afterlife in Judaism


The Canaanites were a group of ancient, Semitic-speaking cultures in the region of the Southern Levant (modern-day Israel, Palestine, Jordan, and parts of Syria and Lebanon), which they collectively called “Canaan,” some 6500-3000 years ago.

The vast majority of Canaanite cultures have long ceased to exist. Hebrew — the ancestral language of the Jewish People — is the only Canaanite language still spoken today. The rest of the Canaanite languages, including Phoenician, Ammonite, Moabite, and Edomite, are now long extinct.

Archaeologically and linguistically-speaking, it’s well-established that the Israelites emerged from Indigenous Canaanite tribes. Tensions arose between the Canaanites that practiced monotheism and those who worshipped multiple gods, which corroborates the narrative of the Torah, which depicts the Israelites and the Canaanites as enemies, though at times the Torah subtly acknowledges Canaanite origins. 

In the Canaanite pantheon, Mot was the god of death, and the Land of Mot was the underworld. The Hebrew word for death, “Mavet,” comes from Mot. In the Tanakh [Hebrew Bible], Death — Mavet — is sometimes personified. 

The epic of Mot is really interesting and bears resemblance to some of the stories in the Torah, if anyone is interested in seeking it out. 



Believe it or not, Judaism barely concerns itself with what happens after death. This can be difficult for most people to understand, especially in the west, as Christianity places so much emphasis on heaven and hell. 

For Jews, it comes down to a simple concept: we might have some ideas, but we don’t really know, so it’s best to focus on being a righteous person while we are still alive. 

According to Jewish tradition, the soul — the “neshama” or “nefesh” in Hebrew, both of which mean “breath” — is the “I” or the “self” that inhabits the body. Bereshit — or “Genesis” in English — describes the soul as God’s own breath giving us life: “And God breathed into his nostrils the breath of life” (Genesis 2:7).

The soul is created in the supernatural spiritual realm where it acquires its mission and purpose and is then assigned to a body. Though the Torah is not overtly explicit on what exactly happens to our soul after we die, there are hints that the soul does indeed go on.

The most explicit statement on the continuation of the soul in the Tanakh (Hebrew Bible) is told in Samuel I, when the Witch of Endor summons the Prophet Samuel to advise King Saul in battle. The summoned prophet then states: “Why are you bothering me. I am on the other side. Tomorrow, you, King Saul, and your sons will join me.”

By the beginning of the first millenium, the Jewish belief regarding the immortality of the soul was canonized. The Mishna states: “All of Israel have a place in the Olam Haba (World to Come” (Sanhedrin 10:1). In Pirkei Avot 4:21, Rabbi Yaakov stated: “This world is like a passageway to the World to Come. Prepare yourself in the passageway that you will be worthy to enter into the banquet room.”

In short, the Jewish concept of the soul dictates that the soul and the body are separate from each other. While the body perishes at death, the soul does not. However, what exactly happens after that, we do not know for sure.



In Judaism, the concept of heaven is known as Olam Haba, meaning the World to Come. Jewish tradition teaches that all of Israel has a share of the Olam Haba; however, one can lose their share through wicked actions. Especially righteous Jews have a larger share, though this idea should not be interpreted to mean that one can “buy” their way into heaven through doing righteous acts. 

The concept of the World to Come is intricately connected to the concept of the Gan HaEden, or Paradise (Garden of Eden). However, the accepted Halacha (Jewish law) is that human beings cannot know for sure what the afterlife looks like. 

There is no explicit mention of the World to Come in the Torah, but there are some clues. According to eighteenth century Kabbalist Chaim ibn Attar, “The Torah begins with the Hebrew letter bet — which corresponds to the number two — to hint that God actually created two worlds in Genesis, the physical world and the World to Come.”

The Jewish sage Maimonides predicted the World to Come to be the following: “The World to Come is not like this world. In the World to Come there is no eating, no drinking, no procreation, no business negotiations, no jealousy, no hatred, and no competition. Rather, the righteous sit with their crowns upon their heads, enjoying the splendor of the Divine Presence.”

Another theory, supported by other sages and rabbis, is that the coming of the Messiah will bring the World to Come into our present world. 



No. Jews do not proselytize, and we do not believe that you have to be Jewish to be a good person. 

All righteous gentiles — those who observe the seven Noahide Laws — are said to have a place in the World to Come. The seven Noahide Laws are as follows: no worshipping false idols, no cursing God, no murder, no adultery or sexual immorality, no theft, no eating flesh off a live animal, and establishing courts of justice. However, these laws must be observed out of genuine belief, not due to “intellectualization.” That is, you should be righteous because you believe it’s the right thing to do, not out of an intellectual desire to avoid punishment. 

There are several references to gentiles in the World to Come in the Talmud and other Jewish texts, such as: 

(1) “Any Noahide that we have seen has accepted upon himself the seven Noahide laws is one of the righteous people of the world and is included in the category of "religous people" and has a share in the world to come” [Commentary of the Meiri on Sanhendrin 47]

(2) “The righteous of the non-Jews also have a portion in the World to Come” [Mishneh Torah, Repentance 3:5]

The term Righteous Among the Nations — or “Hasidei Ummot HaOlam” in Hebrew — comes from the Jewish concept of righteous gentiles in the World to Come. For those unfamiliar, the Righteous Among the Nations are gentiles who protected Jews during the Holocaust out of their own volition (that is, not for financial or other compensation). 



