Heaven and Hell in Jewish Tradition

Though there is no official Jewish conception of the afterlife, Jewish sources do provide images of a torturous hell and heavenly paradise.

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However, with repeated military defeats and episodes of exile and dislocation culminating in the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 CE, Jewish thinkers began to lose hope in any immediate change, instead investing greater expectations in a messianic future and in life after death. This was coupled with the introduction into Judaism of Hellenistic notions of the division of the material, perishable body and the spiritual, eternal soul. 

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The catastrophe of 70 CE caused a theological crisis. How could it be that the God of Israel would simply allow His sanctuary to be destroyed and His people to be vanquished at the hands of the Roman Empire? While the rabbis often claimed that it was the Israelites' sinfulness that led God to allow it to be defeated (mi-p'nei hataeinu, "because of our sins"), it was more difficult to explain why good and decent individual Jews were made to suffer.

This led to the development of another theological claim: "Rabbi Ya'akov taught: This world is compared to an ante-chamber that leads to Olam Ha-Ba, (the World-to-Come)" (Pirkei Avot 4:21). That is, while a righteous person might suffer in this lifetime, he or she will certainly be rewarded in the next world, and that reward will be much greater. In fact, in some cases, the rabbis claim that the righteous are made to suffer in this world so that their reward will be that much greater in the next (Leviticus Rabbah 27:1).

The Garden of Eden: A Jewish Heaven

What the next world is, however, is far from clear. The rabbis use the term Olam Ha-Ba to refer to a heaven-like afterlife as well as to the messianic era or the age of resurrection, and it is often difficult to know which one is being referred to. When the Talmud does speak of Olam Ha-Ba in connection to the afterlife, it often uses it interchangeably with the term Gan Eden ("the Garden of Eden"), referring to a heavenly realm where souls reside after physical death.

The use of the term Gan Eden to describe "heaven" suggests that the rabbis conceived of the afterlife as a return to the blissful existence of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden before the "fall." It is generally believed that in Gan Eden the human soul exists in a disembodied state until the time of bodily resurrection in the days of the Messiah.

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Rabbi Or N. Rose

Rabbi Or N. Rose is Associate Dean of the Rabbinical School of Hebrew College in Newton, MA. He is the co-editor of Righteous Indignation: A Jewish Call for Justice and God in All Moments: Spiritual and Practical Wisdom from the Hasidic Masters. He is currently completing a doctorate in Jewish thought at Brandeis University.

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