Do Jews Go to Hell?

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by R. Gil Student

I. Hell in the Jewish Tradition

Every once in a while, someone in the media will say that Jews do not believe in Hell. This is puzzling because related terms are mentioned in the Bible and rabbinic literature. The word “She’ol” appears 66 times in the Hebrew Bible. Rashi (Gen. 37:35) says that while She’ol means a grave in its simple meaning, on a midrashic level it means Gehinom. This term, Gehinom, represents the place of punishment after death, i.e. Hell. The term and concept are used widely in Talmudic and midrashic literature. Perhaps those who deny that Jews believe in Hell mean that the Jewish concept differs from the Christian concept. Or perhaps they follow those Jewish commentators (e.g. Rambam, discussed below) who consider Gehinom a non-literal reference to punishment of the soul in the afterlife, but even they agree that there is a Gehinom but explain it non-literally. Or perhaps they are just woefully ignorant of Jewish tradition.

Be that as it may, the Talmud contains seemingly contradictory indications about who goes to Gehinom. The Gemara (Eruvin 19a) quotes Reish Lakish who says that the fire of Gehinom will not touch even the sinners of Israel (poshei Yisrael) because even empty Jews, i.e. sinners, are still full of mitzvos like a pomegranate is full of seeds. How can they avoid Gehinom? Doesn’t the verse say “Those who pass through the valley of weeping” (Ps. 84:7)? The Gemara answers that Avraham comes and takes out of Gehinom any Jew he recognizes, to the exclusion of a man who removes his circumcision. In other words, even those who deserve punishment in Gehinom are spared it due to Avraham’s merit/intervention.

II. Who Goes to Hell?

However, a different Gemara (Rosh Hashanah 16b-17a) says that on the day of judgment, there are three groups of people: 1) the wholly righteous are immediately written and sealed for good, 2) the wholly wicked are immediately written and sealed for Gehinom, 3) those who are in between go to Gehinom for some punishment and then are lifted out. Then there are the Jews who sin with their bodies (poshei Yisrael be-gufan) who go to Gehinom for 12 months and then their souls are destroyed. And then there are the heretics and others in the worst category who go to Gehinom forever.

Similarly, another Gemara (Bava Metzi’a 58b) quotes R. Chanina who says that everyone goes down to Gehinom and then comes up except for three people: 1) those who commit adultery, 2) those who embarrass someone publicly, and 3) those who call someone by a derogatory name. Clearly, R. Chanina excludes the wholly righteous from this statement. Presumably, he also excludes heretics and others in the worst category who never leave Gehinom. But he still clearly says that most people go to Gehinom for at least some time to receive punishment for the sins we commit. (Tosafos (ad loc., s.v. chutz) say that this only applies to sins for which one did not repent. Teshuvah works to avoid punishment in this world and the next.)

According to the Gemara in Rosh Hashanah and Bava Metzi’a, nearly all Jews — except for the few who are wholly righteous — are punished in Gehinom for some amount of time after death. If so, how can the Gemara in Eruvin say that nearly all Jews are saved from Gehinom by Avraham?

III. Who Doesn’t Go to Hell?

Tosafos (Chagigah 27a, s.v. poshei) explain that there is another place for punishment. Even though most Jews are saved from Gehinom by Avraham, they still go to this other place for the punishment their souls need. There is no easy way to escape punishment from sins, other than teshuvah. According to this Tosafos, while most Jews do not go to Gehinom, they go to another spiritual place for punishment.

Tosafos in Bava Metzi’a (58b s.v. chutz) say that most people do, in fact, go to Gehinom. However, before they can experience the fire and punishment, they are raised up by Avraham. Only some who violated specific, severe sins do not rise immediately and instead suffer punishment in Gehinom. Among them, some rise after a time but the heretics and similar remain in Gehinom eternally.

IV. Reward and Punishment in the Afterlife

Rambam never says clearly how he views punishment in the afterlife and only discusses at length the reward (Mishneh Torah, Hilkhos Teshuvah, ch. 8). Rav Yosef Kafach (20th cen., Israel; his edition of Mishneh Torah, Hilkhos Teshuvah, ch. 1 n. 24, ch. 8 n. 4) pieces together Rambam’s references to punishment in different places into a coherent picture. According to Rambam, when a person dies his soul is at a specific religious level and remains eternally at that level. The soul continues in the afterlife and according to its level, remains in a constant and eternal state of reward and punishment. In this view, Gehinom and Gan Eden are the same but everyone experiences it differently according to their level. Those who merit eternal Gehinom experience a terrible punishment and those who merit some punishment and some reward experience a medium level in the afterlife.

Rav Sa’adia Ga’on (Emunos Ve-Dei’os 9:5) and Ramban (Sha’ar Ha-Gemul) believe that the real reward and punishment occur after the resurrection of the dead, in or near the Messianic Era. At that time, there will be a judgment day in which every person who ever lived will be judged for eternal reward and punishment that affects both body and soul combined. Before then, when any person dies, his soul goes to Gehinom initially and then to Gan Eden. Those are not places for ultimate judgment but for preliminary reward and punishment during a holding period. Just like someone can receive reward and punishment in this world, which often reduces the reward and punishment in the next world, so too a person’s soul can receive reward and punishment in Gehinom and Gan Eden that affects the ultimate calculation in the world-to-come of the resurrection.

Tosafos seem to fit in with the view of Rav Sa’adia Ga’on and Ramban, that Gehinom refers to an actual place of punishment, even if not the ultimate place of punishment. And even without Tosafos, we can more readily understand how Avraham could save people from Gehinom. He does not spare them from their ultimate punishment because that will be in the world-to-come. There is no “get out of jail free” card in the afterlife. All he can do is spare us for the moment until the day of judgment.

About Gil Student

Rabbi Gil Student is the Editor of TorahMusings.com, a leading website on Orthodox Jewish scholarly subjects, and the Book Editor of the Orthodox Union’s Jewish Action magazine. He writes a popular column on issues of Jewish law and thought featured in newspapers and magazines, including The Jewish Link, The Jewish Echo and The Vues. In the past, he has served as the President of the small Jewish publisher Yashar Books and as the Managing Editor of OU Press. Rabbi Student currently is serving his third term on the Executive Committee of the Rabbinical Council of America and also serves as the Director of the Halacha Commission of the Rabbinical Alliance of America. He serves on the Editorial Board of Jewish Action magazineand the Board of OU Press. He has published four English books, the most recent titled Search Engine volume 2: Finding Meaning in Jewish Texts -- Jewish Leadership, and served as the American editor for Morasha Kehillat Yaakov: Essays in Honour of Chief Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks.

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