"Olam Ha Ba" means "the World to Come" in Hebrew and is an ancient rabbinic concept of the afterlife. It is usually compared to "Olam Ha Ze," which means "this world" in Hebrew.
Though the Torah focuses on the importance of Olam Ha Ze – this life, here and now - over the centuries Jewish concepts of the afterlife have developed in response to that essential question: What happens after we die? Olam Ha Ba is one rabbinic response. You can learn more about other theories about the Jewish afterlife in "The Afterlife in Judaism."
Olam Ha Ba – The World to Come
One of the most interesting and challenging aspects of rabbinic literature is its complete comfort with contradiction. Accordingly, the concept of Olam Ha Ba is never explicitly defined. It is sometimes described an idyllic place where the righteous dwell following their resurrection in the messianic age. At other times it is described as a spiritual realm where souls go after the body dies. Likewise, Olam Ha Ba is sometimes discussed as a place of collective redemption, but it is also talked about in terms of the individual soul in the afterlife.
Frequently rabbinic texts are entirely ambiguous about Olam Ha Ba, for instance in Berakhot 17a:
"In the World to Come there is no eating, or drinking nor procreation or commerce, nor jealousy, or enmity, or rivalry – but the righteous sit with crowns on their head and enjoy the radiance of the Shekhinah [Divine Presence]."As you can see, this description of Olam Ha Ba could apply equally to a physical and spiritual afterlife. In fact, the only thing that can said with any certainty is that the rabbis believed Olam Ha Ze was more important than Olam Ha Ba. After all, we are here now and know that this life exists. Therefore we should strive to live good lives and appreciate our time on Earth.
Olam Ha Ba and the Messianic Age
One version of Olam Ha Ba does not describe it as a postmortem realm but as the end of time. It is not life after death but life after the Messiah comes, when the righteous dead will be resurrected to live a second life.
When Olam Ha Ba is discussed in these terms the rabbis are often concerned with who will be resurrected and who will not merit a share in the World to Come. For instance, Mishnah Sanhedrin 10:2-3 says that the "generation of the Flood" will not experience Olam Ha Ba. Likewise the men of Sodom, the generation that wandered in the desert and specific kings of Israel (Jeroboam, Ahab and Manasseh) will not have a place in the World to Come. That the rabbis discuss who will and will not be resurrected indicates that they are also concerned with Divine Judgment and justice. Indeed, Divine Judgment plays an important role in rabbinic visions of Olam Ha Ba. They believed that both individuals and nations would stand before God for judgment at the end of days. "You will in Olam Ha Ba have to give account and reckoning before the supreme King of Kings, the Holy Blessed One," says Mishnah Avot 4:29.
Though the rabbis do not describe what this version of Olam Ha Ba will be like, exactly, they do talk about it in terms of Olam Ha Ze. Whatever is good in this life is said to be even better in the World to Come. For instance, a single grape will be enough to make a flagon of wine (Ketubbot 111b), trees will produce fruit after one month (P. Taanit 64a) and Israel will produce the finest grain and wool (Ketubbot 111b). One rabbi even says that in Olam Ha Ba "women will bear children daily and the trees will produce fruit daily" (Shabbat 30b), though if you ask most women a world where they gave birth daily would be anything but paradise!
Olam Ha Ba as a Postmortem Realm
When Olam Ha Ba is not discussed as an end-of-days realm it is often described as a place where immortal souls dwell. Whether souls go there immediately after death or at some point in the future is unclear. The ambiguity here is due in part to tensions surrounding concepts of the soul's immortality. While most rabbis believed that the human soul is immortal there was debate as to whether the soul could exist without the body (hence the concept of resurrection in the messianic age, see above).
One example of Olam Ha Ba as a place for souls that have not been reunited with the body appears in Exodus Rabbah 52:3, which is a midrashic text. Here a story about Rabbi Abahu says that when was about to die "he beheld all the good things that were stored up for him in Olam Ha Ba, and he rejoiced." Another passage clearly discusses Olam Ha Ba in terms of a spiritual realm:
"The sages have taught us that we human beings cannot appreciate the joys of the future age. Therefore, they call it 'the coming world' [Olam Ha Ba], not because it does not yet exist, but because it is still in the future. 'The World to Come' is the one waiting for man after this world. But there is no basis for the assumption that the world to come will only begin after the destruction of this world. What it does imply is that when the righteous leave this world, they ascend on high..." (Tanhuma, Vayikra 8).
While the notion of Olam Ha Ba as a postmortem place is clear in the passage above, according to author Simcha Raphael it has always remained secondary to concepts of Olam Ha Ba as a place where the righteous are resurrected and the world is judged at the end of days.
Sources: "Jewish Views of the Afterlife" by Simcha Paul Raphael. Jason Aronson, Inc: Northvale, 1996.