jews believe in an afterlife in a world beyond the one you’re currently living in—sometimes referred to as “heaven.” A rich tradition informs us that there is a sequel to this life that makes sense of everything you’re going through in this installment.

Jews call this after-life Olam Ha-ba (“World to Come”) and Gan Eden (“Garden of Eden”).

Belief in an afterlife is core to Judaism. It’s a foundation stone without which the entire structure would collapse.

It begins with the belief that within the human being resides a spark of the divine. In Hebrew, that’s called a neshamah. Neshamah literally means “breath.” Think of it as G‑d breathing within the human body, as in the scene where G‑d formed Adam out of the earth “and He blew into his nostrils the breath of life.”

Just as G‑d is forever, so too the neshamah isJust as G‑d is forever, so too the neshamah is forever. forever.

Your neshamah lived a heavenly life before it entered a body on this earth, and it will live an even higher one afterward. For the neshamah, life in this body is but a corridor on the way to a yet higher place.

So, no, the neshamah doesn’t decay or decompose with the body in the grave. It is released to rise up to greater heights than it could have ever attained before its descent—because, while here in this world, it achieved something a neshamah cannot achieve without a body. It transformed the physical into spiritual, ugliness into beauty, the mundane into the divine. For that, it deserves a place higher than the angels. And even more.

That’s why we say kaddish for parents after their passing—to assist them on their journey to that lofty peak.

That’s also why we are so concerned with the details of burial—because the soul’s journey is deeply bound to its connection with the body to which it gave life. With this body, the soul performed acts of kindness. With this body, the soul delighted on the Shabbat. It was this body that the soul held back from non-kosher foods. This body prayed, studied, brought children into the world and raised them. From the sweat and toil of this body, the soul earned funds to distribute to those in need.

And that’s why everything we do in this lifetime matters so much, because all the good you do in the here-and-now has meaning for eternity.

How Important Is Heaven For Jews?

On the other hand, Judaism is not about “Do this and you get a ticket to heaven.” The Mishnah tells us that we shouldn’t be “as servants who serve their Judaism is not about “Do this and you get a ticket to heaven.”master so that they will receive a reward.”1

It’s more like “Here’s the program. If we all work on this together, look at what we can achieve.”

We’ll explain that program and that achievement below. First, some support for all we just said.

The Mishnah is the original and most authoritative collection of Jewish law, redacted in the Roman Era. It states explicitly, “Every Jew has a share in the World To Come.”

Maimonides is considered the great codifier of Judaism. He distilled thirteen principles of the Jewish faith. Two of those are directly connected to belief in reward in an afterlife: The belief in reward for the righteous and punishment for the wicked—which quite obviously does not happen in this lifetime—and the belief in the revival of the dead in a time to come.2

Is it possible to keep all the other precepts of Judaism without expecting any sign of appreciation when done? Maimonides is saying that you would be missing something crucial and essential. And only the most naive could argue that all good people receive their reward in this world.

But aside from that, it may also be very difficult. That’s why, when someone converts and accepts all the responsibilities that come with being a Jew, as part of the acceptance ceremony, the tribunal court must inform him or her “…that through the fulfillment of these mitzvahs you will merit to the World To Come.”3

Despite all this, Maimonides himself writes that the proper way to perform the mitzvahs of Judaism is to be like the first Jew, Abraham, who “did the truth because it was the truth.”

So, no, it’s not very Jewish to do G‑d’s will because it’s a ticket to heaven. We do His mitzvahs because of the covenant the Jewish people have with G‑d and because it’s the right thing to do. Yet, nevertheless, we do it all with utter confidence that it will pay off in the end.

How exactly it pays off is the subject of this article.

Now let’s go through this step by step.

Where Does the Hebrew Bible Talk About Heaven?

Jews call the collection of sacred Hebrew works from Moses to EzraTanach.” Tanach certainly does not comprise the totality of Judaism, but it does provide the roots and origins of everything Judaism contains.

Reading through Tanach, you won’t find much about heaven. But you will repeatedly get the sense that there’s an elephant in the room. Reading through Tanach, you get the sense there’s an elephant in the room.More than an elephant—there’s an entire world in the background that no one wants to discuss.

First, we’re told about a very early ancestor called Enoch. “Enoch,” we’re told, “walked with G‑d, and was gone, for G‑d had taken him.” 4

Where did he go?

Shush. Gone.

Later in the story, G‑d tells Abraham:

As for you, You shall go to your fathers in peace; You shall be buried at a ripe old age.5

Hold on: Abraham had left his father’s house in Haran many years before, to the land G‑d had promised him—the Land of Canaan. How is he expected to go to his fathers?

