Do Jews Believe in Hell?
I don’t know where the idea that Jews don’t believe in Hell got started but we most certainly do believe in one. I’ve heard umpteen times on television that Jews don’t believe in Hell – including on the venerable Simpsons. And people figure that if The Simpsons says it, it must be true – but it isn’t!
America is predominantly Christian (as are Europe, Australia, et al.) so the Christian concept of Hell is culturally dominant. In Christian theology, Hell is forever; such is not the case in Jewish theology. So when people say that Jews don’t believe in Hell, what they really mean (even if they don’t know it) is that Jews don’t agree with the Christian idea of Hell. We do believe in Hell. What we don’t believe in is eternal damnation. (At least not for regular people. People like Hitler, Stalin, Pol Pot and Vlad the Impaler are another story.)
The Jewish idea is that God has placed us in this world for a limited time. While we’re here, we’re faced with a constant series of choices between right and wrong. At the end of our time here, we are rewarded according to the degree of perfection we manage to achieve. A person then enjoys the level of reward that he has earned forever. (Derech Hashem I, 3.3; see more here.) However, since every person – even good people – invariably made some bad calls in life, we must first be cleansed of our misdeeds in “Hell,” which we call Gehinnom. (ibid., II, 2.4; see more here.)
Some people think that Hell isn’t in the Jewish Bible but that’s incorrect. It’s not prominent because our focus is on the here and now rather than on the afterlife but it’s definitely there if you know where to look. The Talmud in Eiruvin (19a) tells us that Gehinnom has seven names: Sheol (the pit), Abaddon (doom), Be’er Shachas (pit of corruption), Tit haYaven (clinging mud), Shaarei Maves (gates of death), Tzalmaves (shadow of death) and Eretz haTachtis (the underworld). These are largely derived from a variety of Biblical verses (see there). The name we typically use, Gehinnom, is not actually its name; it’s more of a description. Gehinnom means “the valley of Hinnom” and is derived from an actual place name as seen in Joshua 15:8 and 18:16, et al. We see in II Kings 23:10, and possibly elsewhere, that atrocities were committed in this valley.
So what happens in Gehinnom? The Talmud in Brachos describes fire as one-sixtieth of Gehinnom, from which we can easily calculate that Gehinnom is sixty times as intense as fire. Of course, fire burns our bodies, which we won’t have in the afterlife. We’ll only be souls in the Next World so the “burning” of Gehinnom is of a spiritual nature.
I have often heard that the Gehinnom is like a movie theater in which we are shown two movies: one of our lives as we actually lived them and one of our lives as they would have been had we made all the right choices. According to this model, the “burning” of Gehinnom is the shame that we feel when we realize how far we’ve gone astray. Rabbi Dr. Asher Meir expresses such a concept in his series Meaning in Mitzvot:
Our world is a world of significant moral ambiguity. Even a person who wants to do the right thing can often be confused into wrongdoing; furthermore, our base impulses are always tempting us into transgression. Very often the fog of uncertainty serves to assuage feelings of guilt. But when a person perceives his acts from the clear perspective of the World of Truth, he feels an intense burning remorse for all his misdeeds. This sense of shame tortures the person for a period of time until his atonement is complete.
I went looking for the original source of this widespread understanding of Gehinnom but I didn’t find it – at least not overtly. I did find the following pieces, which can be assembled:
First of all, a number of Biblical verses equate afterlife punishment with feeling shame. For example, Isaiah 66:24 says, “They will go out and see the corpses of the people who rebelled against Me, because their decay will not cease, their fire will not be quenched, and they will be disgraced before all mankind.”
Similarly, Daniel 12:2, speaking of the future revival of the dead, says, “Many who sleep in the dust of the earth will awaken – some for eternal life and some for shame, for eternal abhorrence.” The Malbim on this verse explains shame to mean that the wicked will receive their punishments while observing the salvation of those who actually heeded God’s word.
The Midrashic work Tanna d’Bei Eliyahu Zuta (12) says that children who study Torah will save their parents from the “shame, humiliation and disgrace” of judgment in Gehinnom. Nothing about pain and suffering, just “shame, humiliation and disgrace!”
Finally, the Medieval work of musar (self-improvement) Shaarei Teshuvah by Rabbeinu Yonah of Gerondi says that embarrassing someone is worse than death (3:139). I have seen later writers extrapolate from this that shame is worse than pain. If that’s the case in the temporal world, in which we have bodies, it’s all the more likely to be true in the Next World, where we are only souls.
If the punishment of Gehinnom is shame, then based on our earlier Gemara from Eiruvin, it must be sixty times more intense than the worst embarrassment a person could feel on Earth! That’s an incredible degree of humiliation!
Of course, this interpretation is just that: one interpretation. Maimonides, in his introduction to the Mishnaic chapter called Chelek, makes it clear that the nature of suffering in Gehinnom is not elaborated upon by the Sages of the Talmud. He cites one Talmudic opinion that the wicked will be burned by proximity to the sun (based on Malachi 3:19, “the day comes, burning like an oven”) and another that the consuming heat will come from inside the wicked themselves (based on Isaiah 33:11, “Your breath is a fire that will devour you”). The bottom line is that we just don’t know. (The Talmud in Gittin 56b-57a describes some fanciful punishments in Hell but those appear to be reserved for the kinds of people who can exceed the normal time limits for sentences in Gehinnom. I would not presume that average people would merit the same degree of penalty.)
Speaking of limits to sentences, the consensus is that a normal person (as opposed to a Pol Pot or a Vlad the Impaler) is limited to a year in Gehinnom (Mishna Eduyos 2:10, Talmud Shabbos 33b and Rosh Hashana 17a). This is the reason that mourners recite Kaddish only for 11 months even though they’re in mourning for a full year: to recite Kaddish for 12 months would suggest that the deceased was so bad as to warrant the full, harshest sentence.
We also have a midrashic tradition that those being punished in Gehinnom enjoy a reprieve for the duration of Shabbos. The Zohar (II, 89b) explains that the verse prohibiting lighting a fire (Exodus 35:3) applies both to us here and to the “fires” (however metaphorical they may be) that they light in Gehinnom. (Whether the time of the Shabbos reprieve corresponds to Jerusalem time, the deceased’s local time or something else is a question beyond our scope.)
Finally, the Ramchal describes kareis (excision – the most extreme form of punishment) as the soul of the offender being discarded altogether (Derech Hashem II, 2.3; see more here). As unpleasant as the punishments of Gehinnom may be, they still seem to be preferable to non-existence.
Lest all this sound too good to be true, keep in mind that Nachmanides writes that an hour in Gehinnom is worse than 70 years of suffering as Job did (Shaar HaGemul – I couldn’t find this in the original but I saw it cited by a number of reputable secondary sources). So, while the Jewish version of Hell is definitely way better than an eternity of being stabbed by devils with pitchforks while you stand in a lake of fire, it’s still something that one should try to avoid.
Rabbi Jack Abramowitz
JITC Educational Correspondent
Learn more about the soul and the afterlife in The God Book.