In rabbinic Judaism Gehenna (sometimes called Gehinnom) is an afterlife realm where unrighteous souls are punished. Although Gehenna is not mentioned in the Torah, over time it became an important part of Jewish concepts of the afterlife and represented divine justice in the postmortem realm.
Origins of Gehenna
Gehenna is not mentioned in the Torah and in fact does not appear in Jewish texts before the sixth century B.C.E. Nevertheless, some rabbinic texts maintain that God created Gehenna on the second day of Creation (Genesis Rabbah 4:6, 11:9). Other texts claim that Gehenna was part of God's original plan for the universe and was actually created before the Earth (Pesahim 54a; Sifre Deuteronomy 37). The concept of Gehenna was likely inspired by the biblical notion of Sheol.
Who Goes to Gehenna?
In rabbinic texts Gehenna played an important role as a place where unrighteous souls were punished. The rabbis believed that anyone who did not live in accordance with the ways of God and Torah would spend time Gehenna. According to the rabbis some of the transgressions that would merit a visit to Gehenna included idolatry (Taanit 5a), incest (Erubin 19a), adultery (Sotah 4b), pride (Avodah Zarah 18b), anger and losing one's temper (Nedarim 22a). Of course, they also believed that anyone who spoke ill of a rabbinic scholar would merit time in Gehenna (Berakhot 19a).
In order to avoid a visit to Gehenna the rabbis recommended that people occupy themselves "with good deeds" (Midrash on Proverbs 17:1). "He who has Torah, good deeds, humility and fear of heaven will be saved from punishment in Gehenna," says Pesikta Rabbati 50:1. In this way the concept of Gehenna was used to encourage people to live good, ethical lives and to study Torah. In the case of transgression, the rabbis prescribed teshuvah (repentance) as the remedy. Indeed, the rabbis taught that a person could repent even at the very gates of Gehenna (Erubin 19a).
For the most part the rabbis did not believe souls would be condemned to eternal punishment. "The punishment of the wicked in Gehenna is twelve months," states Shabbat 33b, while other texts say the time-frame could be anywhere from three to twelve months. Yet there were transgressions that the rabbis felt did merit eternal damnation. These included: heresy, publicly shaming someone, committing adultery with a married woman and rejecting the words of the Torah. However, because the rabbis also believed that one could repent at any time, the belief in eternal damnation was not a predominant one.
Descriptions of Gehenna
As with most teachings about the Jewish afterlife, there is no definitive answer to what, where or when Gehenna exists.
In terms of size, some rabbinic texts say that Gehenna is limitless in size, while others maintain that it has fixed dimensions but can expand depending on how many souls occupy it (Taanit 10a; Pesikta Rabbati 41:3). Gehenna is usually located beneath the earth and a number of texts say that the unrighteous "go down to Gehenna" (Rosh HaShanah 16b; M. Avot 5:22).
Gehenna is often described as a place of fire and brimstone. "[Ordinary] fire is a sixtieth of [the fire of] Gehenna" states Berakhot 57b, while Genesis Rabbah 51:3 asks: "Why does a man's soul shrink from the odor of brimstone? Because it knows it will be judged therein in the World to Come." In addition to being intensely hot, Gehenna was also said to exist in the depths of darkness. "The wicked are darkness, Gehenna is darkness, the depths are darkness," says Genesis Rabbah 33:1. Likewise, Tanhuma, Bo 2 describes Gehenna in these terms: "And Moses stretched forth his hand toward heaven, and there was thick darkness [Exodus 10:22]. Where did the darkness originate? From the darkness of Gehenna."
Learn more about descriptions of Gehenna in: What Is Gehenna Like?"
Sources: "Jewish Views of the Afterlife" by Simcha Paul Raphael. Jason Aronson, Inc: Northvale, 1996.