I heard from a Jewish colleague that the concept of Heaven and Hell were not originally part of Judaism. I couldn't find references to these concepts in the Old Testament. So

  • Were these part of Judaism from beginning?

and if the answer is positive,

  • Why aren't there references to them in the historically older books like Torah? (Or where are they if there are?)

Edit: by Heaven and Hell I don't necessarily mean the Christian conception of them but the more general idea of a place in the afterlife where people go, think of them as Gan Eden and Gehinam if it helps.


5 Answers 5


First, your question seems to imply a predefined notion of the concepts of heaven and hell. There is much discussion about these concepts amongst the Sages of the Talmud, the Rishonim, and Acharonim.

  • Heaven: There is much reference in Talmudic literature to an afterlife for the righteous (i.e. those who follow God's commandments) called "Olam Habah" (World to Come). The Rishonim generally describe it as a pure spiritual connection between the soul and God's "essence", generating an intimate relationship with God. This is something that one in this world cannot imagine. (See Rambam Hil. Teshuva 8:6-7; Chovos Hal'vavos, Bitachon:4.)
  • Hell: The afterlife of those who sinned is referred to in the Talmud as "Gehinnom", which is a reference to a geographical location mentioned several times in Tanach (גיא בן הינום), though the concept of which is purely spiritual and divorced from any physicality. Several (metaphorical) descriptions of Gehinnom are given, such as it being fiery (Berachos 57b) or a period of continuous unrest (Pirkei R' Eliezer 34). Rambam seems to believe that there is no afterlife for sinners, but that they will rather cease to exist after death. (See @RCW's answer.)

Second, with regard to your question, Were these part of Judaism from beginning?. Following the Jewish belief in the oral tradition imparted by Moshe through the Neviim and through the Sages of the Mishna and the Talmud, we must assume that these concepts are part of the tradition received by Chazal, and thus were indeed part of Judaism from its beginning.

Finally, regarding your second question, there is no definite reference to the concepts of Olam Habah or Gehinnom in the Tanach. There are, however, hints and inferences to them. The source that is generally used to show that there is a concept of afterlife, that is, the continued spiritual existence of the soul after death, is from Koheles 12:7:

וישב העפר על הארץ כשהיה והרוח תשוב אל האלהים אשר נתנה

Additionally, Chazal counted Abigail among the female prophets and assumed her knowledge of the afterlife, both its positive and negative sides, from her words in Shmuel 1:25:29:

והיתה נפש אדני צרורה בצרור החיים את יהוה אלהיך ואת נפש איביך יקלענה בתוך כף הקלע

To address why there is no (definitive) mention of the afterlife throughout Tanach, R' Dessler (Michtav Me'Eliyahu vol. 5, p. 391) explains that in the earlier generations, when there existed prophesy and God's presence dwelled on Earth (in the Temple), there was no need to depict Olam Habah. People's perception of the world was of a continuous existence of the soul; they were simply more in touch with their spirituality and connection to God than people of later generations. To the earlier generations, this world was seen as just an Olam Habah with an added physical aspect. There was not so much of a distinction drawn between the two worlds. Therefore, it warranted no mention in those times; it was a given. Later, after the destruction of the Temple and discontinuation of prophesy, people had to grapple with the concepts of Olam Habah and Gehinnom.

  • i think the rambam means that they will cease to exist in the olam haba but will be punished in the after life before olam haba. he even lists in hilchos teshuva the groups of people who have eternal gehinom, i.e. a very long stay there.
    – ray
    Commented Aug 2, 2014 at 19:17
  • @ray according to most understandings of the Rambam he did not believe that the word "punished" is applicable to Olam Haba, since according to his view Olam Haba is more of the continuity of the intellect and is more of a natural result of the mans intellectual achievements. The more you achieved the more your intellect remains, so if you sin and do not get to the necessary intellectual level you will simply cease to exist once you die.
    – yechezkel
    Commented Apr 21, 2015 at 4:47

Scholars discuss why the Pentateuch does not directly mention the existence of worlds other than this one (though it does hint or refer to it in a couple of places). Some give reasons why these concepts are meant to be a part of the oral torah and not in the written Torah. Some rishonim say that these concepts would have been too abstract for the generation of the desert to grasp, so the Torah emphasized physical reward in this world to them. (This answer is difficult if one says belief in a future world is essential. If however, the critical belief is just in reward and punishment, then it works.) Many non-Orthodox Jews reject the idea of ancient oral traditions in Judaism, which may be why they would say these concepts didn't use to exist.

