Q: In Judaism what is believed to
happen to someone after they die? Is there some idea of an afterlife, or is that
purely a Christian invention?
A: Judaism has from the Torah itself
always spoken of a life following this one. The Torah speaks about what seems to
be a physical place, called Sheol, to which one "goes down" following this life.
A variety of different passages indicate that Sheol was probably though of as
located in the center of the earth, although it is no ever formally described.
What is clear is that this was a well-known concept amongst the ancient
It was not until the
Pharisees (c. 100 B.C.E.) that the notion of a spiritual life after death
developed in any meaningful way in Jewish thought. The Pharisees, who were the
forerunners of the rabbis, taught that when the Torah spoke of reward for
following God's ways, the reward would be forthcoming in an afterlife, Olam
Ha-Ba (world to come), as they called it.
They further taught that
there would be an end of time as we know it, ushered in by the Messiah, and at
that time, bodily resurrection would occur (Hebrew, T'chiyat Ha-Metim). While
this teaching was an innovation, they insisted that it was rooted in Torah, and
quoted extensive proof-texts to make their case. The Pharisees never saw
themselves as creating anything new, but unfolding and uncovering that which was
already existent but not yet manifest. And while this teaching was of enormous
importance, they approached the development of Jewish life as we know it today
with this teaching as an ever present backdrop, but not as a primary concern.
They consciously chose to de-emphasize the importance of resurrection, favoring
the observance of Mitzvot for their own sake. The classic text regarding this
matter is paraphrased as follows: "Do not be as ones who labor for their master
mindful of the reward that will be coming, but rather as those who serve their
master with love and with joy" - the fuller understanding being that if we keep
our eyes on the reward, and not the task, we'll never earn the reward. To that
end, while there is a good deal in our tradition that refers to life after our
deaths in this realm, it is not systematized, and therefore open to much
Reform Judaism, while not
taking any "official" position on the matter, has for the most part ignored the
question, and tended towards the belief that there is no such thing. The
attitude of Judaism might best be summed up as "We really do not know, but if
there is a life after this one, and a reward for what we do, then surely it will
be dependent upon the kind of life we have lived - therefore, let us strive to
follow God's path for us as closely and as enthusiastically as possible, for
then we will surely know all manner of rewards, especially the one of seeing a
world that is a better place for our efforts".
Written by Rabbi Howard
Jaffe, Temple Har Shalom, Warren, NJ