Tag Archives: Olam HaBa

Reincarnation in Judaism, Part 2

As we continue exploring the Jewish conception of the afterlife, we uncover where exactly is “Gehinnom” and what is “Abadon”? We address the great theodicy question: why do good and innocent people suffer? Can a person experience “Hell on Earth”? And what does reincarnation have to do with it? Plus: which iteration of a person will resurrect at the End of Days? And why is it that people do not remember their past lives?

For Part 1 of this series, see here.
See also ‘Perspectives on Hell’ and ‘Understanding Resurrection of the Dead’.

Understanding Resurrection of the Dead

‘The Vision of the Valley of the Dry Bones’ by Gustav Doré

One of the fundamental principles of Jewish belief is in Techiyat haMetim, a future Resurrection of the Dead. The Rambam (Rabbi Moshe ben Maimon, 1138-1204) enumerated it among the 13 Principles of Faith that every Jew must believe in. He based it mainly on the famous Mishnah that opens the tenth chapter of the tractate Sanhedrin. It begins by stating that every member of the nation of Israel has a share in the World to Come, and then goes on to give several exceptions to the rule—those who forfeit their share. The first is anyone who holds “there is no Resurrection of the Dead from the Torah”. In other words, a person who argues that the Resurrection of the Dead is not a legitimate Torah principle. Such a person is a heretic and forfeits their share in the World to Come. The big question is: do we actually see anywhere in the Torah that there is a reference to the Resurrection of the Dead? The Talmud (starting on Sanhedrin 90b) gives numerous possibilities, most of them indirect derivations, before giving us one place in the Torah that does directly allude to the Resurrection of the Dead. This special verse is in this week’s parasha, Ha’azinu.

In the song of Ha’azinu, Moses quotes God as declaring: “See now that I, I am the One; There is no god beside Me. I deal death and give life; I wounded and I will heal: None can deliver from My hand.” (Deuteronomy 32:39) The order of words is significant: God did not say that He gives life and then puts to death, but rather that He puts to death and then He gives life! Thus, those that have died will be resurrected back to life. Some in the past disputed this interpretation, including the ancient Sadducees who did not believe in any afterlife. Recall that the Sadducees held strictly to the Law of Moses, to the Written Torah, and rejected the Oral Torah. They pointed to places in Tanakh that speak of She’ol, a repository for the lifeless dead, and quoted verses like “the dead do not praise God!” (Psalm 116:17) in support of their position. Interestingly, the Samaritans also believe only in the Torah, and reject even the Prophets and Ketuvim, yet they do believe in a Resurrection of the Dead based on our verse in Ha’azinu!

Once we look into the Prophets, we see numerous references of the future Resurrection. The first that is typically cited is Ezekiel’s Vision of the Dry Bones (Ezekiel 37). In this episode, God took Ezekiel to a valley and raised up skeletons, asking the prophet if they could come back to life. Ezekiel replied that only God knows such things, and God proceeded to bring the bones back to life. In Rabbinic tradition, it is believed that these revived skeletons were a segment of the Tribe of Ephraim. Back in Egypt, the Israelites desperately awaited their salvation, and many believed the time of Redemption had come and gone. They miscalculated by 30 years, and a group of Ephraimites decided to take matters into their own hands and flee. Unfortunately, they didn’t make it and ended up dying (or being killed) in the Wilderness. It was these Ephraimites that God resurrected before Ezekiel’s eyes. This description is found in multiple places in Midrash (such as Yalkut Shimoni I, 226), and in the Talmud (Sanhedrin 92b). The same page of Talmud does offer an opinion that the Vision of the Dry Bones might only be metaphorical, or that it doesn’t necessarily imply a literal future resurrection of all the dead. It could just be highlighting God’s power to revive the dead in general, or even just an allegory for the restoration of Israel after destruction and exile. The contradiction is resolved by saying both are true: the Vision had metaphorical meaning, but it was also literally true!

Another place in Tanakh that is a clear source for Resurrection is Daniel’s statement that “Many of those that sleep in the dust of the earth will awake, some to eternal life, others to reproaches, to everlasting abhorrence.” (Daniel 12:2) Similarly, Isaiah stated “Oh, let Your dead revive! Let corpses arise! Awake and shout for joy, you who dwell in the dust. For Your dew is like the dew on fresh growth; You make the land of the spirits come to life.” (Isaiah 26:19) Here, Isaiah refers to a “dew” of resurrection, and mystical texts have much to say about this dew. One of the early Kabbalistic works, Sefer haPeliyah, says that it is the same dew that was used to revive the Israelites when they briefly “died” from the overwhelming Sinai Revelation. The Talmud (Chagigah 12b) says God keeps this special dew locked up in the highest of the Seven Heavens, the realm of ‘Aravot, alongside His Throne and chief angels like Seraphim and Ofanim. Elsewhere, the Talmud (Ketubot 111b) reads the verse above not as “dew on fresh growth” but as “dew of light”, since the exact words are tal orot. What is this light? It is the light of Torah, and therefore “Anyone who engages with the light of Torah, the light of Torah will revive him; and anyone who does not engage with the light of Torah, the light of Torah will not revive him.”

