Someone close to me recently died and I never got to say goodbye. Does Judaism believe that the dead know what’s going on in this world?
Thanks for your question. I am not the final arbiter of what Judaism believes; I can only tell you things as I understand them. In this case, I’m afraid it won’t be what you’re hoping to hear.
Whenever we talk about spiritual and metaphysical matters, I am quick to point out that there are generally two schools of thought about such things. Let’s call them “literalists” and “rationalists.” I am what one would consider a rationalist. Accordingly, my approach will typically shy away from parapsychological phenomena. Sometimes that may require taking a less literal approach to the text but here I think I ultimately have the simple understanding of things on my side.
There is a prohibition in the Torah against necromancy, i.e., trying to communicate with the dead (Deuteronomy 18:11). Some authorities (e.g., Nachmanides) believe that this activity is possible but prohibited. Others – notably Maimonides – believe that contacting the dead isn’t even possible but we are prohibited to mislead the gullible through such frauds as seances. In fact, the Rambam decries all forms of fortune-telling as foolishness and superstition. It should come as no surprise that I subscribe to the latter opinion, that seances are literally smoke-and-mirrors.
The only overt appearance of a “ghost” in Tanach is ostensibly the spirit of the prophet Shmuel in I Samuel chapter 28. King Saul went to the “witch of Endor” to raise Shmuel from the dead because he needed guidance that he felt that only the recently-deceased prophet could provide. But did the “witch” truly summon Shmuel’s spirit from beyond? There’s a three-way difference of opinion on the matter. Some, like the Radak, say that the “witch” did as the Navi describes. Others, like the Rambam, say that, as always, such deeds were mere parlor tricks. Then there’s Rav Saadia Gaon, who opines that, under normal circumstances, necromancy is pure fraud but in this particular case, God miraculously facilitated it.
Until now, literalists may think that my skepticism about ghosts might require me to ignore the simplest understanding of the texts but I think that things are about to turn in favor of my approach.
The Talmud in Brachos (18a-19a) has a lengthy discussion about whether or not the dead know what’s going on here on Earth. It starts when Rabbi Chiya chided Rabbi Yonason to be careful of a behavior that might be offensive to the dead. Rabbi Yonason responded by citing Koheles 9:5, “the dead don’t know anything.” Rabbi Chiya responded that Rabbi Yonason didn’t really understand that verse, the “living” and “dead” in it actually referring to the righteous and the evil, respectively. (You’ll note that in this case, the “rationalist” is also the “literalist!” It’s Rabbi Chiya, with the more spiritual approach, who understands this verse allegorically.)
In a subsequent incident, Rabbi Chiya’s sons got a little preoccupied with their business endeavors and they forgot some of their Torah studies. One asked the other whether their now-deceased father was aware of this turn of events. The other replied by citing Job 14:21, “His sons come to honor and he (i.e., the deceased) doesn’t know it; they are brought low but he is unaware.”
Towards the end of the Talmud’s lengthy discussion on this subject, the question is raised whether the dead talk to one another. The Gemara cites Deuteronomy 34:4, in which God says to Moshe, “’This is the land that I swore to Avraham, Yitzchak and Yaakov, saying, ‘I will give it to your descendants….’” The word “leimor,” typically translated as “saying,” is understood as God’s command to Moshe to go repeat what he has been told. Usually, he was to repeat things to the Jewish people but here the Talmud understands that Moshe – who was about to die – was being instructed to go tell Avraham, Yitzchak and Yaakov that God had fulfilled His promise to them. As Tosfos in Sotah 34b (s.v. “avosai bakshu alai rachamim”) citing this Talmudic discussion makes clear, even our late Patriarchs don’t know what’s happening on Earth.
At the end of this discussion, the Gemara makes the following observation: the dead either don’t know what’s going on in the world of the living or they just don’t care. (If they don’t care, it’s presumably because they’ve moved on.)
We do believe in an afterlife. We believe that the soul lives on and we can help to elevate it in the Next World by performing mitzvos on its behalf. But is a soul aware of what’s going on in this world? While there are no doubt those who believe that it is, I’m afraid that such is not my understanding based on the traditional texts. This doesn’t surprise me. After all, our souls were somewhere before they came here (God’s “storehouse,” called the guf). How in touch are we now with wherever our souls were previously? Similarly, if the deceased reside in a completely different world – the Next World – why should we expect that they have any interest in keeping tabs on this world, let alone the capacity to do so?
However, as with all things pertaining to the afterlife, our understandings are speculative, based on what has been revealed to us. We’ll find out for sure when we get there!
Rabbi Jack Abramowitz
JITC Educational Correspondent
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1. The spirit in I Kings 22 is identified by commentators as the ghost of Naboth but, being an extra-textual interpretation, it doesn’t really need addressing here.