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Life in the Hereafter: A Tour of What’s to Come

By Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi

Death did not frighten the pious Jew of old. He had faith in the talmudic contention that death is simply a transition from one life into another, likened to the ease of taking a hair out of milk. What the Jew wanted above all was to die fully conscious, to be in full possession of his mental faculties at the time that his soul left his body. For the hasid (righteous) it was a matter of absolute faith and conviction that the same One God who was worshipped in this world could be served in the worlds to come, as well.

For the not-so-pure, however, the process of extricating from bodily life was a bit more problematic. The soul that had become too fully identified with the body through sensual indulgence would find it difficult to separate from it. To accompany the body to its final resting place and to behold the putrefaction and the decay was understandably painful for such souls. This state of being is known as hibbut ha-kever, the pain and anguish of the grave. In order to destroy the illusory identification of soul with body and avert the consequent pain in death, hasidim would often engage in ascetic practices while still in this life. Particularly exalted souls would be able to achieve this level of consciousness through prayer and meditation, becoming oblivious to their physical body and surroundings.


The earthbound disembodied soul can encounter a number of dangers. If it is unable to separate itself from the body even through pain, it can experience a decay of consciousness and a turning into nothingness. An angel, Dumah (Silence), is the guardian of the dead, and wanting to prevent this decay, asks each soul for its Hebrew name. The rabbis say that some people suffer amnesia due to the shock of dying and are, consequently, unable to remember their identity. In order to dispel this amnesia, the learning of a mnemonic device while one is alive is recommended: At theconclusion of every Amidah (the central prayer of the service), the worshiper is instructed to “sign off’ by reciting a biblical verse that begins with the first initial of his name and ends with the last letter of his name. Among Sephardic Jews, the child is initiated into his/her own sentence at the bar or bat mitzvah. In this way, the worshiper reinforces the memory of his Jewish name at the end of every prayer service. Thus, in death, even if he is unable to remember his name, he will he able to remember the Torah verse, because Torah is eternal and cannot decay. The soul will therefore be able to follow the angels who summon it before the heavenly court.

Besides the problem of the soul maintaining its identity, there is another difficulty. All the sounds that a person has heard during his life continue to vibrate within his soul following his death, like clanging coins in a gourd. He is. thus, unable to achieve the subtle stillness necessary to receive the angelic or heavenly voices. The nature of this “static” can be compared to the inner disturbances experienced by someone trying to meditate in silence. In order to rid the soul of this “dust,” it is shaken in the Kaf ha-Kela, the Catapult. The sages say that “two angels stand at each end of the world and toss the soul from one to the other.” It is almost as if the angels try to rid the soul of its accumulated psychic dust by putting it through a cosmic centrifuge until only pure soul remains. Were this treatment not administered to the soul, however, it would be unable to silence all the sense images and noises that were carried with it from this world and would have to wander in the world of Tohu (Confusion and Emptiness) for ages. In one Hasidic tale, a lost soul who has already roamed for hundreds of years in such a void cries out, “Would that I already had reached Gehenna!”


The Jewish idea of Gehenna (Gehinnom) is not hell, but rather a purgatory where the soul is purged from all defilement that has accumulated on it during its life on earth. Although there are worse places to be, there are certainly better. This purgatory is often described in lurid physical details of fire and cold, yet the rabbis warn against seeing Gehenna as a material entity. It is rather like the pain of anxiety intensified by silence and a deep awareness of the evil committed. Curiously, according to tradition, Gehenna is emptied on the Sabbath. Some claim that this respite is only granted to those who had kept the Sabbath in their lives. Others disagree, claiming that Gehenna is emptied for all; were it not for the weekly bliss and light which the Sabbath provides, the soul would be unable to endure the anguish of Gehenna.


When a soul is ready to enter Gan Eden (Paradise, literally the Garden of Eden), it must first be immersed in the River of Light , created from the perspiration that flows from the heavenly hosts as they fervently sing glory to the Highest. This immersion is to empty the soul of any lingering earth images so that it may, without further illusion, see heaven for what it really is.

First the soul enters the lower Gan Eden, which is a paradise of emotional bliss. While on earth most persons are unable to experience more than one dominant emotion at a time. However, the bliss of the souls in the lower Gan Eden is likened to a majestic chord of benign emotions, which the soul feels towards God and towards other souls. In the Hasidic view, heaven is organized into societies. Those souls who share mutual interests are drawn together so they can serve His Blessed Name according to their own specialty and individuality. Each heavenly society is taught by its own rabbi and led to further celestial attainments. Thus, the lower Gan Eden is the heaven of emotional fervor.

