In yeshiva I was always told about gan eden and gehinnom, and how the good go to the former place while the bad go to the latter. However, in popular culture, Jews are always said to not believe in Hell (and many times Heaven). Why the discrepancy?


6 Answers 6


It might be because the Written Torah doesn't really go much into the topic. (Why that is so is a whole other question.) So people may have incorrectly concluded that these ideas weren't originally part of Judaism.

Another possibility is that they mean that we don't believe in the popular conception of Heaven (angels with harps) or of Hell (fiery lakes, satanic demons torturing souls, etc.). Which is perfectly true; those are Christian ideas (partly from Dante's Inferno) that have no place in Judaism.

  • Even if the written torah doesn't go much into the topic, it is still part of judaism! torah shebe'al peh also came to us from har sinai! Commented Apr 26, 2012 at 19:26
  • @AdamMosheh: of course. Hence my "incorrectly" in the first paragraph.
    – Alex
    Commented Apr 26, 2012 at 19:27
  • 2
    yes, but seven levels of heaven and seven levels of hell do have kabbalistic roots. reishit chochmah (IIRC) talks about this, and others certainly do as well. Commented Apr 26, 2012 at 19:28
  • Followup question: judaism.stackexchange.com/q/27061
    – msh210
    Commented Mar 12, 2013 at 15:38
  • have you heard of Gehinom?
    – ray
    Commented Aug 30, 2015 at 17:08

The idea that most talk about is that Judaism's gehinom is not a place for the damned as the christian hell is. It's spiritual rehabilitation. Although not everyone is zoche to this- I'm not privy to their fate. Suggested reading with a Rebbi: Derech Hashem. "Gan Eden" and "Gehinom" are our labels for a spiritual phase, not the actual Gan Eden/Gehinom (from the Rishonim- I have to trace the source).

I must mention a cute mashal from R' Avigdor Miller that I heard on tape (imagine his voice): Everyone thinks that when we die, there are 2 places to go- Gan Eden and Gehinom. It's not true. There is only one place and everyone goes there. All day you sit there and learn. For the Tzadikim, it's Gan Eden. For the Reshaim, its Gehinom!


(This answer is given without any references to actual sources -- just the colloquial understanding. The actual picture differs somewhat, for example, in Derech Hashem.)

Christians believe hell is eternal. Jews believe that gehinnom is not (at least for the most part) -- one spends a maximum of 12 months in gehinnom being purified of his sins, and then joins Olam Haba. This is why Ashkenazim only say kaddish for a parent for 11 months, and Sephardim have various minhagim to stop short of 12 months -- so as not to imply that the parent was so wicked that he would be in geheinnom for a whole 12 months. (There are also various other leniencies in geheinnom which I will not elaborate at length.)

  • 1
    Among them, recess for shabbos, i believe!
    – Baby Seal
    Commented Apr 25, 2014 at 20:28

Supplementing, not supplanting, others' answers, may be the fact that our idea of what sends one to hell/paradise is different from Christians', who believe (as I understand it) in a default of going to hell. Perhaps that's why they think of us as not believing in hell.

  • Yet another subject on which Christian beliefs are widely divergent and difficult to summarise, but this is certainly the traditional belief of European Christians, both before and after the Reformation.
    – TRiG
    Commented Oct 16, 2012 at 11:44

Perceptions of Judaism in popular culture are not often based on scrupulous study of Jewish sources. The reason for the perception is because a vast majority of Jews belong to liberal denominations that do not want to talk about hell. In fact, the "Pittsburgh Platform" of Reform Judaism rejected belief in hell as foreign to Judaism:

  1. We reassert the doctrine of Judaism that the soul is immortal, grounding the belief on the divine nature of human spirit, which forever finds bliss in righteousness and misery in wickedness. We reject as ideas not rooted in Judaism, the beliefs both in bodily resurrection and in Gehenna and Eden (Hell and Paradise) as abodes for everlasting punishment and reward.

Thus if "popular culture" refers to the majority of American Jews, its portrayal may be accurate. This doesn't make it accurate as a portrayal of traditional Jewish beliefs.

  • Or the vast majority of Jews are not skilled enough (or interested enough) to perform the necessary scrupulous study to understand the Jewish position.
    – Double AA
    Commented Mar 18, 2013 at 17:22
  • 1
    +1 Assuming that Tzvi meant "popular (secular) culture" and not in the Yeshiva world.
    – BYG
    Commented Mar 18, 2013 at 23:55

Most secular Jews do not believe in a traditional interpretation of the afterlife. Judaism is a horizontal religion where we pray on the high holidays for forgiveness last year and for the coming year to be good. We have no spires reaching up. We live on through accomplishments to society and remembrance including naming our children after those who died. Just ask a secular Jew. Sanford Gordon, Ph.D.

  • I don't understand this answer. I mean, the first sentence seems to answer the question. But it refers to secular Jews whereas the second sentence refers to a religion and prayer (both irrelevant to secular Jews). Moreover, it's unclear what your second and third sentences have to do with the rest of the answer, or with the question.
    – msh210
    Commented Aug 30, 2015 at 4:48
  • @msh210 This seems off-topic being about the opinions of Jews but not Judaism?
    – Double AA
    Commented Aug 30, 2015 at 13:48
  • @DoubleAA if it is about Jews' and not Judaism's opinions, it's off-topic; as my comment above indicates, I'm not sure what it's about.
    – msh210
    Commented Aug 30, 2015 at 14:04

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