The Talmud here continues to say that all the righteous dead will resurrect specifically from Jerusalem, since it says in Psalms 72:16 that they shall “blossom out of the city like the grass of the earth”—and the city is none other than Jerusalem. The Zohar (II, 28b) adds that the future resurrection will begin from the indestructible luz bone. This bone will absorb the dew and become like dough, from which God will reform the body. Is there such a non-decomposing bone in the human body? As explored in depth before, scientifically speaking there is no such bone, and “luz” may actually refer to other things. It may even refer to Jerusalem itself, based on Jacob’s Vision in Genesis 28 which says the original name of the place was Luz. So, resurrecting from “Luz” may just mean that everyone will resurrect in Jerusalem!

Intriguingly, Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan suggested that luz may be referring to DNA, and the Zohar might be saying that resurrection will be possible by taking a small remaining DNA sample and reviving from it the entire body. Today, scientists have indeed made major advances in DNA biotechnology, organ printing, and cloning that may make it possible. In fact, in another place the Zohar (I, 135a, Midrash haNe’elam) actually suggests this might be the case: “In the future time, the Holy One, blessed be He, will rejoice with the righteous, and will rest His Presence upon them, and all will rejoice with great joy… Said Rabbi Yehuda: the righteous are destined in that time to create worlds and resurrect the dead.” So, it will be the Tzadikim in the Messianic Age who will have the power to revive the dead! It remains to be seen whether this will be an entirely spiritual power, or whether it might involve the use of DNA technology.

Relatedly, advances in modern medicine and health are allowing us to dramatically increase lifespans. Isaiah prophesies that a time will come when a centenarian will be considered a “youth” (Isaiah 65:20). The ancient Book of Jubilees (Ch. 23) speaks of a time when man’s lifespan will return to that of Adam and the first generations, who lived nearly a millennium. In the future, each person will enjoy a thousand-year lifespan. This is probably related to the Talmudic and Midrashic statement that the Messianic Age will conclude by the year 6000, after which there will be a cosmic thousand-year Sabbath (see, for instance, Sanhedrin 97a). Based on Psalm 147:2-3, the Zohar (I, 139a, Midrash haNe’elam) gives a more detailed timeline: first Jerusalem will be rebuilt (arguably this has already happened), and then the Temple will be rebuilt, followed by the Ingathering of the Exiles, and only forty years after this will the Resurrection of the Dead begin.

Initially, all will be resurrected, including the wicked, except the pre-Flood generation (Yalkut Shimoni II, 429). Once everyone is resurrected, they will be judged and receive their due reward or punishment. This is also affirmed in the Talmud, in the famous discussion between Rabbi Yehuda haNasi and the Roman emperor Antoninus (Sanhedrin 91a-b). The latter questioned how God could judge a soul—which is pure and righteous—for the sins of the body, and how God could judge a body—which is just a hunk of matter and otherwise lifeless—for actions driven by the soul. Using a clever parable, Rabbi Yehuda explained how God will bring souls back into bodies and judge both together. (See also the Ramban in his Discourse on Rosh Hashanah, where he explains how Judgement Day will follow the Resurrection.)

The righteous will go on to enjoy their reward, as supported by another passage in Kiddushin 39b, which states the true reward for all mitzvot will be bestowed in the Era of Resurrection. This is the real definition of Olam HaBa, the “World to Come”, that our Sages speak of. While the term Olam HaBa is often used more ambiguously or in reference to other realms, it is really the era of reward here on Earth, when body and soul reunite. This is further supported by the Talmud in Ketubot 111b which says that in Olam HaBa, the yields of fruits and vegetables will multiple dramatically, and making wine will be effortless, with a single grape or cluster of grapes able to “produce no less than thirty jugs of wine”. This teaching is based on a verse in this week’s Ha’azinu, too.

Modern harvesting and winemaking technologies have already automated much of the process and simplified winemaking significantly, in fulfilment of Talmudic prophecy.

