Jewish Views of the Afterlife #3 Rambam Cheilek & Laws of Teshuva

Maimonides’ Introduction to Perek Cheilek, chapter ten of Mishna Sanhedrin

Now I can begin to discuss the matter with which I am really concerned. Know that just as the blind man cannot image color, as the deaf person cannot experience sounds, and as the eunuch cannot feel sexual desire, so bodies cannot attain spiritual delights. Like fish, who do not know what the element of water, so are the delights of the spiritual world unknown in this material world. Spiritual delight does not come within our experience at all. We enjoy only bodily pleasures which come to us through our physical senses, such as the pleasures of eating, drinking, and sexual intercourse. Other levels of delight are not present to our experience. We neither recognize nor grasp them at first thought. They come to us only after great searching. It could hardly be otherwise, since we live in a material world and are, therefore, able to achieve only inferior and discontinuous delights.

Spiritual delights are eternal. They last forever; they never break off. Between these two kinds of delight there is no similarity of any sort. It is, therefore, inappropriate for us who are masters of Torah or theologians to say that the angels, stars, and spheres experience no delight. On the contrary, they really experience great delight in that they know by experience the true being of God the Creator. With this knowledge they enjoy delight which is both perpetual and uninterrupted. They have no bodily delight, nor could they, since they have no physical senses, as we do, through which they could get our kind of gratification. We will be like them after death. These men who choose to purify themselves will reach this spiritual height. They will neither experience bodily pleasures, nor will they want them. They will resemble a powerful king. He would hardly want to go back to playing ball with children as he did before he became king. Such games attracted him when he was a child and was unable to understand the real difference between ball playing and royal power. Like children we now praise and glorify the delights of the body and do not understand the delights of the soul. If you consider carefully the nature of these two kinds of delight, you will perceive the inferiority of the first and the superiority of the second; even in this world.

Thus, you find that most men will exert extraordinary amounts of intellectual and physical energy laboring at ordinary tasks in order to acquire honor and be exalted by their fellowmen. The pleasure which honor brings is not of the same sort as the pleasure derived from eating and drinking. Similarly, many men pursue vengeance over their enemies more intensely than they pursue any bodily pleasures. Many others deny themselves the keenest of bodily delights because they fear shame and public disgrace or because they seek to acquire a reputation for virtue. If this is the case even in this material world, how much more must it be so in the spiritual world! That world is the world to come. In the world to come our souls will become wise out of the knowledge of God the Creator, as the higher physical bodies do, or even wiser. This spiritual delight is not divisible into parts, nor can it be described, nor can any analogy explain it.

It is the prophet said when he was awe-stricken at the lofty magnificence of that good: “How great is Your goodness which You have hidden away for them and fear You” (Ps. 31:30). Our sages also wrote: “In the world to come there is no eating, drinking, washing, anointing, or sexual intercourse; but the righteous sit with their crowns on their heads enjoying the radiance of the Divine Presence” (Berakhot 17a). In this passage the expression “with their crowns on their heads” signifies the immortality of the soul being in firm possession of the Idea which is God the Creator. The “crown” is precisely the Idea which great philosophers have explicated at length.

The expression, “they delight in the radiance of the Divine Presence” means that souls enjoy blissful delight in their attainment of knowledge of the truly essential nature of God the Creator, a delight which is like that experienced by the holy angels who know His existence first-hand. The ultimate good, the final end is to achieve this supernal fellowship, to participate in this high glory in which the soul is forever involved with the existence of God the Creator, who is the cause and source of its existence and its goal. This has already been explained by the earlier philosophers. This is comparably good, for how could that which is eternal and endless be compared with anything transient and terminable? That is the meaning of the Biblical statement: “That it may be well with you, and that you may prolong your days” (Deut. 22:7) –in the world that is infinitely long, add the rabbis (Kiddushin 39b, Hullin 142a).

