Kabbalistic Views of Afterlife

  January 26, 2022   Read time 3 min
Kabbalistic Views of Afterlife
Unlike medieval Jewish philosophers, Jewish mystics in the Middle Ages had no difficulty with the concept of resurrection or other such aspects of eschatological doctrine. Quite the opposite, these topics were among their favorites.

In voluminous writings, the mystics described the fate of the resurrected souls, imagined the precise details of their existence in the afterlife, and charted its chronology in relation to the sefirot, or divine emanations. The Spanish exegete Moses Nahmanides (Mosheh ben Nah: man, c. 1194–1270) devotes considerable effort in the Gate of the Reward to reconciling a mystical view of the afterlife with Maimonidean eschatology. Nahmanides posits the existence of three distinct worlds that follow this one: (1) a world of souls, roughly equivalent to the rabbinic Gan EEden and Geihinnom, which the soul enters immediately after death to be rewarded or punished; (2) a future world that is synonymous with the messianic age and will culminate in a final judgment and resurrection; and (3) the world to come, in which “the body will become like the soul and the soul will be cleaving to knowledge of the Most High.”

A second stage in the history of qabbalistic eschatology began with the appearance of the Zohar (completed in approximately 1300), which describes the afterlife in terms of the separate fates of the three parts of the soul, the nefesh, the ruah: , and the neshamah. Since only the first two were considered to be susceptible to sin, they alone were subject to punishment. The neshamah in its unsullied state was believed to be stored up after death in a special place, often called the tseror ha-h: ayyim, “the bundle of life” (a term borrowed from 1 Samuel 25:29), which was sometimes identified with one of the sefirot. Because the doctrine of the preexistence of the soul was also widely accepted in these qabbalistic circles, the soul’s final sojourn among the sefirot could be seen as simply a return to its birthplace.
Probably the most unusual aspect of qabbalistic eschatology is the belief in gilgul, or metempsychosis, the transmigration of souls after death. This belief gained increasing prominence in qabbalistic thought from the thirteenth century onward. Originally considered a unique punishment for extraordinary sins (particularly of a sexual kind), gilgul came to be viewed, paradoxically, as an exemplary instance of God’s mercy, since the chance to be reborn gave its victims an opportunity to correct their sins and thus restore themselves as spiritual beings. As a form of punishment, however, the concept of gilgul conflicted with the idea of Geihinnom—a conflict that was never successfully resolved—and in later Qabbalah, the notion of gilgul gradually became a principle wherein everything in the world, from inorganic matter to the angels, was believed to be in a state of constant flux and metamorphosis. Thus, in order to repair the damage they had done in their earlier existence, certain souls were supposed to have been reincarnated at later moments in history that were similar to those in which they had first lived; accordingly, David, Bathsheba, and Uriah were considered to be the gilgulim of Adam, Eve, and the serpent; Moses and Jethro, those of Cain and Abel. In the later Middle Ages, the notion of transmigration was eventually absorbed into folk belief. By the sixteenth century, the dibbuq (dybbuk), which originally was simply the name for a demon, had come to represent a soul whose sins were so enormous that they could not be repaired even through gilgul. The poor soul consequently wandered through the world in desperate search of refuge in helpless living persons, whom it subsequently possessed and tormented.