Indeed, we find later, as he is buried in Canaan:

And Abraham breathed his last, dying at a good ripe age, old and contented; and he was gathered to his kin.6

What and where is this place where families gather after being buried?

Not a word.

Securing the right burial plot takes high priority in several Biblical stories, beginning with Abraham, who shelled out a huge sum of money to secure a specific cave for the burial of his wife, Sarah.7 Later, he himself was buried there, as was his son, Isaac, as was Isaac’s wife, Rebecca.

Jacob buried his first wife, Leah, in the same cave. In his last days, while in Egypt, he called his son and insisted that his body be buried in that same cave.8

The story repeats itself when Jacob’s son, Joseph, insists that his bones also be carried to the Promised Land when the Children of Israel will eventually leave Egypt.9

There are immense difficulties involved in both these operations, of which Jacob and Joseph are well aware. What happens after death that renders the place of burial so crucial?

Don’t bother looking in the text. No answer there.

Then comes the story of Saul conjuring up Samuel’s spirit, well after Samuel’s passing.10 Exactly where Samuel’s spirit has been all this time—no account.

The same with the prophet Elijah. Malachi prophesies that Elijah will return in the future as the harbinger of the messianic era.11 Return from where? Yes, he went up to heaven in a fiery chariot. What’s up there?

Obviously, there’s a whole other life beyond this lifetime, but, for some reason, it’s not part of the story. Why not?

You might say there’s no anomaly here. Some of the most central institutions of Judaism are mentioned even more casually.

For example, the Shabbat day of rest. The Torah simply says, “Keep the Shabbat day to make it holy.”12 Why? Because G‑d rested on the seventh day. Apparently, there’s no need to explain what you have to do on Shabbat to keep it holy or what exactly defines rest.

The same occurs with the laws of kosher slaughter, the formalities of marriage, communal prayer, Tefillin, and other central institutions. The Torah takes knowledge of these things for granted and says only what is necessary—which, apparently, is very little.

But then, those are practices that were part of people’s daily lives. Their intimate familiarity rendered a written explanation superfluous.

Life after death, on the other hand, demands an explanation. If there’s nothing to look forward to, what incentive do we have for all our labor in this life? And if there is a great reward in this mysterious other world, why not tell us about it so we’ll work even harder to get it? Why the reticence?

There is a reward Tanach speaks of explicitly and repeatedly. It’s not a personal, but a collective reward. When it comes to the ultimate heaven of Tanach, no one gets in until all When it comes to the ultimate heaven, no one gets in until all of us get in.of us get in.

Indeed, if there’s one overarching, repetitive motif throughout Tanach that stands out above all others, it is this: The promise to the Jewish people of eternal life13 upon a precious land, “as the days of heaven upon the earth.”14

The tension is set from the very beginning, when Adam and Eve are exiled from the Garden of Eden.

The covenant G‑d made to Abraham to grant his children the Land of Canaan rings with an unmistakable hint of resolution to that original proto-human exile. Indeed, when G‑d informs Abraham that before receiving this land, his children will first suffer oppression in “a land that does not belong to them,” the Kabbalists explain that this exile into slavery in Egypt was meant to be the final repair to the Garden of Eden affair.15

Unfortunately, the entire rescue operation from Egypt ran haywire, and the conquest of Canaan was never completed. Abraham was promised an area “…from the river of Egypt until the great river, the Euphrates.” The actual conquest at its height never came close to that.

Eventually, another exile ensued. And then another return. And then yet another exile. Currently, we are in exile. Resolution has yet to arrive.

Indeed, the storyline demanded resolution much earlier.

Moses led the people out of Egypt towards the Promised Land. The next generation made it there, but Moses was told by G‑d that he could not enter. Instead, he was buried on Mt. Nebo, from where he has a view of the land.16

Now the question is not only on the burial spot but also on the fairness overall. The man who took the people out of Egypt is denied the privilege of entering the Promised Land?

And while we’re asking about Moses, how about Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob? The Promised Land, after all, was originally promised to them for their good deeds and faithfulness. Is it possible that the children should inherit their ancestor’s promise and the ancestors have no portion of their own?

From all this, it becomes apparent that the final, grand cadence, the culminating achievement, and reward for the labor of keeping a heavenly covenant upon this earth is not life as a soul in some blissful realm beyond our own. That’s only a pleasant vacation spot between the real business here on earth.

