In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Death, Burial, and the Afterlife

  • Introduction
  • General Studies
  • Second Temple and Early Judaism
  • The Afterlife and the Place of the Dead
  • Ossuaries
  • Necromancy
  • Ancestors
  • Resurrection
  • Immortality and the Concept of the Soul

Jewish Studies Death, Burial, and the Afterlife
Matthew J. Suriano
  • LAST REVIEWED: 28 July 2015
  • LAST MODIFIED: 28 July 2015
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199840731-0035


Death is a universal problem in humanity, and the response to this problem among Jewish communities is conditioned by (and reflective of) their respective historical and cultural contexts. Although many post-biblical developments are rooted in different sources, the culture and literature of ancient Israel and the Hebrew Bible remains a useful starting point in discussing death, dying, and concepts of the afterlife in early Judaism. These are rooted in the life and society of the southern Levant during the first millennium BCE (specifically the kingdoms of Israel and Judah), sharing traits with neighboring ancient Near Eastern cultures. These ideas did not remain static, and the problem of death was contemplated within the changing landscape of early Judaism, shaped and influenced by Babylonian, Greek, and Persian thought (see Segal 2004, cited under General Studies). Thus, the topic of death and the afterlife changes greatly in the postexilic era of the Second Temple, in so-called Hellenistic Judaism, extending into early rabbinic literature (the Mishnah and Talmud). Within this broader historical framework, it is easy to see the complexity of the topic “death and the afterlife” in the study of Judaism. Problems and issues inherent in this topic begin with early ideas of postmortem existence and the development of the afterlife as an ideal, from a universal netherworld (where all are destined) to a dichotomized system of heaven and hell. The concept of postmortem existence relates to practices of feeding the dead, sometimes interpreted as ancestor worship, as well as the divination of the dead, which is generally known as necromancy. Likewise, the development of the afterlife was interwoven with the emergence of ideas such as resurrection (which certainly has earlier antecedents, such as Levenson 2006, cited under Resurrection), immortality, and the concept of an eternal soul, as well as eschatological systems associated with olam ha-ba (the world to come).

General Studies

General overviews of the topic of death and conceptions of the afterlife in Judaism can be divided between biblical literature, including the apocrypha, pseudepigrapha, and New Testament (Bailey 1979, Collins 2002) and rabbinic literature (Lieberman 1965, Kraemer 2000, Raphael 2009). Several edited volumes (such as Avery-Peck and Neusner 2000, Berlejung and Janowski 2009), collectively cover the broader range of the subject within Jewish literature and culture. In light of the growing body of research into Near Eastern cultures, which comprised the historical background of ancient Israel and early Judaism, several surveys have embraced a comparative approach in their discussion of the broader topics of death and the afterlife (Segal 2004, Fischer 2005). In addition, some studies have incorporated archaeological research on burial into their literary interpretations of death (Kraemer 2000 and Hallote 2001).

  • Avery-Peck, Alan J., and Jacob Neusner, eds. Death, Life-After-Death, Resurrection and the World-to-Come in the Judaisms of Antiquity. Judaism in Late Antiquity 4. Leiden, The Netherlands: Brill, 2000.

    A significant contribution to the study of death, this collection of essays covers the Hebrew Bible, early Jewish literature, and rabbinic texts.

  • Bailey, Lloyd R. Biblical Perspectives on Death. Overtures to Biblical Theology 5. Philadelphia: Fortress, 1979.

    The book’s overview includes New Testament perspectives but is primarily focused on the Hebrew Bible, including early Jewish literature, beginning with a comparative analysis of ancient Near Eastern texts.

  • Berlejung, Angelika, and Bernd Janowski, eds. Tod und Jenseits im Alten Israel und in seiner Umwelt: Theologische, religionsgeschichtliche, archäologische und ikonograpische Aspekte. Papers presented at an international conference held 16–18 March 2007, at the Universität Leipzig. Forschungen zum Alten Testament 64. Tübingen, Germany: Mohr Siebeck, 2009.

    An important collection of German essays originally read at a 2007 conference in Leipzig on death and the afterlife, including chapters by Herbert Niehr and Bernd Janowski. The essays cover the Hebrew Bible and its ancient Near Eastern background, taking a largely comparative approach.

  • Collins, John J. “Death and Afterlife.” In The Biblical World. Vol. 1. Edited by John Barton, 357–377. New York: Routledge, 2002.

    DOI: 10.4324/9780203309490

    A concise, yet detailed, diachronic overview of the topic in ancient Israel and early Jewish and Christian texts. Collins presents the basic historical schema in which the earlier view of death did not involve a beatific afterlife until the Hellenistic period, where the concept developed during this important phase of Jewish history.

  • Fischer, Alexander Achilles. Tod und Jenseits im Alten Orient und Alten Testament. Neukirchen-Vluyn, Germany: Neukirchener Verlag, 2005.

    An overview of death in the ancient Mediterranean world and the Hebrew Bible, integrating the literary images of the afterlife with ritual practices such as burial and feeding the dead.

  • Hallote, R. S. Death, Burial, and Afterlife in the Biblical World: How the Israelites and Their Neighbors Treated the Dead. Chicago: Ivan R. Dee, 2001.

    An analysis of death and burial in ancient Israel, and the Near East, that is paired with a discussion of attitudes toward the dead in Judaism up until the present. At the end of the book is an important discussion of the religious and political problems involved in excavating burials in modern Israel.

  • Kraemer, David Charles. The Meanings of Death in Rabbinic Judaism. New York: Routledge, 2000.

    A study of the rabbinic conceptions of death that draws from the Mishnah and the Babylonian Talmud but also interacts with archaeological remains. The book concludes that the early rabbinic concepts of death were relatively consistent throughout the period, involved a dynamic understanding of death and dying, and were comparable with other cultures.

  • Lieberman, S. “Some Aspects of after Life in Early Rabbinic Literature.” In Harry Austryn Wolfson Jubilee Volume. By S. Lieberman, 495–532. Jerusalem: American Academy for Jewish Research, 1965.

    A dated yet important discussion of postmortem problems in Rabbinic literature, such postmortem punishment, burial, existence in the grave, and resurrection. The chapter’s survey provides a thorough analysis of the literature along with classical texts as a comparative component.

  • Raphael, Simcha Paull. Jewish Views of the Afterlife. 2d ed. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2009.

    A wide-ranging discussion of Jewish sources regarding death and the afterlife, from the Hebrew Bible through rabbinic texts and up until the modern era. The book’s value and limitations are both due to its scope, which attempts to cover all things related to the wider topic.

  • Segal, Alan F. Life after Death: A History of the Afterlife in the Religions of the West. New York: Doubleday, 2004.

    A substantial volume on the sociohistorical development of death and the afterlife in Jewish, Christian, and Islamic thought. Segal’s work is based on the comparative model that includes much discussion of biblical and ancient Near Eastern texts along with early Jewish and rabbinic literature.

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