Judaism Q and A: Heaven and The Afterlife

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! ❤️


©️ 2020 The Wild Pomegranate // All Rights Reserved

25 thoughts on “Judaism Q and A: Heaven and The Afterlife

  1. Phil R Sutherland

    Thank you so much for that extensive commentary on the viewpoint of Judaism on death and the afterlife. This is a concept that is so misunderstood and often glossed over. This is a subject that requires in depth study or research and is not easily understood. Unfortunately, it is too often the subject of rumor and often the false interpretation being passed on by those who have not studied the material and have read some false interpretation. Many times it happens from those who are new to the faith or outside the faith and repeating what they have heard rather than from real knowledge. I have found that Melton Classes are one good place to learn Judaism in depth for those who want an overall understanding of a wide range of subjects. There are many places to gain insight and understanding of Judaism, along with Torah, etc. We are fortunate to have a scholar among us that can provide excellent knowledge of such subjects!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. The Wild Pomegranate//Abi

      Oy…these topics are very misunderstood and essentially overlooked in contemporary Judaism, causing many misunderstandings that are circulating now. I wasn’t sure if they taught this in Melton or not, but it’s good to know you gained in-depth knowledge from Melton classes. Thank you for comment and your kind words! 👍🖖🌻

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      1. The Wild Pomegranate//Abi

        Thank you!! I found another book as well, Journey to Heaven: Exploring Jewish Views of the Afterlife. Both books look like great resources.

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  2. With the final question I would add that the Talmud says that it’s better to perform a mitzvah for the wrong reason than not doing it at all, because if you do it for the wrong reason, in the end you’ll come to do it for the right reason.

    Liked by 2 people

  3. First of all, it is so wonderful that you write the things you do.

    Secondly, I reflected a lot on these particular issues after my father died, as you know, and I found an amazing book called ‘Jewish Views of the Afterlife’, which I would assume that you’re familiar with.

    Based upon what I read, I found the more ancient and simple imagery of “being gathered unto one’s ancestors” to be much more comforting and compelling than much of the (dare I say) nonsense that human beings have come up with over the centuries following.

    Here’s what I learned (quoted from my own writing):

    It is not until the Book of Jeremiah (completed during the last half of the 6th century BCE) that “the concept of individual retribution, and hence individual responsibility, finally enters Jewish thought”.

    And – from that book, which I mentioned to you:

    From its inception, biblical Judaism… was concerned… not at all with the postmortem fate of the individual Israelite per se. In patriarchal and Mosaic times… there is no notion of an individual afterlife experience for the soul… nor any idea of a soul separate from the body.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. The Wild Pomegranate//Abi

      I haven’t read Jewish Views of the Afterlife, but it’s now on my list. I found another Jewish book called Journey to Heaven when checking out the one you recommended. It sounds really good too.

      I too find the imagery of being “gathered unto one’s ancestors” as described in the Tanakh, to be a very comforting way of describing the Afterlife.

      I love that Judaism evolved over time as the Sages developed a rich and nuanced view of the Afterlife. It’s beautiful to see the process of Jewish Thought unfolding like a flower opening to reveal many petals.

      Thank you for commenting and being here on this journey. Love your writing!! 😊🖖

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  4. Shaina Nash

    Abi, thank you for your courage and knowledge about a subject that is potentially “touchy.” I especially like what you share about, “It is better to do a mitzvah for the wrong reason than to not do it at all.” Doing a Mitzvah means no excuses. Good intentions gets me nowhere. The results are the action, that is the bottom line. I appreciate people taking actions even if it starts off in a perfunctory manner.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. The Wild Pomegranate//Abi

      Many thanks and much appreciation, Shaina! Great point! It’s always the outcome that matters the most. If someone does a mitzvah for me when I’m need to acquire rewards in Olam Habah, I’m good with that. I don’t really care why — it’s the result that counts. I still reap the benefit regardless.🖖🤩🥰

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    2. The Wild Pomegranate//Abi

      Rebbe Nachman gets really deep, but I’ll try to capture some of the essence of his volumes of thought on this matter.

      He said if you separate Olam Hazeh from Olam Habah, then Olam Hazeh is Gehinnom! He said Olam Hazeh cannot be considered to be a “world” unto itself or it would be better not to have been created. In his teachings, the “Olam” in both phrases tells us that they are bound together inextricably.

      The popularity of what I call “Judaism light” (as in lightweight) doesn’t teach Jews the true depth and breadth of Jewish beliefs, unfortunately.

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  5. Reppy ❤️

    This is very comforting and validating for me. I always believed my Jewish grampa (German) was watching over me. I always have felt his presence in my life. He died when I was only 11 and I have always mourned that he didn’t get to see me grow up and become a woman. But on the other hand, I think he is very proud of me and who I have become. We had a very special bond—my mother always commented on how I was his favorite grandchild and he didn’t hide that fact. If I could have a conversation with anyone, I would want to talk to him. Maybe I should pray to him, speak to him. Maybe I need that spiritual connection in my life.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. The Wild Pomegranate//Abi

      Thank you for sharing your personal reflections on the post, Reppy. It means a lot to me to know you found it comforting and validating. You had a very special bond with your grandfather. I think it’s a wonderful idea to talk to him and channel his loving energy into your life. His spirit is there to listen and speak to you in his own way. 🥰

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  6. I’m learning so much about Jewish traditions from you, Abi. never even pondered that Judaism included an afterlife. I’ve never heard it mentioned in texts. In regard to “However, it’s better to do a mitzvah for the wrong reason, than not do it all “. I read somewhere, way in the past, ” If you always pretend to do good, in the end, even God will believe you”.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. The Wild Pomegranate//Abi

      Hi Len! Many contemporary Jews, as well as newcomers to Judaism, don’t learn in modern day Judaism what I teach…that’s why I’m called to teach it. I call it the Jewish smorgasbord.

      It’s my passion to dive into the deep wellsprings of Jewish beliefs. I love when others join me on this trek into holistic and wholehearted Judaism at all its multi-faceted levels.

      “If you always pretend to do good, in the end, even God will believe you.” — I never heard that before. It’s very thought-provoking! Thank you for sharing it.

      Thank you for your presence, your interest and your reflections. It means a great deal to me. Rav brachot (Abundant Blessings) to you! 😊🖖🤩

      Liked by 1 person

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