Source Sheets

The Origins of Olam Haba in Jewish Thought


This is a shiur on the origins and nature of the world to come in Jewish thought.
The jumping off point for the discussion must be that the concept of the/a world to come is conspicuous by its absence in the Tanakh: with only a few peripheral exceptions (Yaakov’s continued mentions of ‘שאול’, Saul’s meeting with the witch at the end of Shmuel Aleph, and references in Daniel), the Tanakh is completely focused upon this world as the location of meaning, success, failure, reward, and punishment.

After this introduction we locate the emergence of the concept in Chazal. Through a number of examples, it appears that the focus on the world to come is in part a response to the complete breakdown of a relationship between righteous actions and positive consequences. In Rebbe Yaakov’s (metaphorical?) example a young child following his father’s instructions to shoo away a mother bird to collect the eggs (the only two mitzvot for which the Torah promises a long life) falls out of the tree and dies. If our response is not that of Elisha ben Abuya’s ‘there is no judge and there is no justice’, it can only be that there exists another location, another dimension, in which righteous acts are rewarded.

Perhaps the most interesting element lies in the varying responses the Sages had to the reality of the Hadrianic persecutions in which those living a life of Torah and mitzvot, not only did not receive reward but were actively persecuted. A comparison of the deaths of Rabbis Akiva and Yishmael at the hand of the Romans indicates that deeply polarised views were held by Chazal.

In the middle ages much energy was devoted to the question of what the world to come is like – the various opinions being summarised by the Sefer HaIkkarim. Of greatest relevance to the modern Jew is the question of to what extent the world to come should play a role in our lives as we live them today. Once again we find extremely diverse opinion on the matter.
Measuring your response to the pieces in both the Mesillat Yesharim and by the Seridei Eish quoted at the end of the source sheet will tell you a large amount as to the nature of your own religiosity and understanding of Judaism.

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