For the week ending 4 February 2006 / 6 Shevat 5766

Soul Survivor

by Rabbi Yirmiyahu Ullman -
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From: Jennifer in CO

Dear Rabbi,
What does Judaism say about what happens to the soul after death?

Dear Jennifer,

The Zohar says that before death a person gets a preview of his portion in the soul world: “When a man is about to die, and judgment hovers about him so he would depart from the world, a supernal spirit is added to him that he did not have during his lifetime. When it hovers about him and cleaves to him, he is able to see what he never saw in his days, due to the additional spirit in him. When the spirit is added to him…his eyes are opened to the sight they have just seen, and…if he has a son, the son should be the first to put his hand over his eyes and close them. As it says, ‘And Yosef shall put his hand on your eyes,’ for another unholy sight is come before him and the eye that beheld the supernal holy sight must not look at the other sight” (Zohar, VaYechi).

Then the Angel of Death appears: “It descends and stands at his feet with a sharp sword in his hand. The person lifts his eyes and sees the house walls radiant with fire. At the same time, he sees him, full with eyes, dressed in burning fire in front of the man…There are three drops on his sword. When he sees him, his entire body and spirit tremble and his heart does not rest, being the king of the entire body. Then his spirit travels throughout his organs and takes leave from them like a man who takes leave from his friend to go elsewhere…The person shudders for fear and wishes to hide but does not have the capability. When he realizes that he is powerless, he opens his eyes and he has to look at him with his eyes open. He then gives over his life and soul” (Zohar, Naso; Avoda Zara, 20b).

The departed soul is then escorted by angels, departed tzaddikim, and departed relatives and friends: “When a righteous man departs form the world, he is accompanied by companies of ministering angels who say ‘Come into peace’. When a wicked man perishes from the world, he is met by angels of destruction who say ‘There is no peace to the wicked’...When a righteous man departs from this world…G-d says, ‘Let the righteous men come from their resting places to go forth to meet him’” (Ketubot 104a). “When a man's soul departs, all his relatives and friends in the World of Truth accompany his soul and show it the place of delight and the place of punishment. If he is righteous, he sees his place, and goes up to sit and take delight in the upper Eden of that world. If he is not righteous, the soul remains in this world, until the body is buried in the ground” (Zohar, Vayechi).

Nearly all souls undergo a gradual, not particularly pleasant, transition between this world and the next called “chibut hakever”. Thus the Talmud states: “The worm to the dead is more difficult than a knife to the flesh of the living” (Berachot 18b). Since a dead body doesn’t feel, this is understood as referring to the anguish of the soul over seeing the dead body. This transition and elevation occurs over several periods: 3 days, 7 days, 30 days and 12 months.

Three days: “The greatest degree of mourning is in the first three days. The body is still intact and the soul hovers around it with the intention to return. When after three days it sees the face has changed and the person is no more, it starts to go away” (Genesis Rabba, ch. 100). The Zohar adds, “‘And Jonah was in the belly of the fish…three days and three nights’ (Yonah 2:1). This resembles the three days that man is in the grave before his bowels split open. After three days, the filth in his bowels is spilt on his face, and says to him: take what you put in me. You ate and drank all day and gave not to the poor; all your days were like feasts and holidays, while the poor were hungry because they did not eat with you…” (Zohar, Vayakhel).

Seven days: “All seven days the soul goes from the house to the grave and from the grave to the house and mourns for the body, as it is written: ‘His flesh shall suffer pain for him, and his soul shall mourn for it’ (Job 14:22). It goes to sit in the house, and when it sees everybody sad, it mourns too” (Zohar, Vayechi). The Arizal explains that there are two dimensions of the level of soul called “nefesh” (see Soul): the outer (‘makif’) and inner (‘pnimi’). Each has seven aspects. The inner remains with the body in the grave. The outer remains in the house of the deceased. Each of the seven days, one aspect of the outer departs from the house of mourning and remains at the grave, until on the seventh day all have been elevated. At this point the gravestone (“matzeiva”) should be erected, although many have the custom to wait until the thirtieth day, or till the yahrtzeit.

Thirty days and twelve months: “After three days, man is judged for his eyes, for his hands, for his legs. And this lasts up to thirty days. During those thirty days the nefesh and body are chastised together. For that reason the soul remains down on earth and does not rise to its place, like a woman who sits apart all the days of her impurity” (Zohar, Vayakhel). “During the first twelve months after death, the body has not completely decayed and the soul goes back and forth between the body and the soul world. Afterwards the soul ascends and the body rots in the dust, until the time comes, when the Holy One, blessed be He, awakens to resurrect the dead” (Shabbat 152b). Tosafot adds that, nevertheless, even after 12 months the soul can enter this world if it wants.

After this, the soul goes through a purification process within the spiritual realm. This may involve a detour through “Gehinom” which has a lower and upper section, each comprising seven chambers. Ultimately, most souls merit some place in “Gan Eden” which also has lower and upper sections, each comprising seven chambers. Regarding this, our Sages taught: “Every righteous man is given a dwelling in the World to Come according to his merit, and this is like a king with his servants entering a city. They all enter through one gate, but when night comes every man is given a room in accordance with his rank” (Shabbat 152a). And, “G-d makes a separate crown for each and every tzaddik” (Megilla 15b).

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