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Do Jewish writings support the idea of an Afterlife?

by Rabbi Tzvi Freeman

  

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The Short Answer:

Talmudic and post Talmudic writings clearly mention the afterlife. The Torah makes no mention of it. (Why? And does the fact that the Torah doesn't prohibit a belief common to those times indicate anything? Read on...) 

The Askmoses Answer:

While it is a noble ideal to do good for the sake of good alone, there are those who pretend that immortality of the soul is not a Jewish concern or belief. This position is difficult to support from an objective standpoint:

1. The Biblical Period: Any student of ancient history would find it preposterous to imagine that a people born out of the cradle of Mesopotamia and Egypt, living in the land of Canaan, would not be profoundly familiar with belief in survival of the soul. A rejection of this belief would have to be made at least as forcefully as pantheism, idolatry and promiscuity are proscribed in the Bible.

In fact, we see quite the contrary, that a strong conviction to this idea is repeatedly implied both in actions and in words. Abraham is told by the Lord that he will "rest with his people"--although he left them all behind when he came to Canaan. An entire chapter1 deals with his concern for Sarah's burial. Similarly, both Jacob and Joseph are concerned that they should be buried "with their fathers."2

One must ask, if the afterlife is of no concern, why trouble your children with matters of burial to such an extreme? Rather, it makes more sense to say that the Bible does not discuss these matters in detail simply because it is not necessary to teach that which is common knowledge. Additionally, the Bible is not a book of esoteric knowledge, it is a revolutionary document that serves as an eternal "everyman's guide" for everyday life, here and now. As for the details of the afterlife, esoteric Jewish tradition was generally transmitted not in written, but in oral form.

2. The Talmudic period: The Mishnah and Talmud are a pool of Jewish legalities, ritual and common belief from a period of about 800 years, from the times of the Second Commonwealth until the fall of the Roman Empire. It has been the basis of Jewish practice and law ever since.

It is replete3 with reference to judgement and reward in the afterlife, with even a few stories about those who went there and came back to tell us about it. The Talmud insists that a convert be warned that most of reward and punishment will not be in this world, lest he be quickly disillusioned.

Footnotes

  • 1. Genesis 23
  • 2. Genesis 47:28-31 and Genesis 50:24-25 respectively.
  • 3. See for example Talmud (Mishnah) tractate Sanhedrin 10:1-3 and Talmud tractate Rosh Hashana 16b and 17a

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RELATED CATEGORIES

Life Cycle » Death » Afterlife

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.
Maimonides
Moses son of Maimon, born in Spain in 1135, died in Egypt in 1204. Noted philosopher and authority on Jewish law. Also was an accomplished physician and was the personal doctor for members of the Egyptian royalty. Interred in Tiberius, Israel.
Abraham
First Jew, and first of our three Patriarchs. Born into a pagan society in Mesepotamia in 1812 BCE, he discovered monethieism on his own. He was told by G-d to journey to the Land of Canaan where he and his wife Sarah would give birth to the Jewish People.
Sarah
First Jewess, first of the four Jewish Matriarchs, wife of Abraham--the first Jew. Lived in Mesopotamia, and then Canaan, in the 19th century BCE.
Jacob
Third of the three Patriarchs and father of the Twelve Tribes. Lived most his life in Canaan and died in Egypt in 1505 BCE. Also known by the name of "Israel."
Canaan
The land which G-d promised to give to the descendants of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. Named after the Tribe of Canaanites who dwelt there at the time. Eventually, when the Israelites conquered the land in 1272 BCE, it was renamed the "Land of Israel."
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.
Joseph
Firstborn son of Rachel and Jacob. Because he was Jacob's favorite son, his brothers conspired against him and sold him into slavery He ended up in Egypt where he became viceroy of the land, and eventually brought his entire family to Egypt. Died in 1451 BCE.
Mishnah
First written rendition of the Oral Law which G-d spoke to Moses. Rabbi Judah the Prince compiled the Mishna in the 2nd century lest the Oral law be forgotten due to the hardships of the Jewish exiles.
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.