Jewish Views of Gehenna

by Gretchen S.

I actually wrote this for someone else originally, but I thought it would be nice to share it with all of you also.

The discussion began like this :

DS said: Did you get the letters from B. Shane that I forwarded to you?

Actually, there was only one letter, not letters.

The letter said

Date: 8 Jul 1996 14:14:19 EDT From:B. Shane To: DS Subject: Re: Attrition

Here's a quick Torah test on heaven and hell for your Mr. K: Ask him is Balak in Heaven or Hell?

(The correct answer is Hell. If he doesn't know that, tell him to study Torah. If he does know that, it proves that Hell can be eternal for a few individuals in certain cases).

Alyza's Note: Mr. K is said to be a representative of Chabad, and the author of this letter that I says that he knows nothing because Mr. K does not say what he (B. Shane) believes to be the correct Jew view. In fact, I later found out that Mr. K is Rabbi K, and probably knows a great deal more then Mr. Shane on Jewish subjects.

It's just hard for me to comprehend that the spokesperson for Chabad on the net would really be that unknowledgeable and still be disseminating information in that specific area.

(End of letter)

DS says: They [B. Shane's 1 letter] prove that Orthodox Jews believe that some people can go to hell forever.

To which I (Alyza) replied:

How does Mr. Shane know that this is the correct answer? There is a minority opinion (in the Talmud) that holds that some people go to Gehenna (Purgatory is the Christian equivalent, not Hell) for ever. The majority of rabbis in the Talmud reject this view. So, while there may be a non-binding aggada (story) to illustrate a point of some kind (the wickeness of Balak, for example), it is just a story and does not reflect Jewish belief in the afterlife or in the duration of punishment in Gehenna.

It is likely that Mr. K (whoever he is) [I now know that he is a rabbi] is knowledgeable, and that Mr. Shane has mistaken a legend that is teaching a lesson, for the litteral truth.

D.S. says: If you have any doubt, ask any Orthodox Jew if Balak is in heaven or in hell, and if in hell, for how long. Please let me know what you find out (...) .

I don't have to ask any Orthodox Jew, since I have a book on Jewish views of the afterlife. You may believe Balak is in "Hell" forever, but it does not make it a Jewish belief. [note: DS is not Jewish] You may believe that Orthodox Jews believe that some people go to "Hell" forever, but that does not make it so. I have looked in 3 Orthodox commentaries on Balak, none of them mention "Hell" or even eternal Gehenna for Balak. As I said in one of my other 2 e-mails, there MAY be a legend about Balak being in Gehenna forever, but like all Aggada (stories) or Midrash, it is not to be taken as the literal truth. That is not just my opinion, it is the official position of Judaism of the Orthodox variety on aggada and middrash.

The Jewish View of Gehenna based on Jewish Views of the Afterlife by Simcha Paull Raphael

Part 1: THE Rabbinical view laid out in the Talmud and Rabbinic Lit.

The Rabbis saw Gehenna as a place of punishment for a person who did not live a righteous life, as definded by G-d and Torah for Jews, or the seven laws of Noah for non-Jews. The majority view of the Rabbis is that punishment in Gehenna is of limited duratation. The maximum punishment was believed to be 12 months. The Talmud says,in tractate "Shabbat" page 33b that "The duration of punishment in Gehenna is twelve months". This is also stated in both early and late rabbinical literature (ie, texts of the Rabbis of the Talmud). This 12 month limit is true for both Jewish and Gentile sinners ("Rosh HaShanah" 17a). This is true even of the generation of the flood, who were said to be very wicked. (Mishneh, Eduyyot 2:10; Genesis Rabbah 28:8). Though some individual Rabbis (a minority) expressed the view that certain sinners stayed in Gehenna forever, it was not the majority, accepted view.

"During the twelve-month period in Gehenna, the soul goes through a process of purification and atonement, and, as described in Midrash Pesikta Rabbati, 'After going down to Gehenna and receiving the punishment due him, the sinner is forgiven from all his iniquities, like an arrow from the bow he is flung forth from Gehenna' (Pesikta Rabbati 53:2). After this experience, the soul is sufficiently purified and able to enter thesupernal postmortem realm of Gan Eden, the Garden of Eden (Exodus Rabbah 7:4)" (Raphael,Jewish Views of the Afterlife, p145)

Part 2: Medieval Views

I will consider a number of Medieval views of Gehenna in this section.

