All of us have no doubt heard of the concept of Olam Habba
– the World to Come. What many of us do not realize, however, is that the term “Olam Habba” is not synonymous with “Gan Eden.”
Olam Habba is, without question, the place where the righteous receive their reward for the good deeds they performed while on this world. But the fact that it’s called “the World to Come” indicates that it does not yet exist – as opposed to Gan Eden, which quite obviously has existed since the dawn of creation.
In this month’s installment, we attempt to dispel the common misconceptions surrounding this topic and describe the magnificence of the World to Come. We will also try to determine who will be allowed to live in this world, and when this world will come into being.
Where Does the Soul Go After Death?
The term “Olam Habba” is generally understood as referring to the dwelling place of the soul after it leaves the body and ascends to the heavens, where one receives his reward for his achievements here on earth. Our sages teach us that when the soul departs from the human body and ascends to heaven, it is first brought before the heavenly tribunal to determine whether it is worthy of eternal reward in Olam Habba. If the man or woman was righteous and is thus found worthy, then the soul is immediately brought to Gan Eden in the heavens, where it joins the rest of the sadikim, enjoying magnificent spiritual pleasures that cannot be described or understood by human beings. But if, Gd forbid, a soul is deemed unworthy, it is either brought to the fires of Gehinom to be cleansed, or painfully chased by prosecuting angels until deemed worthy of being cleaned in Gehinom. In some instances, a soul can be returned to earth to try to rectify the misdeeds of a previous life.
The Ramban (Rabbi Moshe Nachmanides, 1194-1270), as well as most other commentaries, point out that the soul does not receive its full reward in Gan Eden1. The complete reward is dispensed only at the end of the world’s existence, following the Messianic Era, during Olam Habba – the world’s final chapter of existence, a glorious paradise where all the righteous people from all generations receive their full and final reward. Accordingly, Gan Eden and Olam Habba are two entirely separate entities. Essentially, Gan Eden serves as a “waiting room” (though quite a pleasant one, to say the least) where the righteous remain until the time of Olam Habba, an existence that will come into being only after the Messianic Era, to receive their eternal reward.
Interestingly enough, the sages teach that the sadikim’s “account” continues to grow during the period they spend “waiting” in Gan Eden. Many of the good deeds performed during a person’s lifetime yield long-term effects upon others that can continue for generations. Therefore, while “waiting” in Gan Eden, the reward allotted for the righteous in Olam Habba can continue to grow without limit.
A Physical or Spiritual World?
The Rambam (Rabbi Moshe Maimonides, 1135-1204) was of the opinion that Olam Habba will emerge in two stages. The first stage will begin at the time of tehiyat hametim when all the righteous will be brought back to life in a physical form. The “new world” they will inhabit will be more elevated than the world as we know it, but will still be a physical world where people eat, drink, and engage in all other physical activities. Eventually, however, all people will reach such an exalted spiritual level that their souls will leave their bodies and rise to the heavenly Olam Habba, a completely spiritual existence, where they will receive their final and full reward for all eternity.
Others, however, including the Ramban, maintain that Olam Habba entails only one stage. In their view, the righteous will receive their eternal reward immediately after tehiyat hametim, in the elevated physical world in which they will live after resurrection.2
The Pleasures of Olam Habba
The Talmud comments that the intense spiritual pleasures that await the righteous in Olam Habba cannot be described with words, and cannot be imagined by the human mind. Even the greatest prophets, the sages teach, were unable to contemplate the full extent of these spiritual delights. In fact, the sages tell us that just a brief “smell” of Olam Habba provides greater pleasure than all the delights offered in this world combined.
Kabalistic teaching identifies the neshama (soul) that Hashem gives us at birth as a part of Hashem himself that is implanted within our bodies. However, the soul is not entirely severed from its source; it still retains its spiritual connection to Gd throughout a person’s life, as though there is a spiritual “rope” leading from the body to Hashem. Our spiritual side leads us to strive to reconnect and identify with our neshama’s original source. And this is precisely the essence of the pleasures of Olam Habba, where the soul will once again bask in the light of the Shechina, its original source. This feeling is the most pleasurable delight that a soul can possibly achieve.
