Tag Archives: Chaim Vital

Everything You Wanted to Know About Reincarnation in Judaism

This week’s Torah portion is Mishpatim, which is concerned with the first major set of laws that the Israelites received following the Ten Commandments. While the term mishpatim literally means “ordinances” or “judgements”, the Zohar (II, 94a) suggests a very different interpretation:

“And these are the judgements which you shall set before them…” These are the rules concerning reincarnation, the judgement of souls that are sentenced according to their acts.

The Zohar goes on to interpret the laws in the Torah with regards to the mechanisms of reincarnation. For example, whereas the Torah begins by describing a Hebrew servant who is indentured for six years of labour and must then be freed in the seventh year, the Zohar interprets that this is really speaking of souls which must reincarnate in order to repair the six middot before they could be freed. (The middot are the primary character traits: chessed, kindness; gevurah, restraint; tiferet, balance and truth; netzach, persistence and faith; hod, gratitude and humility; and yesod, sexual purity.)

While the Zohar speaks at length about reincarnation, it is the Arizal who systematically laid down the rules of reincarnation and explained the Zohar in depth. His primary disciple, Rabbi Chaim Vital, recorded these teachings in a famous treatise known as Sha’ar HaGilgulim, “Gate of Reincarnation”. The following is a brief condensation of the basic rules of reincarnation that are defined in this tremendous text, answering many of the common questions people have about spiritual transmigration.

Why Do People Reincarnate?

At the start of the eighth chapter, Rabbi Vital writes:

למה מתגלגלים. דע, כי הנשמות יתגלגלו לכמה סבות, הראשונה הוא, לפי שעבר על איזו עבירה מעבירות שבתורה, ובא לתקן. הב’ הוא, לתקן איזו מצוה שחסר ממנו. השלישית היא, שבא לצורך אחרים, להדריכם ולתקנם… לפעמים יתגלגל, ליקח את בת זוגו, כי לא זכה בראשונה לקחתה

Why do people reincarnate? Know that souls reincarnate for several reasons: The first is that one transgressed one of the prohibitions in the Torah, and returns to repair it. The second is to fulfil a mitzvah that one lacks. The third is in order to assist others, to guide them, and rectify them… Sometimes one reincarnates to marry their soulmate, which they did not merit to do in a previous life.

The Ari explains that people mainly reincarnate in order to atone for sins of past lives, or to fulfil mitzvahs that they didn’t do previously. Later, in Chapter 16, we read that people who return do not have to fulfil all the mitzvahs in one lifetime, but only have to accomplish those that their souls are still lacking. Some reincarnate not for their own rectification, but to assist others. We are told elsewhere that these are usually very righteous individuals who agree to return to this world in order to help others.

Fresco of the Resurrection of the Dead from the ancient Dura-Europos Synagogue

Some also reincarnate because they either did not marry, or married the wrong person. They must return to reunite with their true soulmate. The Arizal teaches that, unfortunately, some people are so deeply mired in kelipot, negative spiritual “husks”, that they are unable to find their soulmate in this world. These people will reunite with their other half only in Olam HaBa, the “next world” at the time of the Resurrection. With regards to finding soulmates, this is directed particularly at male souls, for it is primarily a man’s responsibility to find his soulmate.

On that note, the following chapter tells us that female souls actually reincarnate very rarely. To begin with, female souls are more refined than male ones, and are unlikely to require more rectifications. What does happen more commonly is that male souls are reincarnated into female bodies! This opens up a number of fascinating scenarios which Rabbi Chaim Vital describes.

What Do People Reincarnate Into?

In Chapter 22, we read that people can reincarnate not only into human bodies, but also animals, vegetation, and even inanimate matter. For example, a person who feeds others non-kosher food reincarnates as a tree; one who sheds blood reincarnates into water; those who transgress various sexual prohibitions reincarnate into bats, rabbits, and other animals; while proud people and those who talk too much reincarnate into bees. (We are told that this is what happened to the judge Deborah who, despite her greatness and wisdom, had a bit of pride and was required to reincarnate into a bee, hence her name devorah, which literally means “bee”!)

It is important to mention, though, that an entire human soul does not fully reincarnate into another organism. Rather, souls are complex entities made up of many different interacting sparks. It is only those sparks that require rectification that return to this world (Chapter 14). Interestingly, the Arizal teaches that when two people really dislike each other, and are constantly in conflict with one another, this is often because the two are sharing sparks from one soul!

How Many Times May One Reincarnate?

