jewish Funeral Guide

Jewish Attitude to Death

“Futility of futilities, said Kohelet,
futility of futilities! All is futile.”

Ecclesiastes 1:2
“At the end, when all has been considered: Fear God and keep His commandments for this is the essence of man.”
Ecclesiastes 12:13

Life After Death

Death is perceived by many of us as utterly final. From this viewpoint, death is an absurd end to a lifetime of strife and struggle. It shows the futility of material pursuits and mocks our achievements. Man comes into this world empty-handed and empty-handed he leaves it. Life is over and now there is nothing left. Yet Jewish tradition doesn’t view death this way. Death is viewed as a transition from a life in Olam Hazzeh / העולם הזה - this world, to a life in Olam Habbah / העולם הבא - the world to come. Death is a shift from a life of effort to a life of reward.

The Torah tells us that a human being is made up of both body and soul. When a person dies, the soul separates from the body and continues to live outside of the body. While the pursuit of worldly pleasures, wealth and power is indeed futile, good deeds and spiritual accomplishments are eternal assets that will forever benefit the soul. God gives reward to those who fulfill His Mitzvot / מצוות and punishes those who intentionally transgress his prohibitions. According to Jewish tradition this reward and/or punishment takes place after the person has lived the time allotted to him in this world. Eventually the body and the soul will reunite and the righteous dead will be resurrected in the End of Days as prophesized in the Book of Daniel 12:13: “for you shall rest, and will arise to your destiny at the end of the days / ותנוח ותעמד לגרלך לקץ הימין”.

The rabbis illustrate the idea of reward and punishment using the following parable: A king once encountered a poor man who was very sad and asked him: "What upsets you?" The poor man answered that he is lacking everything. The king said: "I shall make you happy!" and ordered his servants to provide the poor man with any luxury he desires. The man became rich but still looked sad. "What upsets you now?" asked the king. And the man answered, "All I have now I did not earn. The bread I eat is the bread of shame." A man cannot truly enjoy something he did not earn and does not deserve. For that reason, God set up a system of reward and punishment so that a soul, cleansed of sins, would enjoy the reward of good deeds. God does not need it — man does!

Life after death and resurrection of the dead is alluded to in the Torah, mentioned by the prophets, elaborated upon in the Talmud and proclaimed in the Jewish liturgy. Maimonides / רמב"ם includes it in his Thirteen Principles of Faith.

Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan in his book “If You Were G-d”, in the chapter “Immortality and the Soul”, explains in great detail the Jewish traditional idea of immortality of the soul and life after death using concepts familiar to us from modern science and technology. He synthesizes kabalistic interpretations of the teachings of Talmudic sages with the terminology of modern scientific concepts. Some of Rabbi Kaplan’s ideas, as articulated in his articles, are presented below.