Another verse in this week’s parasha states that God’s Holy Land “atones for its people” (Deuteronomy 32:43). And so, there is a belief that those buried in the Holy Land have all their sins automatically wiped out. Rabbi Elazar takes it one step further and says only those buried in Israel will merit to be resurrected! The other Sages counter that this cannot be the case, and that anyone who at least “walked four cubits in the Land of Israel is assured a place in the World to Come”. However, we know that Resurrection can only take place in the Holy Land, so what will happen to all the bodies buried outside of Israel? God will miraculously make the corpses from all over the world “roll” through underground tunnels to Jerusalem! (Ketubot 111a)

The Talmud further tells us (both in Ketubot 111b and in Sanhedrin 90b) that people will be resurrected fully clothed. Rabbi Meir used a parable to explain this to Queen Cleopatra, saying that just as a “naked” kernel of wheat is buried in the ground and sprouts new wheat grains with several layers of chaff, so too will the righteous be resurrected covered up. Reish Lakish, meanwhile, uses two Scriptural verses to prove that people will initially be resurrected in the same state in which they died (blind, lame, etc.) but will then be miraculously healed. Since Adam and Eve were created as twenty-year-olds in the Garden of Eden (Beresheet Rabbah 14:7), it seems people will similarly take on the youthful bodies of a twenty-year-old.

The Zohar’s Midrash HaNe’elam cited above suggests that the process of Resurrection may last something like 200 years until all the righteous return. First will be revived the generation of the Exodus (Zohar III, 168b), along with the great Patriarchs and Prophets of old. Then all those who “drew water” from the wellsprings of Torah. Everyone else will follow, and all will eventually enjoy a millennium of peace and prosperity, with the ability to explore the farthest reaches of the universe and the highest heavens, and to truly marvel at all of God’s creations in the vast cosmos. It isn’t clear what will happen after that. Some envision a totally spiritual existence entirely devoid of the physical, perhaps for eternity (which is really hard to fathom). Others believe God will simply hit “reset” and a new Sabbatical cycle will begin, with civilization starting from the beginning all over again. Whatever the case, we must first usher in Mashiach and the Messianic Age, followed by the Era of Resurrection, and a millennium of Shabbat peace and reward. May we merit to see it soon.

Gmar chatima tova!

Cosmic Shemittot

This week’s double parasha, Behar-Bechukotai, begins: “And God spoke to Moses on Mt. Sinai: Speak to the Children of Israel and say to them: When you enter the land that I give you, the land shall observe a sabbath to God…” (Leviticus 25:1-2) As is well-known, the Holy Land must be worked for six years, and then left fallow in the seventh “Sabbatical” year, the Shemittah. After seven such cycles, the fiftieth year is the great Jubilee. After explaining the basic peshat meaning of these verses in his commentary, Rabbeinu Bechaye (Rabbi Bechaye ben Asher, 1255-1340) gives an explanation al derekh Kabbalah:

“the land shall observe a sabbath to God…” refers to the [seventh] millennium of “desolation”, which is entirely a sabbath of eternal rest. This is a reference to the World to Come, following the Resurrection… “You shall sanctify the fiftieth year and you shall proclaim freedom throughout the land for all its inhabitants. It shall be a Jubilee…” refers to each of the seven “days” of 7000 years, making a total of 49,000 years, after which the cosmos will return to a state of tohu v’vohu… (Rabbeinu Bechaye on Leviticus 25:2-10)

Rabbeinu Bechaye is speaking of the ancient mystical doctrine of the Cosmic Shemittot. Just as there is a 49-year cycle in the Holy Land, the entire cosmos goes through a 49,000-year cosmic cycle. Each of the 7000-year periods correspond to one “day” of Creation. Each period consists of 6000 years of civilization, followed by a resting seventh millennium which is Olam HaBa, the World to Come, corresponding to the delightful and spiritual Shabbat, before restarting a new era of civilization. After 49,000 years, there is a cosmic Jubilee, and the cycle restarts again.

Raphael Shuchat points out that the first mention of this notion goes all the way back to the Second Temple era, to the apocryphal Second Book of Enoch. Recall that Hanokh (“Enoch”) never died, and was transformed into an angel when God “took him” (Genesis 5:23-24). The Book of Enoch is attributed to him, but was not accepted into the official Tanakh canon by our Sages. Nonetheless, the Zohar quotes from the book dozens of times. It was most likely kept outside of the Tanakh, as one of the sifrei hitzonim, because it was too mystical and esoteric.