The ultimate goal is that we will recreate We’re not in the business of getting to heaven. We’re in the business of bringing heaven down to earth.the Garden of Eden here in this world, that heaven will be upon this earth. That is the reward due to Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Moses—indeed, all those who had a part in this achievement, as we’ll get to soon.

That being so, it’s clear why we don’t find much about heaven in Tanach: Because we've been looking in the wrong direction. The real heaven is not what happens in a supernal realm after death. To discuss that would be a diversion and distraction from the real theme. The real heaven is what happens down here as the fruit of our collective labor of millennia.

We’re not in the business of getting to heaven. We’re in the business of bringing heaven down to earth.

Texts About Heaven

Eventually, there came a time when little could be taken for granted anymore and everything had to be set down in writing.

The Mishnah is the original and most authoritative collection of Jewish law, redacted in the Roman Era. Talmud is an elaboration of the Mishnah. Both were composed at a time when Jews were already dispersed throughout two massive, warring empires and Jewish received wisdom was at a clear risk of being entirely forgotten.

So within these extensive and authoritative works, you’ll find an occasional discussion of gradations of heavens, the afterlife, and the World To Come—even accounts of those who entered heaven and returned—just as you will find discussions of all those other institutions taken for granted in Tanach.

The Zohar, a work contemporary to the Mishnah which deals with the spiritual side of Jewish practice, provides yet more detail. The Zohar, however, remained a hidden work for over a thousand years.

There are many more classic Jewish works since the Roman era up until the present that discuss heaven and life afterlife in much detail.

Using Jewish Language for Heaven

As mentioned above, Jews generally don’t talk of “heaven.” Instead, Jews talk about Gan Eden (the garden of Eden)—as in “Mom is glad to be back with Dad in Gan Eden.

Jews also speak about Olam Ha-ba (the World To Come)—as in “You could lose your place in Olam Ha-ba for saying things like that about people.”

To complicate matters, the two terms Think of Gan Eden as a kind of retirement home to hold the souls until the ultimate reward can be attained.are sometimes used to refer to the same place. In their most defined sense, however, they refer to two distinct eras of history.

Gan Eden, as mentioned above, was the original residence of humankind. In truth, it remains just that. Ever since we were banished from there, Gan Eden serves as an interim heaven after (or between) terms of corporeal life. Think of it as a kind of retirement home to hold the souls until the ultimate reward can be attained.

Olam Ha-ba is the final and eternal phase of this world we are in right now, once it is repaired and perfected through our efforts. At that point, all souls that were involved in this process will return an earthly existence to experience the fruits of their labor.

An interim phase, here on earth, is Yemot Ha-Moshiach— “the Days of Moshiach.” To discuss heaven, it’s necessary to discuss the Era of Moshiach as well.

So let’s go through that progression of history as mapped out in classic Jewish literature, step by step:

1. Our current world—here and now as of this writing.

2. Gan Eden—also now, but not within our material dimension.

3. The Era of Moshiach—here, but not now.

4. Resurrection of the dead—at the final stage of the messianic era.

5. Olam Ha-Ba—post-resurrection of the dead.

Jewish Heaven as a Spiritual Garden

Gan Eden, as we said, coincides with the current phase of our reality—a world in a state of becoming. These are workdays—working towards a world in its ultimate state of being.

You can think of Gan Eden as the natural consequence of death for a dedicated worker.

Let’s say a soul was heavily engaged in good deeds and Torah study in this lifetime. Problem is, in this lifetime, it’s simply not possible to experience the great pleasure that those deeds and wisdom brought to the universe and its Maker from within a physical body.

But once that soul departs from its corporeal shell (i.e. death), it naturally rises to Gan Eden, a reality in which it can “bask in the rays of the Shechinah,17 a spiritual realm where that light can be perceived and enjoyed without the hindrance and limitation of a physical body.18

If you have a hard time imagining pleasure without a body, think of the many spiritual pleasures you have even in this lifetime. Music, art, and fine literature all lift you somewhat from the mundane into a less physical form of enjoyment. Then there’s the pleasure of a delightful nugget of wisdom. Or the spiritual delight that comes from helping out another living being.19

Those are spiritual pleasures we can experience even from within the bounds of this crustacean shell. Without Without a physical body, delight becomes unimaginably intense.a physical body, delight becomes unimaginably intense.

So intense, we’re told, that without the right outfitting, our souls would dissolve in the light—something like an astronaut requires an outfit to enter into cosmic space without being zapped by the cosmic rays. This delight is, after all, not simply a spiritual delight, but the unbounded delight of the Infinite Creator Himself.