Who Will Merit Olam Habba?
The Mishna teaches that in principle, every Jew, simply by virtue of his being a Jew, earns a share in the World to Come, the size of which depends on the amount of Torah he studied and missvot he performed during his lifetime3. However, it is possible for one to forfeit his entire share in Olam Habba. The Mishna lists a number of ill-famed Biblical figures who lost their share in Olam Habba as a result of their sinful behavior. This list includes the infamous kings Yeravam, Ahav, and Menashe from the First Temple era, each of whom led much of their constituency astray during their respective reigns.
Our sages go on to list several offenses that cause one to forfeit his share in the World to Come, including: denying the eventuality of tehiyat hametim and Olam Habba, denying the divine origin of any part of the Torah, or harboring heretical beliefs (an “apikorus”), consistently degrading Torah scholars, putting a fellow Jew into physical or monetary trouble with a hostile establishment (a “moser”), and intentionally causing a large number of people to sin4.
The Talmud records a debate between Rabbi Eliezer and Rabbi Yehoshua as to whether other nations can earn a share in Olam Habba. The Rambam follows Rabbi Yehoshua’s view, that righteous gentiles who observe the Seven Noahide Laws will indeed merit a portion in Olam Habba5. Although not all the early commentators agreed with the Rambam’s conclusion, it is nevertheless the accepted opinion by later scholars6.
Will We Observe Missvot in Olam Habba?
The Talmud records an interesting debate among the scholars as to whether it is permitted to bury a person with shrouds containing sha’atnez, as he will be wearing forbidden clothing at the time of his resurrection7. The debate revolves around the issue of whether we will be required to observe the missvot at the time of tehiyat hametim. Interestingly enough, the Shulhan Aruch (halachic code by Rabbi Yosef Karo, 1488-1575) rules leniently on this matter, indicating that we follow the opinion that we will not be required to keep the missvot at that time. There are however some opinions that say we will be released only from negative commandments, while all of the positive commandments will remain obligatory. Many authorities add that only those who had died and underwent resurrection will be exempt from missva observance, while those who remained alive will be required to observe all the missvot.
However, even the scholars who hold that missvot will not be obligatory agree that we will learn Torah and be able to voluntarily perform missvot in Olam Habba8.
The Se’udat Livyatan
Immediately with the onset of Olam Habba, a magnificent party for the righteous will begin, during which they will be served the meat of the Livyatan, a fish that was created during the six days of creation and reserved for this occasion. The sadikim will also be served the meat of a special wild ox, and the wine made from especially luscious grapes, which were created during the first days of creation.
The Hafess Haim, z.s.l., explains that these special foods are significant in that they came into being before man’s creation, and were thus produced without the defect of human intervention. As such, they were created in the highest form of precision and perfection possible, giving them the most pleasurable taste imaginable.
When birkat hamazon is recited after this meal, a cup of wine will be passed among all the sadikim to determine who is worthy of holding it during the recitation. They will all decline the honor, saying that they are not worthy, until the cup will finally reach King David. He will accept the honor of holding the cup, saying that it is indeed fitting for him, as he wrote in Tehillim (116:13), “Kos yeshu’ot esa uveshem Hashem ekra – I will lift the cup of redemption and call out in the name of Gd.”
There is considerable discussion among the commentaries as to whether this description is to be understood literally, or if it alludes to deep, mystical concepts that lie beyond our comprehension. What is clear, however, is that this celebration will be the most spectacular event ever in the history of the world!9
Next Issue: Properly Awaiting the Redemption
- Sefer Hagemul
- See Sefer Ossrot Aharit Hayamim, page 120
- Masechet Sanhedrin 90a
- See Rambam, Hilchot Teshuva, chapter 3
- Hilchot Teshuva 3:5
- Rabbi Yaakov Hillel, volume 35, pp 89-111
- Masechet Nidda 60b
- See Sefer Ossrot Aharit Hayamim I, pp. 99-105
- Sefer Ossrot Aharit Haymim