Project Genesis

Basics of Judaism

Heaven and Hell

What Happens After Death?

I recently lost my father. I would like to know what happens to the person from the moment the heart stops. I was with him when he died and I kept on thinking, but where has he gone?

I’m truly sorry to hear about your loss and I know how such an event can inspire serious thought. I’ll try to help you in your search.

You may have noticed the curious fact that the Written Torah contains very little discussion of our post-death destination. The 12th Century Jewish philosopher Rabbi Yehuda haLevi, in his book The Kuzari explains that it’s left out because “heaven” is a place none of us has ever been and of which we can therefore provide no hard and verifiable evidence. And it is not the way of the Torah, writes the Kuzari, to present claims that are unverifiable.

So all that we do know about the next world is based on tradition (much of it contained in various volumes of the Oral Torah – i.e., the Talmud, Kabbalah etc.).

We are told (in the Talmud, tractate Shabbos 152b, see also Shulchan Aruch Yoreh Deah #344, Taz #1) that the soul (neshama) of a person remains near to, and conscious of his body from the time of death until burial and perceives what’s happening around him as though through a dream. That awareness and sensitivity is one reason Jewish law requires us to be so careful of our conduct near bodies (for instance, eulogies must not be overly exaggerated and lightheaded and insulting behaviour is forbidden).

We are also told (Talmud, Shabbos 31a) that a Neshama’s accomplishments in this world are tested (how close were you to the Torah’s ideal?) and the person is faced with an honest and unflinching view of G-d’s relationship with the world, His expectations and the potential there was for fulfilling His goals. As perfection is, at best, rare, I would suspect that the tone is often one of regret.

Rabbi Moshe Chaim Luzzato (18th Century Italian scholar) demonstrated the impossibility of satisfying the Neshama in this finite, mundane world (when teaching this idea, I use the example of fine art and classical music: in great works of art, you can sometimes almost taste a terrible yearning for something more, something just beyond the artist’s grasp. I suspect that might be one reason why so many artists are so depressed…). Either way, given that the Neshama can never be truly happy here (and assuming that G-d created it for some benevolent purpose), there MUST be some time and place where it WILL be satisfied. That place, writes Rabbi Luzzato, is the next world, where, in proportion to our worldly merits, we will bask in the infinite warmth of the Divine Presence…something we strive for even now without necessarily knowing it. Incidentally, Judaism also teaches that immersing one’s self in Torah study and Mitzvah observance can bring one as close as possible to this warmth while still in this world.

One final point: we are taught that the Neshama isn’t prepared to enjoy the Divine Presence until its this-worldly sins have been cleansed and atoned. Of course, it’s by far best to do that here through the process of repentance, but the cleansing of what’s left is performed in Gehinnom (or, Hell). I’ve been told to think of it as a kind of dry cleaners…just like your suit probably doesn’t enjoy its trip to the cleaners, so too the Neshama. But the ability to come close to the Divine far outweighs the pain.

Our tradition is very clear that it is of enormous assistance to the Neshama for the Kaddish prayer to be recited with a proper minyan for the first eleven months after death and on each Yahrtzeit thereafter. The way this works is actually quite intuitive: The text of the Kaddish says nothing about death or our lost loved- ones, but is a beautiful affirmation of the glory of G-d and our hope that His kind and just rule should soon become manifest over the entire world. If a child (who only exists because of the efforts of his parent and who only grew and flourished because of that parent’s many kindnesses) now publicly expresses that praise and hope, thereby increasing his own and his community’s understanding of and concern for G-d’s will, is that not just one more merit that is owing the account the departed relative?

With best wishes,
Rabbi Boruch Clinton

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