by Dr. Ilil Arbel, Ph.D.

This article is based on a large number Talmudic legends, and on statements from the Zohar.

From its inception, Judaism did not dwell on the afterlife. The Jew followed the will of God for its own sake, not for reward in Heaven or for fear of punishment in Hell. It is inevitable, though, that a religion as old as Judaism would develop some thoughts regarding the afterlife, particularly since association with people of other religions exposed the Jews to many theories. However, the disinclination to stress the afterlife resulted in diverse opinions that were never combined into one dominant theory. Some of these thoughts even contradict one another, and they served as a base to fascinating myth and folklore.

The Structure of the Soul

A human being on earth unites two parts — a body and a soul. Each part is extremely complex in structure and consists of multiple components. While the body's structure is reasonably well understood, the structure of the soul is a mystery many tried to analyze. One Talmudic opinion divides it into three major segments:

  1. Nefesh: the lower, animal part, related to the instincts and to the reactions of the body.
  2. Ruach: the spirit, or the middle soul, linked to the understanding of morality and the ability to differentiate between good and evil.
  3. Neshama: the higher soul, linked to the intellect, and separating humanity from all other life forms. It allows the person to be aware of God, and to participate in the afterlife.

According to the Zohar, which leans toward a mystical view of the universe, two additional soul parts may be developed by very few, select individuals who have the capacity of sublime levels of intuitive cognition:

  • Chayyah — the part of the soul that is aware of the divine life force.
  • Yehidah — the highest part of the soul, capable of achieving full union with God.

When the body dies, the soul components come apart, and each segment follows a separate road. The lower parts must undergo purification; the higher parts aim to join with God. Nefesh remains with the body for about twelve months, guarding the grave and occasionally roaming the earth for the purpose of learning. Ruach goes to Gehinnom (Purgatory), to purge itself from the sins the person committed in life, and prepare for the future life of the soul. Neshama goes to the lower Gan Eden (Paradise), Chayyah and Yehidah return to Upper Gan Eden.

The Stages of the Journey

In rabbinic teachings, Olam Haba took many shapes and forms. To some, it is simply our own fully physical world, made better after the coming of the Messiah. To others it means Paradise, a spiritual place. Often, a journey is described, where the soul will encounter certain stages:

Hibbut ha-kever (the suffering of the grave)

A Jew who truly believes in God has little fear of dying. He sees death as a simple transition from one life to another. God will be the same there as He is here, and that is all that matters because in either life the one goal is to serve Him. The separation of body and soul is as simple, according to Talmudic transition, as removing a hair out of a glass of milk.

To the less than perfectly pure, the separation can be more difficult. The soul of the worldly Jew strongly identifies with the body — an erroneous but powerful notion that makes watching the body undergo decay and be eaten by worms extremely unpleasant. However, this mental agony serves a purpose; it awakens the soul from its wrong assumptions and allows the separation from the body to occur.

Dumah (the angel of silence)

If Hibbut ha-kever is still insufficient to separate body and soul, a great danger looms — the decay and disintegration of the consciousness of the soul. At some point after death, the angels summon the Jews to the Heavenly Court by calling them by their Hebrew names. Many souls are so shocked by the death process, or are subject to the decay and disintegration of consciousness to such an extent, that they forget their names. If they don't follow the angels when they call them, the souls may wander off and spend eons roaming the earth for no purpose at all. This is the time for intervention by the angel of silence, Dumah. He visits the graves regularly, and repeatedly asks the dead to tell him their Hebrew names, thus preventing forgetfulness. To help Dumah in his task, each Jew is taught a mnemonic device — a biblical sentence that begins with the first letter of the name and ends with the last letter of the name. This sentence is repeated after every prayer session. When Dumah asks for the name, even if the person forgot it, he or she cannot forget the biblical verse because it is eternal and cannot decay, disintegrate, or disappear from consciousness.

