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In Judaism there is no separate holiday that would commemorate the dead, neither is there one that would be the equivalence of the Catholic All Saints’ Day. Judaism, similarly to the majority of Christian denominations, does not recommend frequent visits to the cemetery, does not approve of excessive dwelling on or commemoration of the death of loved ones.

The deceased relatives and friends are remembered during the holiday of Yom Kippur (Day of Atonement) falling at the beginning of autumn, and on the last day of the Sukkot holiday (Feast of Booths) which begins two weeks later. Prayers for the dead, Yizkor (Hebrew for „remember”), are recited at that time in the synagogue. 

There is a custom of visiting graves in the last month of the Jewish year — Elul and in the period between Rosh Hashanah (New Year) and Yom Kippur. Regardless of this, the grave of a dead relative should be visited on their death anniversary, which in Yiddish is called „yahrzeit”. To the tradition of Polish Jews belongs also once common belief that on the death anniversary and in the month of Elul the soul of a dead person stays by the grave and expects to be visited by the loved ones. „Not visiting them in that time, would be exposing them to shame and humiliation; in addition, it is the best time to ask them for favours,” we find out from ethnographic materials collected at the turn of the 19th and 20th centuries by Regina Lilientalowa.

Representing Reform Judaism, Jakub Elsenberg in „Przewodnik religijny dla młodzieży wyznania mojżeszowego” (Religious Guide for the Youth of Jewish Faith) printed in Warsaw in 1963 asked a question „What happens to us after death?” He answered it in a very general, even over-religious way, „After death, we leave entire earthly wealth, our body turns into dust, the soul, however, returns to God.”

However, before it happens, the soul does penance for all the sins committed by the dead. The soul of a big sinner must return to Earth and as a punishment be incarnated as an object, plant or animal. Jewish people believed that the punishment for most cardinal sins, especially those related to leaving Jewish faith, was being incarnated as a pig. On the other hand, the soul of a man filled with excessive pride is incarnated as a dog, and the soul of a gossip and slanderer as a stone. The soul of a man breaking the elementary principles of faith, for example, eating non-kosher foods, does penance in a tree or its leaves, similarly to the soul of a lecher. When the wind is moving the boughs and leaves of the trees, the souls living in them suffer and moan, letting out a long whistle.

After having gone through penitential incarnations, the sinful soul goes to hell, where the next part of the punishment takes place. There, it meets souls of smaller sinners, which go directly to the abyss of hell and patiently endure all sorts of suffering, depending on the kind and amount of committed sins. „There are places in hell prepared for those who publicly profane Shabbats and will not turn away from this sin in remorse. Similarly, there are places for those who are involved in prostitution and sinful sexual intercourse; for those who in indecent way uncover the Torah, who innocently spill blood, for the liars and all those who break any of 365 bans,” we read in the book of the Zohar.

According to Naftali Herc ben Jaakow Elchanan (Bacharach), who lived in the 17th century, as well as many other Jewish mystics, the aim of the subsequent incarnations of the soul and purging suffering in hellfire is for all souls created by God, and all being part of God, to have the honour to be part of eternal life. Mystics believed that actually it is not a punishment but a manifestation of God’s understanding and kindness thanks to which each soul has an opportunity to do penance for its sins and finally reach paradise. 

Kabbalah descriptions of the paradise, discussed in early 19th century by Peter Beer, a maskil from Prague, are particularly colourful. According to them, the entrance to the paradise garden leads through two ruby gates and on the sides of streams of wine, honey, milk and balsam flowing through them grow myrtles and roses. Each soul wears two crowns: one made of pure gold, the other of gemstones and pearls. It also has its own throne with a baldachin, with gold grapevine and a table made of diamonds and pearls. The soul can enjoy honey and wine, fruit of rich smells and tastes and also singing of numerous angelic choirs.

The Jewish people imagine the paradise in a rather more modest way. This place is a beautiful, bright garden with trees of every kind. Devout souls walk in silver and gold crowns and they only praise God. He himself is in the Seventh Heaven, where on a hill there is his gold throne, held by eagles, guarded by lions and bears. The Creator wears a gold crown set with diamonds, and, most importantly, he wears clothes for prayer, namely a tallit and tefillin and he prays very often.

Regina Lilientalowa did not manage to establish to whom and for what God prays. Therefore, we are leaving this question without an answer. Maybe, one day we will find out...

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