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In chapter 3 of Hilchos Teshuva, Rambam says

The following individuals do not have a portion in the world to come. Rather, their [souls] are cut off and they are judged for their great wickedness and sins, forever ( לעולם ולעולמי עולמים) [...]

This seems to imply that those individuals will receive eternal judgement/retribution.

However, in chapter 8, he says

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 [...] 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.

From this it seems that the souls which are cut off are destroyed or nullified (so they simply cease to exist) - and so do not actually exist forever to receive eternal judgement/punishment.

How can we reconcile these statements?

  • I think the straightforward explanation is that a wicked soul is destroyed forever (no idea what it means) and THAT FACT is the greatest punishment. So if, say, Pharao's soul was destroyed some 3500 years ago I don't think we can call it 3500 years of punishment. – Al Berko Oct 6 at 19:44
  • Not sure if the language supports that - "judged for their sins forever" seems to imply an ongoing action (judgement), and not just a one time action that happens to have an eternal effect (pretty much all actions are like that, if you think about it). On a side note, destroyed forever doesn't seem like the greatest punishment when compared to an "infinite, neverending, no hope or light at the end of the tunnel ever, past the age of the universe an infinite times, suffering". – user9806 Oct 6 at 20:11
  • IMHO in Hebrew, לעולם belongs to "cut off", not to "punished" – Al Berko Oct 6 at 20:20
  • I agree completely with your second note. Just like we go to sleep every night and lose our conscious/soul and fall into some kind of oblivion it does not seem so frightening. THere's also one thing to remember about Rambam - he was a great educator, so many things he wrote/made up were intended to motivate people and not discuss their factual validity. – Al Berko Oct 6 at 20:23
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I think the Rambam is quite clear in Hilkhos Teshuvah 8:5. We do get a hint in 8:1, "פִרְעוֹן הָרְשָׁעִים הוּא שֶׁלֹּא יִזְכּוּ לְחַיִּים אֵלּוּ אֶלָּא יִכָּרְתוּ וְיָמוּתוּ. -- the payment of the wicked is, that they will not share in such life, but will suffer excision and eternal death."

But in halakhah 5, the Rambam states that all the prophetic discussion of what we call "gehennom"* is a metaphoric description of ceasing to exist. To quote:

הַנְּקָמָה שֶׁאֵין נְקָמָה גְּדוֹלָה מִמֶּנָּה שֶׁתִּכָּרֵת הַנֶּפֶשׁ וְלֹא תִּזְכֶּה לְאוֹתָן הַחַיִּים שֶׁנֶּאֱמַר (במדבר טו:לא) "הִכָּרֵת תִּכָּרֵת הַנֶּפֶשׁ הַהִיא עֲוֹנָהּ בָּהּ". וְזֶה הָאֲבַדּוֹן הוּא שֶׁקּוֹרִין אוֹתוֹ הַנְּבִיאִים דֶּרֶךְ מָשָׁל "בְּאֵר שַׁחַת" וַ"אֲבַדּוֹן" וְ"תָפְתֶּה" וַ"עֲלוּקָה" וְכָל לְשׁוֹן כְּלָיָה וְהַשְׁחָתָה קוֹרְאִין לוֹ. לְפִי שֶׁהִיא הַכְּלָיָה שֶׁאֵין אַחֲרֶיהָ תְּקוּמָה וְהַהֶפְסֵד שֶׁאֵינוֹ חוֹזֵר לְעוֹלָם:

The vengeance, than which there is none greater is, that the soul will be cut off and will obtain no share in that life, even as it is said: "That soul shall be utterly cut off; his iniquity shall be upon him" (Bamidbar 15:31). And this is what the prophets call figuratively by different names, such as, "pit of destruction", "burning flame", "leech", and by every word which means decay and destruction is it called, because it is an expression of terminating decay from which there is no regeneration and a loss which remains forever un-returned.