Before a soul is raised from the lower to the higher Gan Eden, it must again immerse itself in the River of Light so that it will forget and forsake the furor of the emotions. for the even greater delights of knowing God through understanding. The serving of God with insight through the study of Torah is itself a reward. The societies of the upper Gan Eden are organized into yeshivot (schools! in which a blissful understanding of the divine mind is attained. Each midnight, the Holy One, blessed be He. Himself appears and enters Gan Eden to delight in the sharing of His blessed wisdom with the righteous who have gained the upper Gan Eden.


Many of the customs of mourning have developed in order to assist the soul through its many trials in the afterlife. In order to help the soul avoid the amnesia described above, it is customary for the mourners to remind the soul “your name is so-and-so. and do not forget it.” The reciting of the mourner’s Kaddish (see “8 Common Misconceptions Jews Have About Judaism ) helps to “cool the fires of Gehenna.” The maximum sentence for this purgatory is twelve months: however. the mourner’s Kaddish is only recited for eleven months. so as not to insult the dead by implying that he/she would have to serve the full term.

Each year on the yahrzeit (anniversary of death) a higher rung of Gan Eden is achieved by the soul. While the soul celebrates its birthday into heaven with its celestial friends. the living traditionally celebrate the aliyat ha- neshamah (ascendancy of the soul) by praying for a more exalted position in heaven for that soul.

Since souls are incapable of acquiring new merit after death, the living can transfer credit to the account of a loved one, thus enabling it to achieve higher levels. One of the most potent means is by offering tzedakah (charity) in the name of the deceased. Another is soul. Particularly potent in this regard is the study of Mishnah because it has the same Hebrew letters as the word neshamah (soul). In these ways incarnate souls can help discarnate souls that have gone beyond.

IBBUR AND DYBBUK – ON BEING POSSESSED: Not only can the souls of the deceased be helped by those here below, but the dead can return the favor. At moments of great danger they can come to forewarn their loved ones through dreams and visions, helping them through teals and temptations. A soul is said to have come into ibbur (literally, pregnancy) when it enters, in a benign fashion, the body and soul of a person living here on earth. Often such an ibbur can raise a person to great temporary heights. Ibbur, however, can also help the discarnate soul who is in need of only one mitzvah (deed carried out to fulfill God’s commandments) in order to round out a particular incarnation. Instead of risking the danger of another incarnate existence it can receive the needed merit from the living by helping someone as an ibbur. The custom of naming children after the deceased is a means of affording the departed another return to life or of creating affinities so that it, as an ibbur, may help their offspring and receive help in return.

While the case of ibbur is an instance of benign possession, tradition has recorded many accounts of evil possession, known as dybbuk (literally, sticking). If a person was wronged by another and this wrong was responsible for its suffering, whether in life or in death, it can seek revenge by possessing someone (not necessarily the wrongdoer) as a dybbuk. A dybbuk can be educated in how to find spiritual guidance without harming the living or it can be negotiated with by offering the performance of mitzvot on its behalf in return for its leaving the possessed body. When it is recalcitrant, however, coercive devices must be resorted to (see “Rituals for Jewish Exorcism”).


Nothing new can be gained in heaven. The quantity of mitzvot (deeds or blessings) and Torah acquired by the time of death is what remains with a person after death. In heaven one can gain only a deeper and richer understanding of his life on earth. It is for this reason that souls, once they have absorbed all that heaven has to offer, apply for reincarnation, i.e. in order to attain further perfection. Reincarnation is also granted to allow the soul to bring about a restitution of the wrongs it has committed.

Some souls are so filled with the light of knowledge and the warmth of compassion however, that the heavenly court, the “supernal familia,”will engage in all kinds of ruses in order to reinvolve it in the work of saving and helping other souls still on the earthly plane. Reincarnation is an option at any point—after Gehenna, after the lower paradise, or even after the upper paradise. The process repeats until a soul has built its spiritual body.


After the coming of the Messiah, the resurrection of the dead is to take place. While the majority of commentators understand this to involve a reassemblage of the physical body previously inhabited, a minority opinion maintains that this will be a materialization of the level of spiritual body that the soul has built through its many incarnations. Those souls that have not completed their spiritual body will, at the resurrection, materialize here on earth in order to perform the remaining mitzvot required of them in an environment free of death and evil.

The Talmud relates that Rabbi Judah the Prince, the compiler of the Mishnah, used to return in a spiritual body every Sabbath eve to sanctify the Sabbath by celebrating the Kiddush (sanctification over the wine) for his family. He did this for an entire year. Only after one of the servants of the family revealed these visits to neighbors did Judah the Prince take final leave of his family, never to return again, on the grounds that his coming would put other saints to shame. Thus, Judah the Prince had attained the fullness of the spiritual body during his last incarnation on earth.

Yet even the completion of the spiritual body is not the ultimate state of being. Having attained such fullness, a soul can be “absorbed into the very Body of the King,” the ultimate aim of its yearning and longing. Thus the soul merges finally in God, as a drop in the ocean.