Kaf ha-kelah (the catapult of the soul)

The sounds that the person heard during his or her stay on earth remain with the soul as inner vibrations that can destroy the capacity for the stillness needed to hear the voices of the angels. The myriad visions the soul saw on earth blur its ability to find its way on the journey. To help the soul get rid of all this auditory and visual pollution, two angels stand at each end of the world, place the soul in the catapult, and start hurling it back and forth to each other until they shake away the psychic debris. If this treatment does not succeed, the soul, even when anxious to reach Gehinnom in order to cleanse itself of its sins, may wander for generations in the world of Tohu, which is a land of confusion and void.

Gehinnom (Purgatory)

In Judaic tradition, eternal punishment does not exist. Gehinnom is not, therefore, a classic hell. It is a place of pain and punishment, but the soul will only stay there for a maximum of twelve months, and the purpose is purification, not mere punishment. In other words, it is a spiritual forge, where the imperfections of the soul are purged.

Often, the folklore describes Gehinnom in the primitive style of physical torment, fire and brimstone, but invariably, the Sages disagree with this unintellectual approach. The torment in Gehinnom is mental, and is caused by a state of anxiety and sadness over the sins the soul committed in life, and the distance and separation from God until purity is achieved again.

On Saturday, Gehinnom is emptied, and the souls are permitted one day of bliss and closeness to God. Without it, the souls could not survive the torment of Gehinnom.

Gan Eden (Paradise)

Before entering Gan Eden, the soul bathes in the River of Light. The bath cleanses the soul from the remaining images of life, and it can see and understand the truth of the Olam Haba.

The soul enters the lower Gan Eden, a place of intense joy resembling a symphony of mingled emotions. The soul spends some time there with a group of similar souls, and they are taught their lessons together by a rabbi assigned to the specific group.

After it completes its study period, the soul bathes again in the River of Life, this time to rid itself of emotions and attain blissful understanding. It moves on to the upper Gan Eden. This is a place of joyous intellect and insight, and the study of the Torah is conducted in special schools. Each midnight, God Himself comes to share His wisdom with the inhabitants.

Beyond Gan Eden there is a place called the realm of the Otzar (treasury), also called Tzror ha-hayyim. It is located in the highest spheres of spirituality, and functions as the treasury of souls. Before birth, and after death, the souls may dwell there.

The Option of Reincarnation

Once in the Olam Haba, the soul cannot acquire new good deeds or blessings, only the enrichment of the understanding of the life it led on earth. After the soul learned all that Heaven can teach it following a particular life, it may apply for reincarnation so that it can learn from new circumstances or acquire additional good deeds. But helping oneself is not the only reason to come back to earth. Some souls are so loving, they wish to go back to earth to help others. Some want to correct any wrong doing they committed. Reincarnation is entirely voluntary, and the soul can apply for this privilege at any time — before or after Gehinnom, anytime in Gan Eden — until they have created a spiritual body for itself. The spiritual body is the last step before the ultimate goal — total merging with God.

The dead may come back to earth without full reincarnation by temporarily entering the body of a living human being. Ibbur, a benign form of such union, is done to help the living person, or for performing a few good deeds. Dybbuk, on the other hand, is a negative form of possession, which is experienced when the soul gives way to negative feelings of revenge and unhappiness. In this case, a rabbi must educate the possessing spirit and persuade it to find peace and leave the world of the living (see dybbuk).

Gilgul Mechillot (Rolling in Subterranean Tunnels)

The Resurrection of the Dead is a complicated subject with many aspects, and is expected to happen in the future, after the Coming of the Messiah (see M'chayyei Metim). However, it has one connection with the world of the grave which must be mentioned in this article. Awaiting the Resurrection, even when the body is completely decomposed in the earth, one bone remains unharmed to serve as a vehicle for the rebuilding of the entire body when it will be needed for the Resurrection. These bodies will rise in the Land of Israel, which is why so many Jews want to die and be buried there. But what is to happen to the bodies that are buried in other countries? Talmudic tradition claims that subterranean tunnels, called Mechillot, will open at that time from all the graves. The rebuilt bodies will undergo gilgul (rolling) through these tunnels until they reach the Land Israel. To aid the transition, many people buried in other countries request that a small amount of soil from Israel would be put under their head in their graves.