In the Book of Enoch, we read that God showed Hanokh the entire span of 7000 years, each day corresponding to a millennium. Then “the eighth day will be the first of a [newly] created week, and it thus revolves in a cycle of seven thousand…” (II Enoch 33) The Zohar similarly says there is a civilization span of 7000 years (III, 9b). The Talmud mentions this briefly in several places, too, including Rosh Hashanah 31a and Sanhedrin 97a. In both cases, there is another opinion presented that the Sabbatical millennium is not one thousand years, but two thousand years. This is probably referring to the final Sabbatical and the Jubilee together, since the 49th millennium is a Sabbatical, and then the 50th is the Jubilee, meaning there would be two thousand years of rest at the very end of the cycle. This seems to be the position of the Ramban (Rabbi Moshe ben Nachman, “Nahmanides”, 1194-1270) who described the cycle as being a total of 50,000 years, not 49,000 years. He explained (on Leviticus 25:2) that these 50,000 years are the secret of Nun Sha’arei Binah, the “Fifty Gates of Understanding”. And, when the Sages state that God revealed to Moses all Fifty Gates except the last (Rosh Hashanah 21b), it means God showed Moses nearly the entire span—some 49,000 years of hidden history—except for the final fiftieth Jubilee millennium!

This position is also held by the ancient Sefer haTemunah, one of the oldest Kabbalistic texts. The main focus of this book is to explain the mystery of the divine Hebrew alphabet, and the secrets of the shapes of the letters. It is an important work not only for Jewish mysticism, but even halakhah, since it is used as a source for proper Torah scribing. Sefer haTemunah speaks of the cosmic cycle, too, and connects it to the Fifty Gates. Intriguingly, it posits that we are currently in the second Shemittah, meaning there was already a previous era of civilization before ours.

The Sefirot of Mochin above (in blue) and the Sefirot of the Middot below (in red) on the mystical “Tree of Life”.

Now, each of the seven cycles of seven thousand correspond to the seven lower Sefirot, the Middot or qualities. Thus, the first era of civilization was one of Chessed, “kindness” and positivity, while the second era, the one in which we are currently, is Gevurah, “severity” and judgement. This explains why the world we know is so difficult and full of evil and suffering. Similarly, the Kabbalists explain that the Torah manifests itself differently in each Shemittah. Since we are in the Shemittah of Gevurah and Din, the Torah in this iteration manifests itself as being full of laws, restrictions, punishments, and the like. In our reality, halakhah takes primacy. It seems that in the previous era, of Chessed, it was the aggadah that was primary, and not the halakhah, and the Torah was expressed in a much softer manner. According to some later sources, in each Shemittah it is the same Torah with the exact same set of letters, but they are rearranged!

A different opinion is that we are currently not in the second Shemittah, but in the fourth. This is discussed by Tiferet Yisrael (Rabbi Yisrael Lifschitz, 1782-1860) in his Derush Or HaChaim, at the end of his Mishnah commentary on Nezikin. He uses the doctrine of Cosmic Shemittot to explain why scientists find ancient fossils and archaeological remains, reasoning that these must be the remnants of past Shemittah civilizations! He interprets the earlier sources a little differently, and says this is the second Shemittah that has human life, but the fourth Shemittah altogether. He says that this is secretly encoded in the first letter of the Torah: the beit of Beresheet is written large to indicate that we are in the second Shemittah that has human life, and the beit is written with four tagin, “crowns”, to secretly encode that we are in the fourth Shemittah overall. Tiferet Yisrael adds that this is the secret of our Sages’ statement that there were 974 generations before Adam (Chagigah 13b-14a, Shabbat 88b). These are the generations of past Shemittot.

Rabbi Yisrael Lifschitz (1782-1860), “Tiferes Yisroel”

Yet another opinion is that we are already in the seventh Shemittah. This was the preferred choice of Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan, who went into the subject in depth in Immortality, Resurrection, and the Age of the Universe. Rabbi Kaplan favoured this one because it allowed for a calculation that fit most closely with scientific estimates of the age of the universe. He cited sources that say there were already 42,000 years before Adam was created, putting us in the seventh era of Malkhut. This also makes sense because Malkhut is typically described as being “empty” and “lowly”, with no light of its own, which might reflect the reality in which we exist.

