What is the Jewish concept of hell?

Upon reading this week, I discovered a smattering of words in Matthew Chapter 5 that prompted a serious question. The chapter cites both a “hell of fire” and just plain, ol’ “hell”. I wondered if there was more than one hell, if there was a difference between these hells, or if these separate references were simply the same concept. What is the Jewish concept of hell? Is there a difference between the Jewish hell and the Christian hell? I discovered the answers to my questions via some fascinating research.

Hades, Sheol, Gehenna, and hell are words that are perpetually interchanged but have entirely different meanings, as I have learned reading through various blogs and Jewish doctrine sites. Olam Ha-Ba, Hebrew translation for “The World to Come”, is the name of the Jewish afterlife, a concept entirely non-dogmatic for its practitioners (Judaism 101). The entire concept is a matter of personal belief, to the point of the inclusion of resurrection and reincarnation. Judaism focuses on the life we live currently, rather than what happens after death. Regardless of being either traditional or progressive, it is entirely possible for a Jew to believe in innumerable theories of the afterlife. The concept of hell, in particular, varies in theoretical possibilities.

Firstly, hell can be commonly defined as a place of eternal punishment for the wrongdoings of one’s soul. In Judaism, this entire definition is torn to pieces and redesigned. The Jewish hell can be described as either Sheol or Gehenna; Sheol is a place of punishment while Gehenna is a place of damnation for souls (The Jewish Chronicle). These two places are entirely distinct from each other.

Sheol

Sheol, Hebrew for “pit”, “destruction”, or “abyss” (Jewish Encyclopedia), is the “present” hell, in which the lost souls go to await judgment—resulting in either Gehenna or resurrection (Berean Bible Society). Sheol is merely a temporary place for souls. It is not eternal, and both evil and good souls arrive in this spiritual waiting room post-life (Hell Part 2).  Sheol is unlike the Christian concept of hell, more like a deep, dark, shadowy netherworld, is commonly called the “Land of Forgetfulness” (My Jewish Learning). Sheol is flame-free, therefore not the “hell of fire” reference I found in Matthew. The dead are cut off from the living as well as the grace of the Protagonist, their existence a strange faint stain on the metaphysical plane. Every soul will go to Sheol, despite its bleak description. Another common translation of Sheol is Hades, and can also be described as being within the earth (Matthew 12:40). The geography of Sheol/Hades can be split in two halves. One section is for evil souls, while the other side is for the righteous souls waiting for resurrection.

Gehenna

However, Gehenna, Greek for “lake of fire” (Berean Bible Society), is considered the “final” hell, or the place we most commonly think of when referencing hell. This lake of hell was designed for Satan and the fallen angels to be tormented eternally, and is entirely free of humans at this time. I say “at this time” because according to Revelation, the lake of fire will be filled with evil humans at the time of the true Messiah’s resurrection (Berean Bible Society). In addition to their souls, the actual human bodies will enter Gehenna as well. Gehenna is described as a torturous punishment, full of fire and brimstone, similar to the Christian hell. Another theory suggests that a soul must reexamine his or her life, and then repent for any wrongdoings. This concept of hell is the permanent, here-for-all-eternity, place of punishment.

In conclusion, I discovered that there was a difference between the Christian hell and the Jewish hell, as well as the hell of Judaism being conceptually diverse. Sheol and Gehenna, two separate hells, are distinct and individualistic. The reason for a soul’s existence in shadowy Sheol involves a waiting period for the good, or temporary torment for the evil. The reason for existing in fiery Gehenna is pure, eternal torture after the Messianic age. Either way, hell is a matter of opinion for those prescribed to a Hebrew slant.

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The Blood Covenant of Abram

“He said to him, ‘Bring me a heifer three years old, a female goat three years old, a ram three years old, a turtledove, and a young pigeon.’ And he brought him all these, cut them in half, and laid each half over against the other. But he did not cut the birds in half.” (Gen 15:9-10)

Brutal Lego Sacrifice

As I sat bewildered at the fact that God demanded Abram cut every mammal in half but the birds, my mind sped to the symbolism of this action. Why cut the heifer, the female goat, and the ram in half but not the turtledove nor the pigeon? Did the action of cutting the animals in half symbolize something? And why choose these animals in particular? What did these animals represent? As I researched these questions and delved further into Genesis, answers rose to the surface.

In Jewish symbolism, the dove was a feminine symbol often associated with fertility and the spirit of God (Biblical Archaeology). I found this gem of information most interesting as the fifteenth chapter of Genesis is all about the covenant between God and Abram to populate the earth with Abram’s offspring. Considering the fact that Sarai, Abram’s wife, was entirely too old to bear children, the dove sacrifice represented God’s ability to make her fertile. To continue with the feminine aspects of this sacrificial ritual, two female animals were also slaughtered, the heifer and a goat. Perhaps these two animals embodied the feminine aspect of this ritual while literarily strengthening the message sent to early biblical readers.

In continuity with the animals, I dug deeper into Genesis, finding another verse that connected Abram’s offspring to this ritual:

“And Abraham lifted up his eyes and looked, and behold, behind him was a ram, caught in the thicket by his horns. And Abraham went and took the ram and offered it up as a burnt offering instead of his son.” (Gen 22:13)

So if the ram represented Abraham’s son later in Genesis, then in my opinion, the ram in chapter fifteen foreshadows this later sacrifice to God. The ram in chapter fifteen was another symbol of Abram’s offspring, later to be born as Isaac. So I had the answers to part of my line of questioning; the animals themselves represented both the fertility of Abram’s wife and the promise of offspring. These animals were chosen to be the representatives of the promises that God was making to Abram.

I also wondered at the number three. The heifer was three years old. The goat was three years old. The ram was three years old. Three, what was so important about the number three? Did it have to do with the animals reaching adulthood? As I researched, I discovered gematria, or “numerological study…used for…gaining insight into interrelating concepts” (Hebrew Gematria). In simpler terms, gematria is the spiritual study of numbers to better understand the Torah. The number three in gematria represents completeness and stability (Judaism & Numbers). In this sacrificial ritual, the animals that were three years of age stood for Sarai’s fertility and the promise of offspring in the form of Isaac. The number of their years reinforced the promise that God was making—it made the promises quite serious.

Gematria

Finally, I came to rest at the halving of the animals. In the process of research, I discovered that blood covenants were fairly common in the time period of Abraham. I also found that the verb for “making” a covenant is KRT or to cut (Cutting Covenants and Cutting Animals). Later, the symbol of the covenant wouldn’t be halved animals, it would become circumcision. Literally, God cut a covenant with Abram. The cutting of the animals was simply the commonplace practice of signing a contract. This was culturally relevant to Abram, as he would have understood the significance of the blood promise made between himself and God.

“Let’s cut a covenant, shall we?” – Knife Wielding Rabbi

Abram’s covenant with God was a business deal as he would deal with any other person who was making promises to him, solidified by the blood ritual and the symbolism of each animal.

Original Word Count: 568

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