What’s the material of that outfit? Those mitzvahs that you did while you had a body. The Zohar calls mitzvahs “clothing,”20 because for each mitzvah that you do in this lifetime, your soul receives another layer of protection allowing it to journey deeper and yet deeper into the light without evaporating into cosmic plasma.

Do the souls in Gan Eden have any connection with us who remain in physical bodies?

Yes. The Zohar states that “If it were not for the intervention of those souls that have already left us, our world would not endure for a moment.”21

As well, under certain circumstances, a soul may come to visit a living person from its place in Gan Eden—although leaving its spiritual heaven for this dark, physical space makes a very painful and difficult visit.22 Elijah, the prophet, is one who glides back and forth between this realm and Gan Eden.

Gan Eden is not the static, stillness of heaven some imagine, either. Souls rise each year on the day of their passing to yet a higher heaven, to attain yet higher divine consciousness and pleasure. The study, prayer, and charitable deeds of those they have left behind on this earth can assist them in this journey ever higher.23

“The students of the wise have no rest,” states the Talmud, “not in this world, and not in the World To Come.”24

As good as it gets, Gan Eden can never provide the ultimate reward. That’s why the heavenly, spiritual pleasure of Gan Eden is compared to light. Light is always about something else—the object that’s reflecting it, or the luminary that’s generating it. Light is never the thing itself.

But when a soul within a body helped out another human being, kept Shabbat, wrapped tefillin, or did some other mitzvah, both the soul and the body made a direct and atemporal connection with the very essence of G‑d Himself—not just His light or emanations. For the universe to be fair and balanced, at some point both body and soul will have to attain a tangible experience of the connection for which they were responsible.

Only that such an experience can’t arrive until all souls have collectively completed their mission down here in living bodies, clearing away the coarseness that prevents feeling that experience.

The Messianic Era

This is what history is all about—a process of gradual refinement, removing the bad and embracing the precious good until the world can be the way it was meant to be from the start. It’s a process called tikun, as in the term, Tikun Olam.

The program for refining this world is called Torah and mitzvahs. The more mitzvahs we do, the more refined this world becomes.

As with any refinement, the work intensifies as the process unfolds, as the roughest, toughest impurities are removed and the deepest beauty of the end product is revealed. The souls involved in the process may sometimes be pulled down into the dross, schlepping much of the good that was achieved with them and causing major setbacks.

But eventually, every soul will return, carrying with it all the good that was lost, lifting it all to yet a higher level than would have been achieved without that failure.

As things improve, the dark, the evil, and the ugly often appear to become yet more dominant. That’s only because the labor of tikun has successfully reached into the deepest recesses of darkness’ den, where the most demanding work awaits us. In order to draw out the inner powers of the soul that this labor requires, the darkness challenges the soul with its full repertoire of devices.

Until at some undisclosed point—that At some undisclosed point—that by all indications is exceedingly imminent—the final polishing of the end-product will be done.by all indications is exceedingly imminent—the final polishing of the end-product will be done, the curtains lifted, and history will enter the Days of Moshiach.

That’s when a great teacher and leader will arise. With the consent and support of all peoples, he will rebuild the Temple in Jerusalem. The Jewish people will all return to their homeland to hear the deepest, sweetest teachings of Torah wisdom from this great teacher-king. The nations of the world will also live in peace and prosperity as “no nation shall lift a sword unto the other, and neither will they learn war anymore.”25

Finally, we will be able to fulfill the teachings of the Torah to their utmost until “the earth will be filled with wisdom as waters cover the ocean floor.”26

The problem then will not be with our environment, but with the many souls that will still require their tikun—souls known as the erev rav, literally, “the mixed multitude.27 ” As long as a single soul remains unrepaired and unperfected, the souls of Israel and of all humanity remain inherently lacking.28

That final tikun will occur in the messianic era, through the mitzvahs and Torah study of that time, along with the service in the Temple in Jerusalem.

Our universe and all that dwell within it will rise to a yet higher, ultimate state until it attains the state that G‑d meant for it from the beginning of its creation. We will have achieved as much as is possible for human beings to achieve on earth with the heaven-given mitzvahs.

Now comes G‑d’s turn to reciprocate. We do all we can, He fills in the rest.

What Comes After Heaven?

That’s what we call Olam Ha-Ba—the World To Come. It’s really this world, but in its ultimate state.

