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Reincarnation

by Rabbi Yerachmiel Tilles

  

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Question:

How prevalent is the Jewish belief in reincarnation today?  How does it differ from the Asian belief?  What do the  Rabbis think of it?

Eric Elfman
Los Angeles

We cannot trace any scriptures which support the concept of reincarnation of souls.

Les & Edith Johnson
Jerusalem

Answer:

Dear Friends,

The root of the word "Torah" is the verb "to instruct."  Torah's primary function is to teach us how to live Jewishly, in harmony with G-d's will.  As such, the basic levels of scriptural interpretation lead to a practical understanding of mitzvahs and related Jewish values.

The Torah, however, is a multi-layered document.  Many of its deeper levels of interpretation are not readily accessible; and they may not lend themselves to obvious, practical application in daily life.  As such, these more esoteric aspects of Torah are not of interest to  significant segments of the Jewish population, including some rabbis and scholars.

Consequently, many Jews are surprised to learn, or may even wish to deny, that reincarnation - the "revolving" of souls through a succession of lives, or "gilgulim" - is an integral part of Jewish belief.  But this teaching has always been around.  And it is firmly rooted in source-verses.

Reincarnation (hidden) in the Torah

Examples abound1.  Ramban2, one of the greatest commentators on the Torah (and on the Talmud), and a seminal figure in Jewish history, hints several times that reincarnation is the key to penetrating the deep mysteries involved in the Mitzvah of Yibum - the Levirate.  In his explanation of Gen 38:8, he insists that Yehudah and his sons were aware of the secret of reincarnation, and that this was a major factor in their respective attitudes towards Tamar.3

Reincarnation in Judaism

The Jewish understanding of reincarnation is different from Buddhist doctrines. It in no way leads to fatalism. At every point of moral decision in his life, a Jew has complete free choice.  If not for freedom of choice, how unfair it would be of G-d to make demands of us - especially when reward and punishment is involved! Reincarnation does not imply pre-determination.  It is, rather, an opportunity for rectification and soul-perfection.

The holy ARI explained it most simply: every Jew must fulfill all 613 mitzvahs, and if he doesn't succeed in one lifetime, he comes back again and again until he finishes.  For this reason, events in a person's life may lead him towards certain places, encounters, etc., in ways that may or may not make sense.  Divine providence provides each person with the opportunities he needs to fulfill those particular mitzvahs necessary for the perfection of his soul.  But the responsibility lies with us.  At the actual moment of decision in any given situation, the choice is ours.

One of the ways in which heaven maintains our ability to exercise complete freedom of choice is by not allowing us conscious knowledge of previous incarnations.  Consequently, it might seem to some people that there is little practical benefit in being aware of this doctrine.  Furthermore, many scholars contend that these mystical concepts can easily be misunderstood, or carried to erroneous and misleading conclusions.  We can therefore understand why this and similar subjects are only hinted at in scripture, and why some knowledge and a great deal of determination are often required in order to gain access to this information.  In Zefat, however, reincarnation of souls has long been a popular topic!

For an English treatment of the Jewish doctrine of reincarnation, see here.

Sincerely,
Yrachmiel Tilles

Reprinted with permission from www.ascentofsafed.com.

Footnotes

  • 1. In the English edition of Derech Hashem by Rabbi Moshe-Chaim Luzzatto, The Way of G-d as translated by Aryeh Kaplan (Feldheim, 1983), II:3:10 (page 125) plus notes 39-40 (pp. 342-3) provides an English list of Torah sources on this topic in both scripture and Kabbalah.
  • 2. An acronym for Rabbi Moshe ben Nachman (Nachmonides), 1195-1270.
  • 3. In the Hebrew edition by Rabbi Charles Chavel (Mosad HaRav Kook) on the cited verse, many cross-references may be found to other verses and other classic sources and commentators.

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RELATED CATEGORIES

Life Cycle » Death » Afterlife

Mitzvah
(pl. Mitzvot). A commandment from G-d. Mitzvah also means a connection, for a Jew connects with G–d through fulfilling His commandments.
Torah
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.
Talmud
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.
Jerusalem
Established by King David to be the eternal capital of Israel. Both Temples were built there, and the third Temple will be situated there when the Messiah comes.
Yibum
"Levirate marriage." The Biblical commandment which obligates a man to marry his deseased childless brother's widow.
G-d
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.