This Q and A is inspired by some misconceptions I’ve seen proliferating about Jewish mourning terminology and beliefs in the Afterlife.
Contemporary Jewish communities shy away from Jewish concepts of “Heaven and Hell,” but their existence in Jewish theology is well-established and became a focus of Jewish interpretation during the Maccabean period.
Q. Does Judaism have a belief in “Heaven” or The Afterlife?
A. Absolutely! The Tanakh (Hebrew Scriptures), the Talmud and the Zohar speak of a spiritual realm where our souls go when we depart from This World (Olam Hazeh).
We even have a handful of expressive Hebrew terms for it!
1. Olam Habah (The World To Come/Afterlife)
2. Shemayim (Skies/Heaven)
3. Gan Eden (Garden of Eden/Spiritual Paradise)
4. Yeshiva Shel Ma’alah (School on High)
The Torah speaks of Abraham, Ishmael, Issac, Jacob, Moses and Aaron being embraced by their people after death. (Genesis 25:8; 25:17; 35:29; 49:33. Deuteronomy 32:50).
Other places in the Tanakh speak of the fate of the soul after death:
And many of them that sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake, some to everlasting life, and some to reproaches and everlasting abhorrence.Daniel 12:2
The Sephardic custom when leaving a Shiva house of mourning is to say “min haShamayim tenuchamu (or tenuchamu min haShamayim) – “May you be comforted by Heaven.”
The term Olam Hazeh (This World) exists in direct relation to Olam Habah (The World to Come).
Q. Do Jews use the term “Rest In Peace?” I heard it’s inappropriate to use when mourning a Jewish person.
A. YES we use it and no, it’s not inappropriate. We have other more commonly known phrases, such as “May his / her memory be for a blessing,” but rest in peace is integral to the “laying to rest” prayer called El Meleh Rachaman or Hashkavah (Sephardic) used in Jewish funeral liturgy and gravestone unveilings.
The prayer concludes with, “may he rest in his resting place in peace and let us say Amen.” (The pronoun changes befittingly to he, she or them).
Other Jewish expressions for the deceased are:
- “lech b’shalom” — “go in peace.”
- “Alav hashalom עליו השלום” (m) or “aleha hashalom עליה השׁלום (f)” — “peace be upon him / her.”
They are Rest In Peace equivalents and carry the same benevolent sentiments.
Q. Does Judaism have a concept of spiritual rewards in the Afterlife for conduct here on earth?
A. Yes! The performance of Mitzvot (commandments and good deeds) is said to prepare us for a bountiful spiritual ‘feast’ in Olam Habah (The World to Come).
This world is like a lobby before Olam HaBah. Prepare yourself in the lobby so that you may enter the banquet hall.Mishnah/Pirkei Avot 4:21
This world is like the eve of Shabbat and Olam HaBah is like Shabbat. He who prepares on the eve of Shabbat will have food to eat on Shabbat.Talmud
Life never ends. It just goes higher and higher. In the afterlife, the soul is liberated from the body and returns closer to source than ever before.
The Torah describes Abraham’s death, for example, as going to rest with his fathers and similar phrases.
The good deeds and wisdom the soul has gained on her mission below serve as a protection for her journey upwards.
The Zohar tells us that our world endures upon the intercession of the pure souls above. Each of our lives is strongly impacted by the work of our ancestors in that other world. Grandma’s still watching over you.Chabad
The “Eilu Devarim” blessing recited in the morning, begins with recognizing deeds that reap rewards in this world and the next.
These mitzvos [mitzvot] are so great that one can enjoy the spiritual proceeds in this world and still have the reward for the initial mitzvah waiting in the Next World.Eilu Devarim / Rabbi Jack Abramowitz / OUTorah
The true concept of reward is not extraneous to the act; the reward is the act itself.
Every mitzvah contains a certain amount of spiritual illumination from above. The Kabbalists explain that when we perform a mitzvah, we are surrounded by that light.
After completion of the mitzvah, that light goes up toward heaven and combines with the light of all the other mitzvot that individual has performed — it is another “brick” in the building of one’s own next world. That light represents the illumination of connection to the almighty, the ultimate bliss and reward for which we were created to receive in the next world.Rabbi Yerachmiel D. Fried / Texas Jewish Post
Q. Are rewards in the Afterlife the impetus for doing good deeds?
A. Ideally, no. Judaism favors an altruistic approach when performing “Avodah” (Holy work), such as “bikkur cholim”(comforting the sick) or “ma’achil re’evim” (feeding the hungry). However, it’s better to do a mitzvah for the wrong reason, than not do it all. (Thanks to Luftmentsch, for that reminder!)
Please see my post, Heaven, Hell, Astral Projection and Reincarnation for another dive into Jewish beliefs that have essentially been removed from the conversation in contemporary Judaism.
May people of all faiths be united by our beliefs rather than divided.
Thank you for your presence and your work in this world! ❤️
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