I wrote in this answer, "We can't possibly know how God judges people after they die." I was making the point that the way we live our lives should be according to halacha but we can't possibly know what God does based on our halacha observance (e.g. I never spoke lashon hara even once in my life, so I know that I will get 35 olam haba points). This concept of uncertainty is something that I have taken for granted as long as I can remember, but in the comments, I am rightly asked to source my claim.

I don't know the source of this claim, or even if such a source exists. I think the claim itself is true, but I have no evidence of this besides svarah (how could we know how God judges people after we die? Nobody has ever come back to tell us all of the details). I feel like I must have learned this at some point in my childhood, but perhaps it was just the svarah of whoever taught it to me. So is there a source for this idea in traditional Jewish thought?

  • לפום צערא אגרא ]15[ – Double AA Sep 10 '15 at 13:42
  • @DoubleAA That's very general. I'm looking for specifics. – Daniel Sep 10 '15 at 13:43
  • Measuring the effort put in is practically impossible. Hence you can't determine how many points someone will get – Double AA Sep 10 '15 at 13:46
  • @DoubleAA If we could measure effort we still wouldn't be able to determine how many points we'd get. PA just says that reward is proportional to effort, but it doesn't say what the coefficient of proportionality is. – Daniel Sep 10 '15 at 13:49
  • @DoubleAA In any case, I think that's a pretty good svara. Do you know if there's a source for it? – Daniel Sep 10 '15 at 13:50

Mishna Torah Hilchos Teshuva 3:2:

ושקול זה אינו לפי מנין הזכיות והעונות אלא לפי גודלם. יש זכות שהיא כנגד כמה עונות שנאמר יען נמצא בו דבר טוב. ויש עון שהוא כנגד כמה זכיות שנאמר וחוטא אחד יאבד טובה הרבה. ואין שוקלין אלא בדעתו של אל דעות והוא היודע היאך עורכין הזכיות כנגד העונות

.. and this weighting [of merits vs. sins] isn't according to their number but according to their quality. There are merits that outweigh many sins ... and there are sins that outweigh many merits ... And this measurement is only in the knowledge of G-d and He is the one who knows how to evaluate merits against sins.

Commentaries (e.g.) point to the Talmud, Kiddushin 39 as one of the sources for this statement.


the mishna in avos says הוי זהיר במצוה קלה כבחמורא שאי אתה ידע מתן שכרן של מצוה, which i think means be careful with small mitzvos bec. we dont know what gd considers important


The Maharal (intro to Gevuros Hashem) comments on how the Torah never says where souls go after death. The Maharal's point was that the experience was too foreign to our experience to be conveyed by prophecy. (His exploration of the limits of intelligence and prophecy, and why intelligence can grasp things that are beyond the range of prophecy is interesting, but tangential.)

The Maharal points out that the only thing the Torah does say is "so that your days may be lengthened (idiom)". For while we can't understand what existance after death is like, being told there will be such existence can be understood.

The Rambam (Guide to the Perplexed III), and the Maharal (ibid) take this verse to mean that the reward for doing mitzvos is to persist beyond death, and the punishment is to cease to exist.

This view is a minority view.

The Talmud states in Tractate Brachos 28b: When R Yochanan b Zakai became ill... there are two paths before me, one leading to Gan Eden and the other to Gehennom [hell], and I do not know on which I will be taken, shouldn't I weep?

We find similar mention of GE and Gehenom repeatedly in the Gemara.

The terms "Gan Eden" and "Gehenom", though, can't be taken overly literally. GE in this context is not the place with the tree of knowledge in Genesis 2 and 3. Similarly, Gei ben Hinnom is a valley outside of Jerusalem (near the green line, in the middle of the modern city) where children were sacrificed to Molech (a Pagan G-d).

Brachos 48b doesn't refer to two places in the afterlife, but only one -- much like the verse addressed by the Rambam and Maharal. "We found a source for making a blessing on food, but where is [the source for] a blessing for [learning] Torah? R Yishmael says: It is learnt by kal vachomer (a fortiori). If a blessing is said for temporal life, for life in Olam Haba (the world to come) how much more so!"

Or, Megillah 28b: Anyone who reviews halachah daily is guaranteed to be a child of the world to come.

We even know "where" the WtC is, Koheles writes (12:7): The dust returns to the dust that it was, but the soul returns to G-d who gave it. Or Job's description (19:26): And after my skin is destroyed, without my flesh, I will see G-d.

In order to resolve these two approaches we have to assume that either GE and Gehenom are two different parts of the WtC, or they are two different descriptions of the same place.

An idea I heard from R Aryeh Kaplan zt"l that caught my fancy is that the two differ subjectively. (I believe it's also in the first volume of the RAK Reader.) To the good, the experience in WtC is pleasant, to the evil, it is not so. Eden does literally mean "pleasant".

The Valley of Hinom was a place where flesh was mortified. Compare this to Yeshaia's description of hell (66:24): They shall go and look upon the corpses of the men who rebelled against Me; for their worm will not die, nor will there fire be extinguished, and they shall be ashamed before all flesh.

Yeshaia considered the fire of Gehenom to be shame. This is the conclusion of R. Kaplan, as well as Ikarim 4:33 and Nishmas Chaim 1:13. The source of shame is obvious, as the WtC is confronting G-d, with no hope of evasion. Any sin still embraced stands clearly before you. "Whoever sins once creates one accuser."

One last thought: we didn't discuss rebirth after the world to come, or the general Jewish attitude that almost no one is eternally damned.


I don't remember the actual source, but there is a medrash that someone went up to shamayim (again, don't remember who) and saw that the elyonim were tachtonim and the tachtonim were elyonim. I believe this is generally taken to mean that those who would be thought to be higher were lower while those who would be thought to be lower were actually higher, i.e. we do not know how Hashem judges us. Sorry that I don't know the actual verse, but perhaps someone else can provide it?

  • You're probably thinking of he.wikisource.org/wiki/…, but ואנן היכי התם כי היכי דאיתו אנן הכא הכי איתינן התם ואנן - תלמידי חכמים היכי איתינן התם: – Shmuel Brin Sep 10 '15 at 17:09

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