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Religion Library: Judaism

Afterlife and Salvation

Written by: Marc A. Krell

Title: Ezekiel Source: examining Jewish intellectual sources throughout history, there is clearly a spectrum of opinions regarding death versus the afterlife. In the biblical text of Psalms, there is a description of death, when people go into the earth or the "realm of the dead" and cannot praise God. The first reference to resurrection is collective in Ezekiel's vision of the dry bones, when all the Israelites in exile will be resurrected. There is a reference to individual resurrection in the Book of Daniel (165 B.C.E.), the last book of the Hebrew Bible.

During the Second Temple Period, the Sadducees, High Priests, denied any particular existence of individuals after death because it wasn't written in the Torah, while the Pharisees, ancestors of the rabbis, affirmed both bodily resurrection and immortality of the soul, most likely based on the influence of Hellenistic ideas about body and soul and the Pharisaic belief in the Oral Torah. The Pharisees maintained that after death, the soul is connected to God until the messianic era when it is rejoined with the body in the land of Israel at the time of resurrection.

Sadducees (High Priests)Pharisees (ancestors of rabbis)
deny existence after deathaffirm bodily resurrection and immortality of the soul
 body and soul rejoined in messianic era

According to various Jewish intellectual sources and folk traditions up through the medieval period, there is a gradual transition from physical death to an afterlife in which the body and spirit remain connected to one another in some way either through resurrection or immortality of the soul. According to early rabbinic folklore, the transition from death to life actually begins three days after death when the soul is believed to hover over the grave hoping to be restored to the body. Yet some rabbinic sources claim that twelve months after death, the soul maintains a temporary relationship with body in a type of purgatory leading either to paradise, Gan Eden, or hell, Gehinnom.

The condition of the soul during the twelve-month purgatory is uncertain. There is a spectrum of opinions ranging from the idea that it is quiescent to fully conscious with the only difference being the power of speech. There is also a debate about how much the dead know of the world left behind. The rabbis even decried the practice of eating a meal between Shabbat afternoon prayers and sunset because of God's custom of letting spirits out of their storage place and giving them food from the "courtyard of the dead" and brook water flowing out of the Garden of Eden.


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