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What in the World is the World to Come?

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Topic: Gehinom

Alice Schubach wrote:

I have a coworker who used to ask me many questions about Judaism. One morning when he came to work he told me his children asked him why they have to go to church. He didn't know what to tell them. He said an honest answer would have been, "Go to church, so you won't go to Hell." But he didn't know if he should be so blunt with his young children.

Then, he suddenly looked at me and asked, "Alice, what would you tell your children? Don't Jews believe in Hell?" I said that I had never been taught the concept in my religious education and had never heard it discussed in synagogue. I was taught that Judaism emphasizes this world. So, does Judaism believe in Hell?

Dear Alice Schubach,

In fact, Judaism does believe in "life after death." We do not call it "heaven and hell"; but we refer to the "world to come" - olam haba and gehinom - "hell." Gehinom - a purification process - is part of the world to come.

When a person dies, his soul gets a chance to 'think objectively' about his lifetime spent on earth. Depending on how the person spent his lifetime, this can be a painful process in which the soul mourns its bad deeds, lost opportunities and wasted potential or it can be a process of joy in which the soul delights in its closeness to G-d.

Ultimately, the gehinom process is temporary, and eventually enables the person to enjoy the benefits of all the good things he did during his lifetime.

Although there is a Jewish concept of 'heaven' and 'hell,' we nevertheless emphasize this world. Here's a parable to explain:

A wealthy man goes on a cruise ship. The ship sinks, and he finds himself afloat in a tiny rubber raft. This raft is his only hope of arriving safely to his family, his mansion and all his wealth.

Judaism looks at this world like a raft. By following the survival manual - the Torah - this little raft can bring us safely to the World to Come.

Therefore, Judaism emphasizes this world. Only through good deeds in this world does a person earn reward in the next.

We educate our children about the World to Come, including the idea that no bad action goes without redress. But the emphasis is positive and the aim is to help everyone maximize potential and live the best life possible.


  • Mishna Eduyot 2:10
  • The Aryeh Kaplan Reader p. 179 citing Sefer Haikkarim 4:33

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