Death in Judaism

What happens when a person dies?

Someone asked me what happens when a person dies. When a friend or relative passes away and we are left behind with all our grief. It is then when we start asking ourselves whether the dead friend or relative is still able to see or hear us. Do the dead still have a connection to this world and do they know what is going on? Or are they gone forever and don’t see us anymore?
I think that many people remaining behind are looking for comfort and the idea that the beloved person who passed away still has a connection to the mourner seems to be very pleasing. On the other hand, it is surely easier for a dead person to deal with his new “situation” than for all the people left behind. People who have to get over someone’s death and continue to live.
Let us be honest: We all know that there is no definite answer to this question. We just don’t know and no one has ever returned from the dead. What we can do is to believe that a close friend or relative who passed away can still see us. But we cannot be certain that this is really the case.
In Judaism we find quite a few statements on this subject. Talmud and Kabbalistic literature list various opinions but the truth of the matter is that this won’t give us a final answer.
Judaism has the concept of the “Resurrection of the Dead” in the days of Meshiach. However, Resurrection does not mean that then person will then be living forever. What it means is that a person being resurrected will continue to live for a certain amount of time and then die. Only the souls will continue to exist eternally.
There are rabbinic opinions claiming that the Resurrection is really going to take place in this world. Others say that it is only a spiritual concept.
Kabbalah teaches that a man has three different soul levels: Nefesh (the lowest level), Ruach (a medium level) and Neshama (the highest level). Some Rabbis state that Ruach represents emotions and that Neshama represents a person’s intellect.
Plants and animals have the lowest soul level – Nefesh. Meaning, they act according to their instincts. When they are hungry or thirsty, they want to eat and drink. When they want sex, they have sex. The Nefesh level doesn’t include emotions or intellect. It means acting in accordance with one’s basic desires. Plants and animals with their Nefesh level don’t feel any need to get closer to G-d nor do they think about growing spiritually. By the way, not only plants and animals live their lives on a Nefesh level. There are plenty of human beings who never reach the Ruach level but only behave according to their instincts.
I am not going into the whole reincarnation subject now but just answer the question “What happens when a person dies” according to Talmudic sources. Reincarnation is a different kind of story and I don’t see myself professional enough to make various statements. I could list the Arizal’s (Rabbi Yitzchak Luria’s) reincarnation opinions but I don’t see them as a general list. It definitely depends on the individual and it is almost impossible to predict who will be reincarnated. 🙂
The moment a person dies, life comes to an end. This is it, so to speak. While still alive, a person is able to fulfill Torah Mitzvot and build a connection to his Creator. He can do good deeds and help other people. A dead person cannot do this anymore. He can neither carry out Mitzvot nor is he able to do Teshuva (repentance).
A dead person has to be buried in the ground. Judaism doesn’t allow cremation.
A Gemara (rabbinic discussions) in Talmud Berachot 18-19a states that the dead still have a connection to our world. That they hear what their relatives say and that they communicate with other dead people. However, the same Gemara also lists the opposite opinion: That dead people don’t have a connection to this world anymore.
A person doesn’t need to be dead in order to be called “dead”. Talmud Berachot 18b teaches that people who are still alive are considered as being dead. Vicious people who take everything for granted without thanking G-d.
A Gemara in Berachot 18b teaches that the dead in their graves see the worms munching on their bodies: “The worm eating the body of the dead is as painful as a needle to a living person.” Other rabbinic statements explain that the body of a dead person doesn’t feel any pain but the body knows when the soul is taking off and this is what causes pain.
The same Gemara continues: “The dead know that their bodies decompose and this is what causes them pain. However, the dead don’t know anything about the suffering of people alive.”
Talmud Shabbat 151b teaches that one who closes the eyes of a person dying before he is really dead, is called a murderer. This is a Mishna and to be taken very seriously. People should wait a certain amount of time after a person’s death in order to close the eyes and do not so immediately. Furthermore, the eyes of a dead person should not be closed on Shabbat but only after Shabbat.
Whoever is closing the eyes of a person dying too early could hasten the person’s death. The Talmud compares the situation to a flickering flame. When a flame is just about to go out and someone is touching it. This causes the flame to go out immediately. The same happens to a dying person. As soon as someone is closing his eyes too early, death could come instantly. Without being touched, the person may have lived a little longer.
A Gemara in Talmud Shabbat 152b states that a dead person still hears what people are saying. At least as long as the coffin is not closed and the soul is still connected to the body. Once the soul leaves the body, the dead body doesn’t have any further connection and doesn’t feel anything anymore.
I have already mentioned that we will never find a definite answer to this question because we simply don’t know. What we can do is living our lives as good and righteous as we can. We can try to do our best. Be honest and kind and try carrying out some Mitzvot. We can pray and work on our relationship with G-d.
I still remember my aunt who was calling every family member in order to apologize for whatever she has done to each of us. She just wanted to die without feeling guilty. When she phoned me she listed things I had already forgotten. She still remembered incidents I didn’t even know what she was talking about and I told her that this was okay. It was extremely important to her that she could die peacefully which she did one week later.
A living person is able to fix his life. A dead person doesn’t have this chance anymore. There is nothing else he can do.
I think it is important to mourn but also to overcome grief and continue one’s own life. This is our purpose in this world. We have to let the dead go because they follow a different purpose now.
Is there a communication between a living being and a dead person?
Judaism prohibits any kind of such communication through self-appointed fortunetellers or mediums.

One thought on “What happens when a person dies?

  1. B”H

    Just a few remarks:

    Talmud Sanhedrin is discussing the concept of Techiat HaMetim (Resurrection of the Dead). Whether it is taking place before or after Meshiach has arrived.

    Further, the Talmud states that Gentiles have a chance to enter the World to Come (Olam HaBah). Talmud Sanhedrin is discussing this matter when it teaches about Bilam.

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