After everything has been repaired and perfected in the messianic era, the souls of all that had a hand in that tikun will return to live eternal life in the reconstructed bodies they occupied when they did their work. This is called Techiyat Ha-Meitim (reviving of the dead), and was foretold by the prophet Ezekiel in his prophecy of the Valley of Dry Bones, in which G‑d told him:

Prophesy, therefore, and say to them: Thus said Hashem, G‑d: I am going to open your graves and lift you out of the graves, O My people, and bring you to the land of Israel.29

… and by Daniel:

Many of those that sleep in the dust of the earth will awake, some to eternal life, others to reproach, to everlasting abhorrence. And the sages will be radiant like the bright expanse of sky, and those who lead the many to righteousness will be like the stars forever and ever.30

Why would souls leave their spiritual heaven to return to this physical realm for eternity?31

Because at that time, life in a physical environment will be the optimum way to experience divine knowledge. The limitations imposed by physicality as we know it will no longer exist. Only the advantages will remain—that truth will come in tangible, palpable, and hi-resolution substance and form.

G‑d will “remove the spirit of impurity from the earth,” according to the prophet Zechariah.32 And, as Moses told, G‑d will “circumcise our hearts” so that we will feel such awareness of the divine, it will be impossible for us to sin.33 The entire occupation of humankind will be only “to know G‑d”—to rise higher and higher in divine wisdom and consciousness.34

All that is true will All that is true will survive, and all the evil and suffering of the past will be transformed to great light.survive, and all the evil and suffering of the past will be transformed to great light. The experience of living in a physical body at that time and perceiving the divine with flesh eyes will far exceed anything that could be provided in a spiritual realm, to the point that even the highest souls that have been ascending year after year in the limitless realms of Gan Eden will descend to here to experience something they could never attain up there.

Because Gan Eden is an experience of light and more light. The Olam Ha-Ba that we are working towards is an experience of the Source of all that light, of union with G‑d Himself. Ironically, it will be that very same union that we achieved every time we did a mitzvah—but were never capable of experiencing.

Which is why Rabbi Yaakov says in the Mishnah:

One moment of bliss in Olam Ha-Ba is more beautiful than all the life of this world. And one moment of return to G‑d and good deeds in this world is more beautiful than all the life of Olam Ha-Ba.35

All the great bliss that we will experience then, in that ultimate time, will have been generated out of our labor and struggle in the deepest moments of this lifetime now.36

Do All Jews Go to Heaven?

Back to that Mishnah we mentioned at the beginning:

Every Jewish person has a share in Olam Ha-Ba, as it is said, “Your people are all righteous. They will inherit the land forever. They are the shoot of My planting, the work of My hands, in which I glory.” (Isaiah 60:21)

And these are the ones who have no portion in Olam Ha-Ba: One who maintains that resurrection of the dead is not a Biblical doctrine, that the Torah was not divinely revealed, and one who despises the sages.37

Meaning that every Jew is born with a Every Jew is born with a share in Olam Ha-Ba.share in Olam Ha-Ba, but through certain misdeeds, a soul can forfeit that share. One who knows and understands what Olam Ha-Ba is all about, but denies its truth, cuts himself off from the experience.

The same goes for someone who is Torah-informed, but rejects the notion of the divine origin of Torah, or rejects the guidance of the sages that the Torah itself prescribes.

The Talmud continues to list other misdeeds and attitudes that can bar a Jew from picking up on his or her share of Olam Ha-Ba. But through teshuvah—remorse and return to G‑d—a soul can regain that lost share. Maimonides, in his code that covers the gamut of Jewish law, writes that even if a person repents only within the private chambers of his heart, he can reclaim his share.38

Similarly, through an abundance of good deeds, a soul can increase its share in Olam Ha-Ba.

Can Non-Jews Get Into Jewish Heaven

“The righteous of the nations have a share in Olam Ha-Ba,” states the Talmud39 , and although “The righteous of the nations have a share in Olam Ha-Ba.” there is some debate, this is the final ruling of Maimonides.40

It makes sense. You don’t have to be Jewish to fulfill the divine purpose for which you were created, just as being Jewish doesn’t mean you’re fulfilling your divine purpose.

On the contrary, if G‑d’s plan was for everyone to be Jewish, He would have arranged history to at least make that a possibility. But no, G‑d loves diversity—many different flavors of human life all coming together in a single divine harmony.

What are the requirements of righteousness? The Talmud and Maimonides list seven fundamental guidelines for all humankind.41 Other Jewish sages have pointed out that these are in addition to the basic intuitions of all upright human beings.

Maimonides adds on another stipulation. He writes that Olam Ha-Ba is reserved for those who do good because they know that this is what G‑d wants from them. Those who do these things simply because it makes sense to them, he writes, are not righteous, they are just wise.

That also makes sense. Olam Ha-Ba is a divine world. There must have been something divine in a person’s life that allows him or her to enter an eternal, divine world.