Heaven and Hell

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The places in which, respectively, the righteous are rewarded after death and the wicked punished. The usual terms in Jewish literature are the Garden of Eden for heaven and Gehinnom for hell. The Hebrew word shamayyim means either the sky, the firmament, as in the first verse of Genesis, or God, as in the Rabbinic expression: ‘the fear of heaven’. In the earlier literature, the term never refers to the location of souls after the death of the body. The medieval thinkers generally demythologize the statements in the Talmudic literature about heaven and hell, interpreting them in terms of purely spiritual bliss and spiritual torment.

The heaven of the Jewish mystics is similarly all spiritual. According to the Zohar (i. 90b–91a) when the righteous depart from the world their souls ascend and God prepares for them a garment woven from the good deeds they performed while on earth and the great banquet of the future is the feasting of the righteous on divine mysteries never before revealed (Zohar, i. 135b). In this vein the eighteenth-century mystic Moses Hayyim Luzzatto begins his work of moral perfection, The Path of the Upright: ‘Our Sages have taught us that man was created only to find delight in the Lord, and to bask in the radiance of His Shekhinah for this is the true delight and a pleasure far greater than every imaginable pleasure. But the real place for such delight is the World to Come, which has been created for that very purpose. The present world is only a path to that goal.’

Subjects: Literary Studies (Early and Medieval).

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