Sort of. However, the concept of “hell” in Judaism is quite drastically different from the concepts of hell in Christianity or Islam. Hell is not a fully physical place, but rather, it can be compared to a feeling of very intense shame. 

In Judaism, “hell” is not a forever sentence. One can always choose the path of repentance and be redeemed. The concepts of hell in Judaism can be predominantly into two:



Named after the Valley of Hinnom, which surrounds Jerusalem, Kabbalistic tradition describes Gehinnom as somewhat of a “waiting room” or “entry way,” post-death. All dead souls pass through Gehinnom, whether righteous or wicked, where they are purified to enter the World to Come. Most rabbis contend that one can’t stay in Gehinnom for longer than twelve months, with a few exceptions.



The Tanakh [Hebrew Bible] describes Sheol as a place of “still darkness” where souls descend to after death, something like an underworld. Beyond this small description, the Tanakh says little of Sheol. 

Before the sixth century BCE, the Israelites likely considered Sheol a permanent place, where both wicked and righteous souls rested. However, in the Second Temple period (500 BCE-70 CE), more diverse ideas emerged. The Talmud, for example, states that Sheol is only for the wicked souls, whereas earlier texts charge that both wicked and righteous souls rest there, separated into compartments. 

Many Kabbalists also believe there are five additional “levels” to hell, as seven is a sacred number in Judaism. In addition to Gehinnom and Sheol, there is Abaddon (perdition), Be’er Shachat (pit of corruption), Tit HaYaven (clinging mud), Sha’arei Mavet (gates of death), and Tzalmavet (shadow of death). 



Though reincarnation is not generally associated with Judaism, there is actually a long Jewish tradition pertaining to reincarnation. This concept is known as “Gilgul” or “Gilgul Neshamot,” or the “transmitigation of souls.” Gilgul translates to “cycle” or “wheel” in Hebrew, whereas “Neshama” (or “Neshamot” in the plural form) translates to “soul.”

According to Gilgul Neshamot, reincarnation of souls is neither a reward nor a punishment for behavior in a previous life. According to Kabbalistic interpretation, souls are reincarnated just enough times to fulfil the 613 Mitzvot (“commandments”). The souls of the righteous gentiles may be reincarnated enough times to fulfil the seven Noahide Laws.

The Jewish belief in the reincarnation of souls dates back to antiquity, though it is not mentioned in the Tanakh, and as such, it’s not considered a tenet in Judaism. Like almost everything pertaining Jewish thought, sages across the centuries have disagreed with each other regarding reincarnation, with some sages deeply believing in the concept and others rejecting it entirely.

Gilgul Neshamot is associated with Kabbalah and Jewish mysticism and is a concept especially prominent in Hasidic Judaism. It’s also commonly observed in Jewish folklore.



Judaism places a sacred emphasis on the mourning of the death of a first degree relative, such as a parent, child, sibling, and spouse. In fact, this process is considered both a Minhag (“tradition”) and a Mitzvah (“commandment”). There are specific traditions and duties reserved specifically for those mourning a parent.

The process of Jewish mourning lasts an entire year. It begins with the burial, which is supposed to take place as soon as possible, preferably within 24 hours. After the funeral, the community and/or extended family greets the mourners with a “meal of consolation.” Then comes the Shiva, meaning “seven,” during which the immediate family remains at home for seven days while the community takes care of their basic needs (e.g. food). Every day, the mourners will recite the Mourner’s Kaddish along with visitors so that they don’t have to mourn by themselves. Then comes the stage known as “Sheloshim,” meaning 30, which is a thirty-day period following the funeral. The mourners will return to everyday life (e.g. school, work) but will ease back into it slowly; for example, they will not attend parties, concerts, or other forms of entertainment.

A year from losing a parent, the mourners will mark the Shnat Ha-Evel, or the First Year of Mourning.

The Hebrew calendar anniversary of a loved one’s death is known as “Yahzreit.” To honor our loved one, we light a Yahzreit candle, which burns for 24 hours, and recite the Mourner’s Kaddish. 

The Tanakh implies that many of the Jewish rituals associated with mourning — lamenting, making incisions, shaving the hair, and tearing garments — were done for the sake of the dead, rather than the living; in other words, these rituals were offerings to the dead. There are references in the Tanakh to the summoning of the dead for wisdom.

The graves of our patriarchs and matriarchs are considered sacred and are still sites of worship. However, our veneration for our ancestors should not cross over into idol worship.



Everything about the Jewish understanding — or lack thereof — of the afterlife is purely conjecture. The truth is that none of us really could possibly know what happens after we die, so it’s best not to worry too much about that and instead focus on being a good person while we are still alive. 

This is something I personally really love about Judaism! It’s also something that is difficult to understand for many westerners, who are used to the Christian concepts of heaven and hell. 

To quote the late Rabbi Jonathan Sacks: “The more we try to understand Judaism in the cognitive categories of western thought, the more we will fail. We will fail to understand what makes Judaism so distinctive a voice in the conversation of mankind.”

The Jewish views on the afterlife are also an interesting contrast to the fact that Judaism places tons of emphasis on mourning rituals. 

A Pew Research survey found Jews are the least likely to believe in heaven and hell out of all religious groups in the United States. It’s also important to remember that around 20 percent of Jews are atheist or agnostic, as Jews are not just a religious group. 

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