Judaism & ghosts
DO JEWS BELIEVE IN GHOSTS?
In Judaism, when a person dies, they move on to the Olam Ha’aba (“the world to come”). The exact nature of the afterlife has been debated among Jewish thinkers, rabbis, and theologians for two millennia and has never been resolved.
The Torah is almost completely silent on the issue of ghosts, though the Talmud is a different story, with rich tales of spirits and demons. They haunt many dark places, such as homes, and yes, the bathroom!
Whether these tales are literal or metaphors has been an issue of debate for centuries. Some passages, however, seem to imply that these spirits are very much literal. For instance, in Berakhot, it states: “If one wants to discover them, let him take sifted ashes and sprinkle around his bed, and in the morning he will see something like the footprints of a cock.”
TWO SCHOOLS OF THOUGHT
There are two schools of thought within Judaism regarding the potential existence of ghosts or spirits. One believes that the Olam Ha’aba (“the world to come”) is purely a spiritual experience; the other believes that people in the Olam Ha’aba have souls and bodies just as we do in the physical world. This debate ties in directly with the discussion about ghosts.
If souls have no bodies, then they cannot be seen by human beings. However, if they do have bodies, they could potentially roam the earth as ghosts and be seen by humans.
While the Talmud tells various stories of ghosts and demons, it’s likely many of these Jewish thinkers were not speaking literally. However, others took issue with this interpretation. For instance, Rabbi Eliyahu (the Vilna Gaon) accused Maimonides of being too influenced by Greek thought and not taking the issue of demons and evil spirits seriously.
COMMUNICATING WITH GHOSTS
The Torah explicitly forbids communicating with the dead via seances and other such rituals (Deuteronomy 18:11). This appears to imply that we are able to communicate with ghosts but that we shouldn’t do so. The Talmud tells of various interactions between the dead and the living.
As with all things Jewish, the sages disagreed with each others’ interpretations. While some believed that communicating with ghosts was possible — though explicitly forbidden — Maimonides claimed that believing in the ability to invoke dead spirits was not only nonsense, but also interfered with Judaism’s monotheistic views.
A GHOST STORY IN THE TORAH
Though the Torah doesn’t explicitly talk about the existence of spirits or ghosts, there actually is a ghost story in the Torah.
In the Torah narrative, King Saul, the first king of the United Kingdom of Israel (1047-930 BCE), calls a Canaanite witch, known as the Woman of Endor, to summon the spirit of Samuel to receive advice on how to defeat the Philistines in battle.
While she summons the spirit of Samuel, his ghost terrifies the witch, and she later admonishes King Saul for disobeying G-d. The witch predicts Saul’s downfall.
Unsurprisingly, Jewish thinkers have long debated whether the Witch of Endor literally summoned a spirit or whether King Saul was just fooled into thinking that she did.
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