Utterly evil punishment consists in the cutting off of the soul so that it perishes and does not live eternally. This is the penalty of karet to which the Torah refers, as in the phrase: “That soul shall utterly be cut off” (Num. 15:31). Interpreting this phrase, our sages said: “The word hikkaret (utterly cut off) refers to the world to come” (Sanhedrin 64b, 90a). On the other hand, Scripture also says: “The soul of my master shall be bound in the bundle of life with the Lord your God” (I Sam. 25:29). It follows that if a person has deliberately and regularly chosen physical delights, has despised the truth and loved falsehood, he will be cut off from that high level of being and remain disconnected matter. The prophet has already explained that the world to come cannot be apprehended by the bodily senses, in the verse: “The eye has not seen it, O Lord, except You” (Is. 64:3). The sages taught emphatically that the prophets prophesied only about the days of the Messiah, but that concerning the world to come, “eye has not seen it, O Lord, only You” (Berakhot 34b, Shabbat 63a, Sanhedrin 99a).

...Gehennam is a name for the pain and the punishment which will come upon the wicked. No specific description of this punishment is contained in the Talmud. One teacher says that the sun will come so close to the wicked that it will burn them. He finds proofs for this belief in the verse: “For behold, the day comes, it burns as a furnace; and all the proud and all that work wickedness shall be stubble; and the day that comes shall set them ablaze, says the Lord of hosts, that it shall leave them neither root nor branch” (mal. 3:19). Others say that a strange heat will be produced within their own bodies to incinerate them. They find support for this position in the Scriptural words: “Your own spirit is a fire which will consume you” (Is. 33:11).

1 The good that is hidden for the righteous is the life of the world to come. This will be life which is not accompanied by death and good which is not accompanied by evil. The Torah alludes to this in [the promise, Deuteronomy 22:7]: "So that good will be granted you and you will live long."

The oral tradition explains: "So that good will be granted you" - in the world that is entirely good; "and you will live long" - in the world which is endlessly long, the world to come.

The reward of the righteous is that they will merit this pleasure and take part in this good. The retribution of the wicked is that they will not merit this life. Rather, they will be cut off and die.

Whoever does not merit this life is [truly] dead and will not live forever. Rather, he will be cut off in his wickedness and perish as a beast. This is the intent of the meaning of the term karet in the Torah as [Numbers 15:31] states: "That soul shall surely be cut off."

[Based on the repetition of the verb,] the oral tradition explains: hikaret means to be cut off in this world and tikaret, to be cut off in the world to come. After these souls become separated from bodies in this world, they will not merit the life of the world to come. Rather, even in the world to come, they will be cut off.

2. In the world to come, there is no body or physical form, only the souls of the righteous alone, without a body, like the ministering angels. Since there is no physical form, there is neither eating, drinking, nor any of the other bodily functions of this world like sitting, standing, sleeping, death, sadness, laughter, and the like.

Thus, the Sages of the previous ages declared: "In the world to come, there is neither eating, drinking, nor sexual relations. Rather, the righteous will sit with their crowns on their heads and delight in the radiance of the Divine Presence."

From that statement, it is clear that there is no body, for there is no eating or drinking. [Consequently,] the statement, "the righteous sit," must be interpreted metaphorically, i.e., the righteous exist there without work or labor.

Similarly, the phrase, "their crowns on their heads," [is also a metaphor, implying] that they will possess the knowledge that they grasped which allowed them to merit the life of the world to come. This will be their crown. A similar [usage of this metaphor was employed by] Solomon [Song of Songs 3:11]: "The crown with which his mother crowned him."

[Support for the concept that this does not refer to a physical crown can be brought from the prophecy, Isaiah 51:11]: "Eternal joy will be upon their heads." Joy is not a physical entity which can rest on a head. Similarly, the expression "crown" used by the Sages [refers to a spiritual concept], knowledge.

What is meant by the expression, "delight in the radiance of the Divine Presence"? That they will comprehend the truth of Godliness which they cannot grasp while in a dark and humble body.

3The term "soul" when used in this context does not refer to the soul which needs the body, but rather to "the form of the soul," the knowledge which it comprehends according to its power. Similarly, it comprehends abstract concepts and other matters. This is "the form" whose nature we described in the fourth chapter of Hilchot Yesodei HaTorah. This is the soul referred to in this context.

