What Happens after Death in Judaism
What happens after you die according to Judaism? One of the biggest surprises in Judaism is that the Bible, the foundation of the faith that led to both Christianity and Islam, has nothing to say about what happens after you die. Heaven, hell, purgatory, reincarnation . . . these are all concepts foreign to the Torah, though not necessarily foreign to Judaism.
The Bible itself (at least on the surface; traditionalists may argue that there are hidden meanings) is concerned specifically with how to live in this world, and the idea of an afterlife hasn’t been central to Jewish belief.
Ultimately, Judaism throws up its hands and offers many options for what may happen after they’ve “shuffled off this mortal coil,” as Shakespeare’s Hamlet poetically described death. Here are just a few beliefs about the time after death:
Many Jewish teachers suggest that basically nothing happens after death but that souls and bodies will be resurrected when God decides it’s time. Some believe a Jerusalem of Gold will manifest in that messianic time. No one seems to know what’ll happen then.
Jewish mystical tradition suggests that after you die, you travel deep into the cave of the patriarchs where you encounter Adam, who appears as a being of light.
After reviewing your life, you spend up to a year in gehenna (“purgatory”) — perhaps during those eleven months when your relatives are reciting the daily kaddish — and then you either move up to a higher level of paradise or you return to Earth in a process called gilgul (the Jewish notion of reincarnation) to complete more mitzvot.
Some Jews imagine that after death, everyone listens to Moses teach Torah. For the righteous, this is heaven; for the wicked, it’s hell.
A famous folktale says that in both heaven and hell human beings sit at tables filled with wonderful foods, but they can’t bend their elbows. In hell the people are perpetually starved, since they can’t bring the food to their mouths; in heaven each person feeds his or her neighbor.
In Judaism the life well lived is its own reward, while a wicked life is its own punishment. That’s why in two of the stories quoted previously, Heaven and Hell are described as identical places. The difference between them stems from people, reflecting the quality of souls and the way life is engaged; it really has nothing to do with divine Judgment after death.
Even in its discussion of death, Judaism is concerned first and foremost with celebrating life, and with teaching people how to live well.