Sha’ar HaGilgulim records that a person can reincarnate thousands of times—but only on the condition that they improve at least a little bit in each incarnation. If they fail to improve, they can only reincarnate a maximum of three times. After three strikes, that particular spark is sent to Gehinnom (loosely translated as “hell”) where it will be purified. However, the souls of those who regularly learn Torah are never sent to Gehinnom, and always merit reincarnation. This is one of the incredible protective powers of regular Torah study.

In multiple places, the Arizal teaches about the reincarnations of Abel, the son of Adam. Abel (הבל) had a good side and a bad one. The good side was represented by the letter Hei (ה) of his name, and the bad by the Beit and Lamed (בל). The bad part needed to be rectified, so it reincarnated in Laban (לבן), the wicked father-in-law of Jacob. Laban didn’t do much better, so he was reincarnated in the gentile prophet Bilaam (בלעם). He, too, was an ungodly person, so the Beit-Lamed soul was reincarnated for the third time in Naval (נבל), the ungrateful man who rejected David. Naval was strike three, and that Beit-Lamed soul no longer returned in a reincarnation.

We see from the above how a person’s name may offer tremendous hints as to their soul sparks, previous lives, tests, challenges, and character traits. When we read about the above individuals in the Tanakh, we see how similar they were. All three were very wealthy, famous, and participated in divination and sorcery. All were cunning, greedy, and deceitful individuals. The Arizal explains in detail what rectifications each was supposed to do, and how one life affected the next, weaving together these three seemingly unrelated Biblical narratives that span nearly a thousand years into one beautiful tapestry.

Which Body Will A Person Have at the End?

Perhaps the most famous question: if a soul has so many different bodies over so many different lifetimes, which body will that soul inhabit in the afterlife, or in the world of Resurrection? Rabbi Vital writes:

וכן הענין בכל נשמה ונשמה, וכאשר יהיה זמן התחיה, כל גוף וגוף יקח חלקו של נשמתו, כפי חלק הזמן שלו באיזו מדרגה היתה

And with each and every soul, when the time of the Resurrection comes, each and every body will take its corresponding soul, according to the part that it had at that particular time.

Thus, each part of the soul will have its own body, and all reincarnations will exist simultaneously as individuals in Olam HaBa!

Breaking Free from Materialism

In Chapter 23, Rabbi Vital suggests that the most important thing to take from all of this is to live a meaningful, spiritual life. When a person is mired in materialism, and cares only for their physical aspects, they become so attached to their bodies that they cannot exist without one. And so, when that person’s body dies their soul is in complete disarray; frightened, pained, and unable to ascend onwards. Angels must come and quickly place the soul in a new body. As such, this person can never free themselves from endless reincarnations into this imperfect, difficult world.

However, those who in their lifetimes tap into their souls, and are comfortable with their spiritual side, are able to simply take off their dead bodies like an old garment, and move on. For such people, their wonderful portion in Olam HaBa is not too far away.

An Honest Look at Death and the Afterlife

This week we once again read a double Torah portion, combining the parashot of Behar and Bechukotai to complete the book of Leviticus. The main themes of these parashas are the Sabbatical and Jubilee years, as well as God’s rewards and punishments for those who follow His ways and those who do not.

One interesting thing that the reader will note is that there is no mention of any kind of afterlife. All of the rewards and punishments that are listed are described in wholly physical terms: ample rains and abundant harvests, military victories and secure borders, good food and the feeling of God’s presence – and the opposite of these if the people are sinful. Why is it that the Torah does not mention any kind of reward and punishment in the afterlife? After all, we are accustomed to hearing that this world is nothing but a transient “hallway”, so to speak, while the next world is the real deal, where people receive what they deserve.

More puzzling is the fact that the Torah essentially never mentions the afterlife in explicit fashion. Everything appears to happen in this physical world. Yet, there is certainly a discussion of souls, and many spiritual entities. So, what is the real Torah conception of the afterlife?

The Garden of Eden

'Garden of Eden', by Thomas Cole

‘Garden of Eden’, by Thomas Cole

Typically, it is common to think that those who have passed away are now in the “Garden of Eden”, and this is indeed how Hebrew-speakers often refer to the dead, wishing them menucha (rest) in Gan Eden. But where exactly is this “Gan Eden”?

The Torah is quite clear on the fact that God created the Garden of Eden right here on Earth. The Genesis account describes God’s creation of the world, and all of its inhabitants, and concludes with the planting of a garden in Eden, where the first man and woman are placed. After their sin of consuming the fruit, Adam and Eve are banished from the Garden, and continue their lives elsewhere on Earth. There is no mention anywhere in the Torah of a spiritual Garden of Eden located somewhere in the Heavens!

