The good which is reserved (lit., ‘hidden’) for the righteous is the life of the World to Come. This is the eternal life (lit., ‘the life which has no death with it’), and the good without evil. This is as it is stated in the Torah, ‘in order that it will be good for you and you will lengthen days’ (Deut. 22:7). From our tradition [the Rabbis] have learned, ‘in order that it will be good for you’ — in the world which is all good, ‘and you will lengthen days’ — in the world which is eternally long. And this is the World to Come.
The reward of the righteous is that they will merit this bliss and be in this perfect state (lit., ‘in this goodness’). And the punishment of the wicked is that they will not merit this life but will be cut off and die. Anyone who does not merit this life is considered dead, whose life is not eternal but who is cut off in his wickedness and perishes as an animal. This is the excision (Heb., ‘karais’) written in the Torah, as it is stated, ‘Cut off, shall be cut off that soul; its sin is in it’ (Numbers 15:31). From our tradition [the Rabbis] have learned (based on the fact that cut off is written twice in the verse), ‘cut off’ — in this world; ‘shall be cut off’ — in the World to Come. Meaning, that soul, which departs its body in this world, will not merit life in the World to Come, but will be cut off from the World to Come as well.
We are now beginning a new chapter in the Rambam, which as we can see right away, is drastically different from the earlier chapters. Up until now, the Rambam has been discussing the obligation of repentance and the method of doing so (Ch. 1-2), G-d’s criteria for judging mankind (Ch. 3), categories of sinners who receive no share in the World to Come or for whom repentance is particularly difficult (Ch. 3-4), the concept of free will (Ch. 5-6), and the greatness of repentance and the repenter (Ch. 7). Now the Rambam turns towards the future, discussing what precisely is in store for man when the Final Judgment arrives.
There are a lot of important issues we need to discuss in order to fully understand the coming chapter. The Rambam is now embarking on an entirely new thrust, discussing issues which by their nature are outside the experiences and beyond the comprehension of man. What happens to us after we die? What is Judaism’s understanding of the afterlife, the era of the Messiah and the End of Days? What will life in the World to Come be like? Will we be transformed into angels with harps, leisurely floating from cloud to cloud (and would we really want to?)? We will discuss all of this and more in this and the next chapter.
We are thus introducing too many concepts to be addressed in a single class. Yet I feel we should establish some of the basic groundwork here in order to more fully understand the coming laws of the Rambam. We need to map out the future history of the world (an oxymoron I suppose — didn’t come up with a better way of saying it), in order that the Rambam’s discussions will all fit into place.
Let me start from the very beginning. (The beginning of the end that is — the terminology here is confusing.) We all die after our allotted years on earth. Upon a person’s death, his soul rises from his body and is brought before the Heavenly Tribunal for judgment.
As an important aside, how long it takes until the soul is brought for judgment is not entirely clear. Many of the laws of burying the dead make it clear that the soul remains in the proximity of its body for some time — certainly during the burial procession and perhaps until after the body decays. (See Talmud Shabbos 152b. See also this article where I discuss this topic at greater length.) It may well depend on how connected the soul felt to its body during its lifetime. A person who identified very strongly with his physical will be much slower to rise heavenward after his death — and his body’s decay will be correspondingly more agonizing for him. (This process incidentally serves as atonement for the deceased, mitigating his final judgment.)
Once the soul is brought for judgment, his every action is weighed and reviewed. The Talmud states that even the unnecessary light speech between a man and his wife will be repeated to him after his death (Chagiga 5b), and that he will be required to “sign his name” over every act he did (Ta’anis 11a). There are also specific questions the person will be asked, such as if he set aside time for Torah study and if he was honest in his business dealings (Talmud Shabbos 31a).
(Whether or not the person will watch a “video” of his life, or if his actions will be weighed on a giant scale is not clear to me (and I’m no hurry to find out). Even the statements of the Sages on the matter are not always easy to interpret because it’s difficult to determine when they are speaking literally and when figuratively.)
Regardless, the Talmud (primarily Rosh Hashanah 16-17) lists several possible outcomes of the person’s judgment. If he is fully righteous he goes straight to heaven (which we’ll define more fully later). Most of us, however, will suffer punishment in Hell for a period of time as atonement for our transgressions. The maximum duration of Hell for such people is twelve months — though hopefully for all of us it will be much shorter. It is likewise customary for a son to recite the Kaddish prayer only 11 months after the death of a parent — implying his parent was not so wicked as to deserve purgatory for the full 12 months.
What is Hell like? We really have no idea as the experience is so beyond our comprehension as to defy even accurate metaphor. It is supposedly so excruciating that all the sufferings of this world put together do not even approximate it. (The Talmud states that fire is 1/60’th of Gehenna (Brachos 57b).) The Talmud gives gruesome metaphors for it such as being scalded in burning in pots of molten excrement or semen (e.g. Gittin 57a). We also discussed in the past (7:3) the opinion in the Talmud (Avodah Zarah 3b-4a) that there is no specific place called Hell. Rather, at the End of Days we will all be brought before G-d. Those of us who have lived our lives properly will find that closeness the ultimate bliss. For those who did not, it will be excruciating torment.
However, most of what the Sages say about the matter implies that Hell is a very real place. Some other statements of the Sages about it, interestingly quite consistent with our general impression, is that Hell is located beneath the ground and that it has seven levels.
Finally, after the person has suffered purgatory for the appropriate amount of time, he will at last be brought into Heaven. The Talmud does list categories of particularly vile sinners who will be destroyed after their 12 months in Gehenna, or who will suffer eternally in Hell. But for most of us, the suffering will finally end and we will then move on to the next stage.
But what is the next stage? We would expect Heaven to follow after Hell, that being the final resting place of all worthy souls. However, we are glossing over one important issue. Namely, apart from our individual fates, the world has a cosmic plan for it. The Messiah is to arrive and usher in a period of Utopia. After that, the world will be destroyed and recreated on a higher, loftier state. G-d willing, we will discuss this in the next class.
Text Copyright © 2012 by Rabbi Dovid Rosenfeld and Torah.org