Whatever the case, we have an abundance of Torah evidence going all the way back to the Second Temple era that the notion of Cosmic Shemittot is not only legitimate, but accepted by major authorities. However, the Arizal (Rabbi Itzchak Luria, 1534-1572) seemed to be opposed to this notion, and held that the earlier generations simply misunderstood the spiritual dimensions. There are some today who still cite the Arizal in opposing the notion of Cosmic Shemittot. But, if we are going to be honest and rational, can we really say that all of the greats of the past were wrong? The Ibn Ezra, the Ramban, and Rabbeinu Bechaye could not understand spiritual realities? That Sefer Hanokh (cited countless times in the Zohar) and Sefer HaTemunah (which is also an halakhic text) were mistaken? That even the Sages of the Talmud, and the references in the Midrash (such as Kohelet Rabbah 3:11) and Zohar (including III, 61a-b which explicitly states that the souls of this world existed in previous worlds) can’t be taken at face value? In the big picture of Kabbalah, it’s the Arizal (and the Ramak) against everyone else, including major Rishonim and fundamental ancient texts. Rabbi Kaplan writes:

Since this is not a matter of law, there is no binding opinion. Although the Ari may have been the greatest of Kabbalists, his opinion on this matter is by no means absolutely binding. Since there were many important Kabbalists who upheld the concept of Sabbatical cycles, it is a valid, acceptable opinion. (pg. 6-7)

And the reality is, recent scientific and archaeological findings strongly support the notion of Cosmic Shemittot, too.

The Physical Evidence

Archaeologists have found many structures around the world that date far older than previously thought. The most famous example might be the Great Pyramids of Giza and the nearby Sphinx. Though typically dated to about 4000 years old, evidence suggests that they are much older. The Sphinx, in particular, has many layers of water erosion at its base, suggesting that it has lived through years of rainy weather. In recent millennia, Egypt does not have rain, of course. However, meteorological analysis and satellite scans suggest that Egypt was once part of a massive rainforest that spanned what is now the Sahara Desert. Based on new data, some have suggested the Sphinx is something like 12,000 years old, having been built at a time when Egypt’s weather was rainy and wet. Another well-known example is that of Göbekli Tepe, an ancient city unearthed in Turkey that has been dated back some 11,500 years, and sports the world’s oldest known temple. Similarly, the Tel es-Sultan site in Israel, near today’s Jericho, has been dated back to around the same time. And there are many others.

The Sphinx

Tel es-Sultan near Jericho, Israel

The town of Göbekli Tepe in modern-day Turkey dates back some 11,500 years.

Because of these reasons, some have proposed that we should change our year-counting system to start from the earliest signs of complex civilization, and instead of saying we are in 2023 CE, simply add ten thousand on top and say we are in 12023 HE (Human Era or Holocene Era). This happens to fit quite perfectly with Cosmic Shemittot. If we go with the earliest and most authoritative text—Sefer haTemunah—and say we are in the second Shemittah, then we need to add 7000 to our current Jewish year of 5783, making it the cosmic year 12,783 of the cycle! The archaeological evidence strongly supports Sefer haTemunah, as does the general idea that our civilization is full of war, misery, and suffering corresponding to the second middah of Gevurah, and the notion that the current Torah reality is one of strict halakhah and din.

All of this fits well with the increasingly popular “Younger Dryas” hypothesis positing that great civilizations first emerged at the end of the last ice age, about 12,000 years ago, when we suddenly see rising temperatures and rising sea levels all around the planet. There is even a far-out hypothesis arguing that the moon only entered Earth’s orbit about 12,000 years ago (!) and this may be what caused the drastic changes of the Younger Dryas in the first place.

Truly, there is no reason to stop at 12,000, since we can say that the current 50,000 year cycle is not the first, and there were previous Jubilees as well. (In fact, one might argue that we are in the second Shemittah of the second Jubilee, making our reality a Gevurah sh’b’Gevurah era.) This might explain even older pieces of archaeological and scientific evidence. It is worth mentioning that Earth’s rotation and tilt has its own cycle of about 41,000 years, with a wobble that makes the tilt shift between maximums of 22.1 and a 24.5-degree tilts, with massive repercussions for weather and climate. (Recall that it is Earth’s tilt that gives rise to the seasons.) According to scientists, the last maximum tilt position is estimated to have occurred about 10,700 years ago.

To conclude, the mystical notion of Cosmic Shemittot is not only valid and kosher, but attested to by a large number of ancient sources, including the Talmud and Zohar, and many great Kabbalists and Rishonim. It is absolutely fundamental for making sense of Creation and cosmogony, along with a plethora of scientific, archaeological, and historical findings. While it remains to be seen exactly which Shemittah we are currently in, much evidence supports the earliest position that we are in the second, though it may very well be that this is not the first cycle altogether. Either way, as we approach the end of our sixth millennium, we get closer and closer each day to the seventh Sabbatical millennium of universal rest, holiness, and elevation.