jewish Funeral Guide

Jewish Attitude to Death

“The dust returns to the dust as it was, but  
the spirit returns to God who gave it.”

Ecclesiastes 12:7  

The Soul after Death

Since the soul comes from the eternal essence of God, it endures forever. The body, composed from the external, material world, is subject to decay. The soul is connected to the body from the moment of conception until the moment of death, when it separates from the body. Death is, therefore, often called in Hebrew Yetziat HaNeshama / יציאת הנשמה - departure of the soul.

The disembodied soul then gives its account of how it fulfilled its mission in this physical world. It is punished for transgressions and then rewarded for the good deeds that it performed. How is the soul rewarded and how is the punishment meted out? According to Jewish tradition, after judgment, the soul is sent to Gehinnom / גהינום - the inferno of Hell, where the soul is cleansed and purified in a spiritual fire, so that it can subsequently receive its eternal reward.

Details of the afterlife are not described in the Torah since its revelation only deals with our physical world. These details are certainly beyond human comprehension for “Never has the ear heard it, nor eye has seen it - other than God / ומעולם לא שמעו, לא האזינו, עין לא ראתה אלהים זולתך”. (Isaiah 64:3, Rashi / רש"י ad loc.) However, our limited understanding of both God and man can provide some insight into what happens in the world of souls.

As we have already discussed, the soul can be compared to the mind, i.e., information in the human brain. Therefore the spiritual world — the world of souls — can be visualized as the world whose substance is information. Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan points out that this concept was long known to the Kabbalists. The inhabitants of the spiritual world interact on a purely informational level without any physical transmission channels. However, they can affect material objects as well, by interacting with the information these objects carry.

In the spiritual world, the soul (portrayed above as pure mind) is free from the physical and intellectual limitations of the brain and nervous system. It is capable of perceiving and understanding things in a way that was impossible when the mind was restrained by the physical body. Additionally, the soul then achieves a degree of unity with God, the source of all knowledge, and therefore is aware of things that are not revealed to mortals.

This new intelligence of the mind is the source of both the reward and the punishment. The mind’s new awareness and comprehension, explains Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan, is the most delightful bliss imaginable, as described in the Talmud, Tractate Berachot 17a: “the righteous, sitting with their crowns on their heads, delighting in the shining rays of the Divine Presence / צדיקים יושבין ועטרותיהם בראשיהם ונהנים מזיו השכינה”. This might be what Job meant when he said (Job 19:26), “And after my skin is destroyed, then without my flesh shall I see God[ 01 ] / ואחר עורי נקפו זאת, ומבשרי אחזה אלוה”.

The soul with its new mental powers will be capable of understanding more about itself as well. It will remember clearly everything one ever did and will understand the true motives of one’s actions. The soul is likewise fully aware of the consequences of every deed. The memory of every good deed will be the source of the ultimate pleasure. But then, a person may have also sinned. The sins that were committed cannot be dismissed or rationalized. Thus the terrible shame and humiliation is unbearable when one is caught by one’s own memory in the act of doing something wrong. The soul is also tortured by the realization that being in the World of Reward it can do nothing to rectify these sins. The pain of humiliation can no longer be relieved through forgetting things - the soul does not forget. This indeed, may be what is alluded to in the Book of Daniel 12:2, “And many of those who sleep in the dust shall awake, some to everlasting life, and some to reproach and everlasting shame / ורבים מישני אדמת עפר יקיצו, אלה לחיי עולם, ואלה לחרפות לדראון עולם”.

Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan writes that the fire of Gehinnom / גיהנום - the inferno of Hell, is actually the burning shame one experiences because of his sins. He quotes numerous biblical and Talmudic sources to support this view. The souls of the wicked are cleansed in this spiritual fire of shame for 12 months after death, except for a few extremely wicked people whose entire life was sinful and devoid of good. These evildoers have no escape from the shame and are doomed to everlasting torment. All other souls are sentenced to a lesser time in Gehinnom. This is why Kaddish / קדיש is usually recited only for the first eleven months after death in order not to depict the deceased as an evildoer.

Fire is a very accurate metaphor for Gehinnom. Sins are caused by evil desires that can never be satisfied. The fire is also never satisfied - it burns all the fuel it is given. Fire is, therefore, a befitting retribution for the man’s sins. But fire does not only burn — it purifies. Metal ores are impure and worthless in their original form. Passed through the fire they turn into refined, precious metal.

After the soul is refined and cleansed it is able to progress higher and higher in the spiritual dimensions, as alluded to in Zechariah 3:7:“If you go in My ways … then I will give you a place to move among [the angels] standing here / אם בדרכי תלך ואם את משמרתי תשמור … ונתתי לך מהלכים בין העומדים האלה”. Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan explains that God was showing the prophet a vision of stationary angels, and telling him that he would be able to move above them. While angels are bound to their particular plane, man can move and progress from level to level. This is also alluded to in the verse, “The dust returns to the dust as it was, but the spirit returns to God who gave it / וישב העפר על הארץ כשהיה, והרוח תשוב אל האלהים אשר נתנה” (Ecclesiastes 12:7).

[ 01 ] This is an allegoric interpretation of the verse. The simple meaning is that Job acknowledged heavenly decree that caused his skin affliction.