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Hell on the Way to Heaven

by Rabbi Dov Pinson


Library » Philosophy » Consequences | Subscribe | What is RSS?


Passing Through Hell

The Jewish concept of hell is quite different from what’s commonly believed to be a dead end—an eternally painful consequence of a spiritually bankrupt life. The Hebrew word “Gehinom” doesn’t really have an English equivalent, but is loosely translated as “hell.” Gehinom is actually a process of restoration and recovery, not a permanent condition. The soul entering Gehinom can be compared to a person entering therapy, purging herself of negativity and preparing to face her true self.

As the 17th century Kabbalist, Rabbi Naphtali Bacharach explained, “Gehinom is like a sponge; it sucks up the negativity that attached itself during the soul’s journey on earth, allowing the soul to return to her original state.” So Gehinom is a learning station—a process through which a soul ultimately advances—that enables the soul to be one with her Source.

The Journey of the Soul

What is a soul? The dictionary defines it as the “spiritual part of a human being that is believed to continue to exist after the body dies.” In Judaism, the soul is regarded as a “piece of the Infinite,” which, through life, gathers experiences, emotions and thoughts that remain in her memory.

Gehinom is actually a process of restoration and recovery, not a permanent condition
Life is lived to its fullest when the body and soul are in harmony. Judaism views basic needs as manifestations of the soul. Desires for meaning, intimacy and comfort are not ignored or repressed, but expressed in a soulful context and with balance. This is one reason the Torah, G-d’s blueprint for living, focuses on physical actions. It is not a penal code; rather it is a formula for the soul to harness the powers of the body to fulfill her mission on earth.

Humans are born pure. “Very good” is the way the Torah describes the creation of humanity (Genesis 1:31). The soul was, is and always will be a Divine property. Though at times we may obscure this purity, we all eventually return to that state. At death, the physical elements of the body return to their source, while the soul returns to her Source. “The dust will return to the earth as it was, and the spirit will return to G-d Who bestowed it” (Ecclesiastes 12:7). Jewish mysticism explains where, when and how this reunion takes place.

Where To Now

The harmony between body and soul during life determines the soul’s experiences after life. If a soul is balanced and fulfilled, it enters a state of Gan Eden (paradise), where the soul is reunited with her Source, devoid of ego, hurt and resentment. For people who are in touch with their soul, death is not at all painful. The Zohar teaches that when a soul leaves her body, the Shechinah appears, and the soul goes out in joy and love to greet Her.

If, during her stay on earth, the soul has become entrenched and immersed in materialism, the Shechinah departs, and the soul begins the process alone. Part of this process is the realization that the body has been fooling the soul all along.

“A person is measured,” the Talmud says, “by his own reckoning.” The body and soul are in a relationship and a person chooses which one will guide the decisions of life. Ultimately, all souls will experience a reunion, both with their loved ones, and with the Source from which every soul came. The only difference is how each soul will arrive.

Some times a soul may even return to earth for a second round, depending on whether her unique talents and attributes will be needed by a new generation, but that’s another subject for another time. See How does reincarnation work?


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Torah is G–d’s teaching to man. In general terms, we refer to the Five Books of Moses as “The Torah.” But in truth, all Jewish beliefs and laws are part of the Torah.
Usually referring to the Babylonian edition, it is a compilation of Rabbinic law, commentary and analysis compiled over a 600 year period (200 BCE - 427 CE). Talmudic verse serves as the bedrock of all classic and modern-day Torah-Jewish literature.
The most basic work of Jewish mysticism. Authored by Rabbi Shimeon bar Yochai in the 2nd century.
Gan Eden
The Garden of Eden. A garden in Mesopotamia where Adam and Eve were placed after creation. They were expelled from the idyllic garden after eating from the Tree of Knowledge. Gan Eden also refers to a spiritual realm where the soul receives its reward after departing from the body.
The first book of the Five Books of Moses. It records the story of Creation and its aftermath, and chronicles the lives of the Patriarchs.
One of the 24 books of the Bible. This book of wise sayings was authored by King Solomon.
Divine Presence.
It is forbidden to erase or deface the name of G-d. It is therefore customary to insert a dash in middle of G-d's name, allowing us to erase or discard the paper it is written on if necessary.