Death, Burial, and the Afterlife

Matthew J. Suriano

in Jewish Studies

ISBN: 9780199840731
Published online August 2012 | | DOI:
Death, Burial, and the Afterlife


Death is a universal problem in humanity, and the response to this problem among Jewish communities is conditioned by (and reflective of) their respective historical and cultural contexts. Although many post-biblical developments are rooted in different sources, the culture and literature of ancient Israel and the Hebrew Bible remains a useful starting point in discussing death, dying, and concepts of the afterlife in early Judaism. These are rooted in the life and society of the southern Levant during the first millennium bce (specifically the kingdoms of Israel and Judah), sharing traits with neighboring ancient Near Eastern cultures. These ideas did not remain static, and the problem of death was contemplated within the changing landscape of early Judaism, shaped and influenced by Babylonian, Greek, and Persian thought (see Segal 2004, cited under General Studies). Thus, the topic of death and the afterlife changes greatly in the postexilic era of the Second Temple, in so-called Hellenistic Judaism, extending into early rabbinic literature (the Mishnah and Talmud). Within this broader historical framework, it is easy to see the complexity of the topic “death and the afterlife” in the study of Judaism. Problems and issues inherent in this topic begin with early ideas of postmortem existence and the development of the afterlife as an ideal, from a universal netherworld (where all are destined) to a dichotomized system of heaven and hell. The concept of postmortem existence relates to practices of feeding the dead, sometimes interpreted as ancestor worship, as well as the divination of the dead, which is generally known as necromancy. Likewise, the development of the afterlife was interwoven with the emergence of ideas such as resurrection (which certainly has earlier antecedents, such as Levenson 2006, cited under Resurrection), immortality, and the concept of an eternal soul, as well as eschatological systems associated with olam ha-ba (the world to come).

Article.  9983 words. 

Subjects: Judaism and Jewish Studies

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