Over the centuries a few possible descriptions of the afterlife have been incorporated into Jewish thought. However there is no definitively Jewish explanation for what happens after we die.
Why Doesn’t the Torah Discuss the Afterlife?
No one knows exactly why the Torah doesn't discuss the afterlife. Instead, the Torah focuses on "Olam Ha Ze," which means "this world." Rabbi Joseph Telushkin believes that this focus on the here and now is not only intentional but directly related to the Israelite exodus from Egypt.
According to Jewish tradition God gave the Torah to the Israelites after their journey through the desert, not long after they fled a life of slavery in Egypt. Rabbi Teluskhin points out that Egyptian society was obsessed with life after death. Their holiest text was called "The Book of the Dead," and both mummification and tombs like the pyramids were meant to prepare a person for existence in the afterlife. Perhaps, suggests Rabbi Telushkin, the Torah does not talk about life after death in order to distinguish itself from Egyptian thought. In contrast to "The Book of the Dead," the Torah focuses on the importance of living a good life here and now.
Jewish Views of the Afterlife
What happens after we die? Everyone asks that question at one point or another. Though Judaism does not have a definitive answer, below are some of the possible responses that have emerged over the centuries.
- Olam Ha Ba – "Olam Ha Ba" literally means "the world to come" in Hebrew. Early rabbinic texts describe Olam Ha Ba has an idyllic version of this world. It is a physical realm that will exist at the end-of-days, after the Messiah has come and God has judged both the living and the dead. The righteous dead will be resurrected in order to enjoy a second life in Olam Ha Ba. You can learn more about Olam Ha Ba in: "What Is Olam Ha Ba?"
- Gehenna - When the ancient rabbis talk about Gehenna, the question they are trying to answer is "How will bad people be dealt with in the afterlife?" Accordingly, they saw Gehenna as a place of punishment for those who lead an immoral life. However, the time a person's soul could spend in Gehenna was limited to twelve months and the rabbis maintained that even at the very Gates of Gehenna a person could repent and avoid punishment (Erubin 19a). After being punished in Gehenna a soul was considered pure enough to enter Gan Eden (see below). You can learn more about Gehenna in: "What Is Gehenna?
- Gan Eden – In contrast to Gehenna, Gan Eden was conceived as a paradise for those who lived a righteous life. Whether Gan Eden - which means "The Garden of Eden in Hebrew" - was intended as a place for souls after death or for resurrected people when Olam Ha Ba comes is unclear. Exodus Rabbah 15:7 states, for instance: "In the Messianic Age God will establish peace for the nations and they will sit at ease and eat in Gan Eden." Numbers Rabbah 13:2 makes a similar reference and in both cases, neither souls nor the dead are mentioned. Nevertheless, author Simcha Raphael suggests that given the ancient rabbis' belief in resurrection, Gan Eden was likely a place where they thought the righteous would go after they were resurrected for Olam Ha Ba. You can learn more about Gan Eden in: "What Is Gan Eden?"
In addition to overarching concepts about life after death, such as Olam Ha Ba, there are many stories that talk about what might happen to souls once they arrive in the afterlife. For instance, there is a famous midrash (story) about how in both heaven and hell people sit at banquet tables piled high with delicious foods, but no one can bend their elbows. In Hell everyone starves because they think only of themselves. In Heaven, everyone feasts because they feed each other.
- "Jewish Views of the Afterlife" by Simcha Raphael. Jason Aronson, Inc: Northvale, 1996.
- "Jewish Literacy" by Rabbi Joseph Telushkin. William Morrow: New York, 1991.