I remind you, that a Midrash is non-binding and usually is written to teach a lesson, or to encourage certain behavior (such as the desireablity of not committing adultary, purgery, or blaming a neighbor in public). It is not entended to be the litteral truth in any way. As Raphael says, "In the medieval period an extensive MYTHICAL tradition was developed" on the after-life, including punishment in Gehenna. Masekhet Gihinnom (a Medieval Midrash on Gehenna) says that 3 types of sinners go to Gehenna forever: men who committ adultary, blames his neighbor in public, and one who is guilty of purgery. The same tractate latter says that every 12 months the sinners are burned to ashes and dispersed by the wind, so that the righteous can walk on there ashes, fulfilling Malachi 3:21. Afterwards, their soul is release from Gehenna, they acknowledge the justice of their punishment.

Maimonides belives that some souls are destroyed after the 12 months of punishment. He does NOT, however, believe that anyone stays in Gehenna forever (neither did the Talmudic Rabbis).

Maimonides also thought that one was immortal to the extent that they attained intellectual perfection while alive. This is a view that Maimonides shared with Gershonides, another medievel philosopher/rabbi who lived 84 years after Maimonides death and was greatly influenced by Maimonides views on the after-life. The book does not state Gershonides view of Gehenna.

Nachmanides, a medieval Jewish philosoher/rabbi born 10 years before the death of Maimonides, agrees with the majority of Talmudic Rabbis as outlined above in the previous section. The soul of sinners are punished for a maximum of 12 months (NOT forever). He also refutes those medieval Jewish philosophers that say that the souls of some sinners are destroyed. So, he disagrees with Maimonides. He also believed that the after-life of sinners after they leave Gehenna and go to Gan Eden, is not of the same quality as those who go to Gan Eden directly (ie, the righteous). While it is plesant, it is to a lesser degree than what the righteous experience.

In the Zohar, part of Kabbalah (which I feel is a medieval document, though many Hasidic Jews would disagree), it states "The punishment of sinners in Gehinnom last twelve months, after which the Holy One raises them out of Gehinnom, where they have undergone purification. They remain then sitting at the gate of Gehinnom, and when they see sinners enter there to be punished, they beseech mercy for them. In time the Holy One takes pity on them, and causes them to be brought to a certain place reserved for them. From that day onward the body rests in the dust and the sould is accorded her proper place (I, 107b-108a)" --from the Zohar, as quoted on pp 303-304 of Raphael, "Jewish Views of the Afterlife". The soul undergoes trials in Gehenna for the purpose of purification. This purification lasts for 12 months, at the end of which, the soul is pure. After the 12 months, the soul is seen as being clad in "luminous vestments". (This is the main view of the Zohar, but the Zohar also allows for the possiblilty that some souls will not repent and will therefore stay in Gehenna. This possiblilty seems to have been place in there to encourage sinners to repent, since it also says that the Holy One will forgive those who repent.)

R. Moses ben Israel Isserles of Cracow (1525-1572) limited the lenth of time we can mourn for our parents to 11 months, since he did not want to assume that anyones parents got the maximum 12 month punishement in Gehenna. Notice that the maximum of 12 months is assumed. This "demonstraites the extent to which beliefs about the state of the soul in the afterlife influenced Jewish community death practices. To this day, Kaddish [the mourner's prayer] for a parent is recited for only eleven months." (P306, Raphael).

As you can see, the majority of Medieval Jewish Rabbis did NOT believe that "Hell" was forever. That view was a minority view.

Thus ends my answer to your (i.e, D.S.'s) statement about MOST Jews in the middle ages believing that people go to "Hell" forever. It is simply not true; you have been given incomplete information by Mr. Shane. (Note: this is the end of the correspondence with D.S.--he actaually tried too revive this discussion after a 6 month break, refering again to something Rabbi K said. I wrote Rabbi K, and he sent me an e-mail that basically said what this does. DS simply wants Judaism to believe something other than what it does, but he does not define Judaism and never will) .

[ Return to my All Things Jewish page ] [ My Papers and Posts ]

This page was made by Gretchen S., © copyright 1996-2007