Gehinnom

Conversely, it is common for people to refer to an afterlife of damnation in a place called Gehinnom, typically translated as “hell”. Again, there is no explicit mention of a “hell” in Scripture. Gehinnom itself simply means “the Valley of Hinnom” (or the Valley of the Son of Hinnom, Gei Ben Hinnom) which is discussed in the Tanakh as a place right outside the Old City walls of Jerusalem. This is described as a place of sinners and idolaters, outcasts that were expelled from the Holy City. Once again, we see that the place usually thought of as hell is simply a physical place here on Earth.

As Above, So Below

By the times of the Talmudic period, the Jewish Sages had developed a unique cosmic worldview. They saw this material world as only a reflection of the spiritual world. What happened down here reflected, in some way, much greater cosmic events that were happening in the Heavens. Thus, just as there was a Jerusalem down here on Earth, there was a Jerusalem shel ma’alah, a “Jerusalem Above” (see, for example, Ta’anit 5a).

Similarly, just as there was a Garden of Eden – a place of utmost peace and pleasure – here on Earth, there must be a similar one above in the Heavens. And just as there was a Gehinnom – a deep valley of evil – here on Earth, there must be such a place in the Heavens, too.

It appears that the idea of righteous souls moving on to a Heavenly Gan Eden, or wicked souls to a Heavenly Gehinnom, came from this view on the nature of God’s universe.

The Big Afterlife Problem

However, this brings about a very large problem: both the Garden of Eden and Gehinnom are described in physical terms. But, after the body dies and decays, only the soul lives on, and how can the soul experience physical pleasures or pains? Additionally, the soul is described as pure and eternal. Why is it the soul that must suffer for the sins accrued by the body? And why should the soul suffer infinitely for a body that had only such a short, finite existence?

This problem was presented to Rabbi Yehuda haNasi by the Roman Emperor Antoninus nearly two millennia ago (Sanhedrin 91a-b). Rabbi Yehuda replied with a wonderful parable, and concluded that God brings the body and soul together again, and only then judges the person, and bestows upon them their due rewards or punishments.

So, if the body and soul go back together again after death, then there is no “Garden of Eden” or “Gehinnom” in the sense that we might commonly think.

Gate of Reincarnations

The only way that the body and soul can go back together again is if, following death, the soul returns into bodily form. This is the definition of reincarnation. Roughly 500 years ago, the great kabbalist Rabbi Isaac Luria, better known as the Arizal, revealed many secrets of reincarnation, and these teachings were recorded by his primary disciple, Rabbi Chaim Vital, in a text called Sha’ar HaGilgulim (Gate of Reincarnations).

This text describes reincarnations in great detail, and affirms that those who have lived sinful lives are reincarnated into new lives that are very challenging, and in this way have to make reparations for the mistakes of their past. The righteous, too, are reincarnated, since no one goes through life without making some mistakes, and even the most minute of these errors must be repaired. However, such people will enjoy much better lives, and be given the opportunity to fix those minor details from their past.

Of course, proper repentance can nullify any trials that a person must bear due to a mishap from a past life. Thus, free will ultimately trumps everything else. And what happens to those who have completely fulfilled their missions? In that case, there is indeed a “Garden of Eden” of sorts.

Resurrection of the Dead

One form of afterlife that Scriptures do mention explicitly is the Resurrection of the Dead. It is taught that sometime after the coming of Mashiach, all of the righteous souls will miraculously come back to life. They will then enjoy the world as it was always meant to be: a Garden of Eden.

Ultimately, this is the role of Mashiach: to return the world to that perfect, primordial state. It is interesting to note how the figure responsible for driving mankind out of the Garden was the Serpent, Nachash (נחש) in Hebrew, a word which has a numerical value of 358; and the figure responsible for returning mankind to the Garden is Mashiach (משיח), a word which also has a gematria of 358 – measure for measure.

Thus, the final step for each soul, once its mission is complete, is to be resurrected in the restored Garden of Eden, right here in a new Earth, following the arrival of Mashiach.

Back to Bechukotai

We can now understand why Bechukotai does not speak of any spiritual rewards or punishments in an afterlife. All of the rewards and punishments are right here in this world, where body and soul unite as one, as Rabbi Yehuda told Antoninus. We can now also see why no “Heaven” or “Hell” is ever explicitly mentioned in Scripture, and why we never even mention them in our prayers. The Amidah prayer recited thrice daily makes no reference to souls in some Heavenly realm, but does have a blessing for techiyat ha’metim, the Resurrection of the Dead in a future, perfected world.

May we merit to see it speedily and in our days.