Words of Faith

Words of Faith: A Jewish view on death and the afterlife

April 21, 2014 

This week finds us a week past the great American Tax Day.

Hopefully, the sting of that filing has subsided. With the passing of Tax Day, perhaps our thoughts will turn to that other great inevitability of our lives on Earth: death, and our beliefs on what happens after it.

Jewish views on afterlife have evolved over the centuries, and there are many viewpoints. But for most Jews, thoughts of heaven and hell take a distant backseat to the actions they take whilst living. The respected writing “Pirkei Avot” (Ethics of the Fathers) states, “Better is one hour of repentance and good deeds in this world than a whole life in the world to come.”

So if there is not a brimstone-filled hell, how do Jews handle death and mourning?

There are numerous rituals. The two most common are sitting shiva and reciting the mourner’s kaddish.

The tradition of shiva evolved from Joseph’s mourning of his father, Jacob, in Genesis. Sitting shiva is traditionally observed for the death of a parent, spouse, sibling or child – a close loved one. It is a seven-day period of intense mourning where the bereaved does not leave the house but remains inside, quietly reflecting on the life and passing of the loved one. Friends and family visit and perhaps talk about the life of the individual.

The mourner’s kaddish is another ritual. This is an old prayer from at least the first century, and it was originally written in Aramaic. It is a prayer of mourning, which paradoxically does not mention death, dying or the soul. Kaddish instead exalts the greatness of God. It is recited at every Jewish service, and while there are many varying customs, most congregations stand together alongside any members remembering a loved one on that day.

Some rabbis have adopted the view that everyone is invited to stand and recite together, because even if we may not have an obligation to say kaddish at that time, we recite for the sake of people who have died without anyone to mourn them – and for the sake of people who died in the Holocaust.

A while back, a self-labeled fervent Christian asked me if any of my co-workers had ever asked if I were going to hell since I was not Christian. Rather than asking him why he was curious about my co-workers, I answered by talking about the various Jewish beliefs of what happens after death. The Torah does not contain a lot of detail about an afterlife. It is more focused on the choices and actions made by the living, and the immediate impact caused by those actions. We will all shuffle off the mortal coil that is our life. It is how we treat our family, our friends and our co-workers every day that matters and has an impact on our world and society. It is our daily actions which have the potential to create something godly.

If we choose to reach out to others with respect and an open mind, perhaps the afterlife can be expected to take care of itself.

Edie Yakutis works with Ritual Life at Temple Solel in Fort Mill. Contact her eyakutis@outlook.com.

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