Since this life is not accompanied by death - for death is an event associated with the body alone and, in that realm, there is no body - it is called "the bond of life," as [I Samuel 25:29] states: "And the soul of my master will be bound up in the bond of life." This is the reward above which there is no higher reward and the good beyond which there can be [other] good. This was [the good] desired by all the prophets.

4 How many metaphoric terms have been used to refer to [the world to come]! "The mountain of God" [Psalms 24:3], "His holy place" [ibid.], "the holy path" [Isaiah 35:8], "the courtyards of God” [Psalms 65:5, 92:14], "the pleasantness of God" [ibid. 27:4], "the tent of God" [ibid. 15:1], "the palace of God" [ibid. 5:8], "the house of God" [ibid. 27:4], "the gate of God" [ibid. 118:20].

The Sages referred to this good which is prepared for the righteous with the metaphor: "the feast." Generally, it is referred to with the term "the world to come."

5 The retribution beyond which there is no greater retribution is that the soul will be cut off and not merit this life as [Numbers 15:31] states: "This soul shall surely be cut off. His sin shall remain upon him."

This refers to the obliteration of the soul which was referred to by the prophets with the following metaphoric terms: "the pit of destruction" [Psalms 55:24], "obliteration" [ibid. 88:12], "the bonfire" [Isaiah 30:33], "the leech" [Proverbs 30:15]. All the synonyms for nullification and destruction are used to refer to it for it is the [ultimate] nullification after which there is no renewal and the [ultimate] loss which can never be recovered.

6 Lest you think lightly of this good, [the world to come], imagining that the reward for the mitzvot and for a person [following] completely the paths of truth is for him to eat and drink good foods, have intercourse with beautiful forms, wear garments of linen and lace, dwell in ivory palaces, use utensils of gold and silver, or other similar ideas, as conceived by the foolish, decadent Arabs, who are flooded with lewdness.

In contrast, the sages and men of knowledge know that all these matters are vain and empty things, without any purpose. They are only considered of great benefit to us in this world because we possess a body and a physical form. All these matters are the needs of the body. The soul only desires them and lusts for them because of the needs of the body, so that its desires will be fulfilled and its health maintained. In a situation, where there is no body, all of these matters will be nullified.

There is no way in this world to grasp and comprehend the ultimate good which the soul will experience in the world to come.

We only know bodily good and that is what we desire. However, that [ultimate] good is overwhelmingly great and cannot be compared to the good of this world except in a metaphoric sense.

In truth, there is no way to compare the good of the soul in the world to come to the bodily goods of this world. Rather, that good is infinitely great, with no comparison or likeness. This is alluded to by David's statement [Psalms 31:20]: "How great is the good that You have hidden for those who fear You."

7 How very much did David desire the life of the world to come as implied by [Psalms 27:13]: "Had I not believed that I would see the goodness of God in the land of the living!"

The Sages of the previous generations have already informed us that man does not have the potential to appreciate the good of the world to come in a full sense nor can anyone know its greatness, beauty, and power except God, alone.

All the beneficence which the prophets promised Israel in their visions are only physical concerns which Israel will appreciate in the Messianic age when dominion [over the world] will return to Israel. However, the good of the life of the world to come has no comparison or likeness, nor was it described by the prophets, lest with such a description, they diminish it.

This [was implied] by [Isaiah's (64:3)] statement: "No eye has ever seen, 0 God, except for You, what You will do for those who wait for You;" i.e. the good which was not perceived by the vision of a prophet and is perceived by God alone, this was created by God for those who wait for Him.

The Sages declared: "All the prophets only prophesied about the Messianic Age. However, regarding the world to come - `No eye has ever seen, 0 God, except for You.'

8The Sages did not use the expression "the world to come" with the intention of implying that [this realm] does not exist at present or that the present realm will be destroyed and then, that realm will come into being.

The matter is not so. Rather, [the world to come] exists and is present as implied by [Psalms 31:20: "How great is the good] that You have hidden... which You have made...." It is only called the world to come because that life comes to a man after life in this world in which we exist, as souls [enclothed] in bodies. This [realm of existence] is presented to all men at first.