jewish Funeral Guide

Jewish Attitude to Death

The Body after Death

As was already mentioned, the disembodied soul is aware of everything that happens in the physical world. In the beginning though, the soul is in a state of confusion. The soul is overwhelmed with the vast amount of information that is no longer screened through the brain and the nervous system, which used to weed out most of the sensory data not essential for survival.

The soul has yet to learn how to focus on anything besides its previous body that the soul used to identify itself with. The Talmud in Tractate Shabbat 152b tells us that the soul mourns for its body the first seven days after the death, as alluded to in the verse, “His soul mourns for him / ונפשו עליו תאבל” (Job 14:22).

For the first twelve months after death, until the body decomposes, the soul hovers over the body. The Talmud in Tractate Shabbat 152b relates that during this time “the soul ascends and descends / כל י"ב חדש גופו קיים ונשמתו עולה ויורדת”. In other words, as Nachmanides explains (Ramban, Torat haAdam, Shaar haGemul, 86), during the first twelve months the body still has an influence on the soul. Even though the soul ascends and explores the spiritual world, it still descends to its familiar previous state when it was bound to the body. After twelve months the body no longer affects the soul and therefore the soul ascends and does not descend.

The soul is aware of and identifies with the decomposition of the body, which is very painful to the soul. The Talmud in Tractates Berachot 18b and Shabbat 152b tells us that “Worms are as painful to the dead as needles in the flesh of the living / קשה רמה למת כמחט בבשר החי”, as it is written: “Even his flesh upon him will be in pain / אך בשרו עליו יכאב”(Job 14:22). The Kabbalists call this Chibut HaKever / חיבוט הקבר - punishment of the grave.

We are taught, continues Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan, that what the body experiences in the grave can be even worse than the experience of Gehinnom / גיהנום. That, however, depends on the individual. For those who put a priority or materialism, this deterioration of the body is most painful. But those whose life focus was more spiritual and who never considered their worldly body overly important, are not bothered by Chibut HaKever.

For most of us death is extremely frightening. The righteous, on the other hand, always looked forward to it. Shortly before his death, Rabbi Nachman of Breslov said, “I very much want to divest myself of this garment that is my body” (Sichos HaRan, 179). If we truly believe and trust in a merciful God, concludes Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan, then death has no terror for us.