Similarly, there is tangenial mention in Hilkhos Teshuvah 3:6. In introducing his list of heretics, the Rambam writes:

וְאֵלּוּ הֵן שֶׁאֵין לָהֶן חֵלֶק לָעוֹלָם הַבָּא אֶלָּא נִכְרָתִים וְאוֹבְדִין וְנִדּוֹנִין עַל גֹּדֶל רִשְׁעָם וְחַטָּאתָם לְעוֹלָם וּלְעוֹלְמֵי עוֹלָמִים.

And these are the people who have no part toward the World to Come. Rather, they are cut off and destroyed, and are judged on the greatness of their evil and their sin for all eternity.

Heretics are "cut off and destroyed". So then how does the Rambam continue to say that are they judged for all eternity? Because they do not exist for the rest of eternity. Note the Rambam does not say they will be punished for all eternity, but that "they are judged ... for all eternity". The judgment of being cut off is a decision of eternal consequence.

Which makes sense thinking about it from the Rambam's first principles. In his worldview (c.f. 8:1), the reward of the World to Come is inherent in the World to Come containing fewer barriers between the soul (the term used is nefesh, which likely matters) and the Creator than we have in this world.

In his commentary on the Mishnah, introduction to Pereq Cheileq (Sanhedrin ch. 10 or 11), the Rambam cites Reish Laqish (Nedarim 8b, Avodah Zara 3b-4a), who says:

אין גיהנם לעתיד לבא אלא הקדוש ברוך הוא מוציא חמה מנרתיקה ומקדיר רשעים נידונין בה וצדיקים מתרפאין בה ... דכתיב (מלאכי ג:יט) "[כִּֽי]־הִנֵּ֤ה הַיּוֹם֙ בָּ֔א בֹּעֵ֖ר כַּתַּנּ֑וּר וְהָי֨וּ כָל־זֵדִ֜ים וְכָל־עֹשֵׂ֤ה רִשְׁעָה֙ קַ֔שׁ וְלִהַ֨ט אֹתָ֜ם הַיּ֣וֹם הַבָּ֗א אָמַר֙ ה' .צְבָקוֹת אֲשֶׁ֛ר לֹא־יַעֲזֹ֥ב לָהֶ֖ם שֹׁ֥רֶשׁ וְעָנָֽף" -- לא שורש בעולם הזה ולא ענף לעולם הבא.

There is no gehennom in the future-to-come. Rather HaQadosh Barukh Hu takes the sun out of its sheath, and heats with it. Wicked people are judged by it, and righteous people are healed by it. ... "For, here! The era is coming, it burns as a furnace; and all the proud, and all that do wickedness, shall be stubble; and the day that comes shall set them ablaze, said the Hashem Tzevaqos, that it shall leave them neither root nor branch." (Malachi 3:19) -- No root will remain [of the wicked] in this world, and no branch for the World to Come.

(* The Rambam doesn't discuss this that I know of, but using the name "gehennom" is definitely metaphoric. It is named for Gei Ben Hinom -- the Valley of the son of Hinnom, a place outside Yerushalayim where the Canaanites practiced child sacrifice. Today it's between the Old City and the Artist Colony and boasts a venue for Rock concerts. Make of that what you will <grin>.)

  • Thank you for your answer! On the other hand, I found this answer judaism.stackexchange.com/a/86819/13680 which alleges that several rishonim (and even Rambam) held that there is eternal punishment in a literal sense. What do you think of the sources quoted there? – user9806 Oct 7 at 17:40
  • I do not see mention of the Rambam in that answer. Another answer cites Teshuvah 3:6 sefaria.org/Mishneh_Torah%2C_Repentance.3.6 (and will update my answer here accordingly), but I don't think it says anything of the sort. Also, in that answer I see him cite where the Iqarim notes that there have been a few (קצת הרשעים) who were sent to gehenom eternally, and presents it like it's the Iqarim's description of the norm for gehennom. – Micha Berger Oct 7 at 21:56
  • R. Yosef Kapach in his commentary to Chapter Eight strongly rejects this approach. – Alex Oct 8 at 2:41
  • @Alex Strongly rejects which approach? – user9806 Oct 8 at 4:54
  • @user9806 That you just stop existing and there’s no further punishment. – Alex Oct 8 at 5:29

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