  • 2
    Your answer could be even more valuable with some more specific citations.
    – Isaac Moses
    Commented May 25, 2011 at 17:54
  • I don't always remember exactly where I saw something, so I follow the Rambam's derech.
    – Ariel K
    Commented May 25, 2011 at 21:41

I believe the concept of gan eden/gehinam are part of the oral tradition. at least there's no clear reference in the humash. in any case the concept of gan eden/gehinam is not the same as heaven/hell that is brought by different religions


The idea of Sheol -- a place under the ground where the dead dwell -- appears throughout the Pentateuch and later books of the Tanakh. In the early books it's really nothing more than a figurative reference to the place where people are buried. Later in the Prophets there are some more detailed ideas about comings and goings. The Oral tradition elaborates on the idea, but certainly Sheol is never the modern Christian Hell, with fire and brimstone and eternal torment. It is more a state of unbeing than any kind of punishment.

  • 1
    – msh210
    Commented May 25, 2011 at 16:01
  • 1
    that's a big statement to say gehinom is not a place of punishment. most sources seem to say it is.
    – ray
    Commented Aug 2, 2014 at 19:08
  • @ray: Sheol and Gehenna are two distinct concepts.
    – user18041
    Commented Apr 23, 2019 at 4:52

Based on the Rambam there does not seem to be a notion of "Hell" in Judaism. If a person develops their soul and attaches it to the world of ideas, then when the body ceases, the soul will continue to exist in a non-physical state. There is no location of Heaven or any type of physical place. It can more be described as simply the Soul continues to exist in a state of existance, not associated to the physical. However, if a person never develops their soul and simply attach themselves to the world of the physical, then when their body dies, they will will simply cease to exist, much like an animal. (See Rambam, Hilchot Teshuvah, Chapter eight, Law 1 and Chapter 9)

  • 4
    The negative result that you describe is Rambam's description of kares. It does not necessarily imply a lack of "hell" for those that sinned but do not deserve kares. A better source for this would be the next chapter of Hilchos Teshuva (9:1), where he neglects to mention a concept of Hell for sinners, rather mentioning that sinners simply will not be involved in the spiritual ecstasy that the souls of the righteous will enjoy.
    – jake
    Commented May 25, 2011 at 6:05
  • 1
    see judaism.stackexchange.com/questions/7401/… for a description of Hell acc. to the Ramban.
    – Zvi
    Commented May 25, 2011 at 15:57
  • Thank you Jake for your comments. First point is that I am not certain the Rambam has no concept of Gehenem, it would seem so from his ommisions and comments. Second, in Chapter 8, Law 1 the Rambam states that "the concquence for the wicked is that they do not merit this existance (Olam Habah), but are cut off and cease to exist". He does not state this is only speaking of a Rasha that did a violation meritting Kares. He seems to be suggesting that Kares(cessation) of the soul is a natural result of those that do not merit Olam Habah. I will continue in next comment...
    – RCW
    Commented May 25, 2011 at 16:51
  • Third, even if you are correct that it is only dealing with a person that did a violation earning Karet, the point still stands. The point is that for the wicked there is no idea of Hell. There is no idea of burning in some painful situation for all eternity. This is the idea of hell I am suggesting the Rambam does not have. I thank you for your comments and I have edited the answer to reflect your comment and added a reference to Chapter 9. That Halacha does contribute to the point as well.
    – RCW
    Commented May 25, 2011 at 16:54
  • Good points all. Neither am I certain of the Rambam's opinion on this issue. I will try to look into it if I have time.
    – jake
    Commented May 25, 2011 at 18:31

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