From This World to the Next: Jewish Approaches to Illness, Death and the Afterlife

Presented by The Library of JTS
Through May 31, 2000
Online selections available indefinitely

Man is like a breath, his days are as a passing shadow.
Psalms 144:4

So much of what we perceive as Jewish experience is bound up in those elements collectively referred to as "life cycle events." Most of these components, such as birth, circumcision, bar/bat mitzvah and marriage are eagerly anticipated events associated with great joy and happiness. They are often seen as milestones, symbolizing the progress made over the course of a journey along the road of life. The end of that road is the inevitable encounter of the human being with death. Death, of course, is the final "life cycle event". When viewed from the personal perspective of an individual's daily life, death appears as the approaching culmination of all that has preceded it. For some it looms as an advancing juggernaut, unstoppable and imminent; for others it is a far off and uncontemplated eventuality. No one denies its existence or its inevitability, yet most people arrive at its door only lightly armed to grapple with its relentless advance.

This exhibition is intended to provide an insight into the ways that Jews have traditionally related to the issues surrounding the end of life. Within traditional Judaism, death is not seen as an isolated event. Illness, so often contiguous to death and so often its harbinger, is perceived in the Bible sometimes as punishment, sometimes as atonement and sometimes as a trial or test of faith. Illness, however, always carries within it the potential for dying and is a final opportunity to prepare for the aftermath of life. It is this close relationship between sickness and death that is exemplified in many of the texts in this exhibition. When these texts speak of sickness, it is more often than not as a precursor to death.

Nor can the Jewish conception of death be examined without considering its aftermath. Judaism asserts an inexorable connection between death and the afterlife, albeit one whose exact nature remains somewhat nebulous and which has been open to interpretation over the centuries. Nevertheless, there is a long-standing tradition, expressed first in the Mishnah (Avot 4:14) that this world is simply a vestibule in which one prepares to enter the "main hall", or the World to Come. Within the Mishnaic analogy, death is seen not as an outlet from this life as much as it is a portal into the next.

In the face of death, solace is sought and often found in the realm of faith. It is within the framework of religion that Jews frequently search for the means to cope with the questions, doubts and fears raised by the specter of death. Through the performance of ritual practices individuals can begin to manage the wide range of feelings and emotions that invariably accompany death. These rites, customs and regulations of religious law provide a formal structure for dealing with death. Knowing what to do, what to expect and what is expected, make it possible to bear what might otherwise be unbearable. Most important, however, is the fellowship of communal involvement that pervades the Jewish approach to death and dying. A significant part of this exhibition is devoted to the role of the community in providing for the spiritual and physical needs of individual Jews by means of a local hevra kaddisha (holy society), whose members undertook to serve the needs of the living and the dying alike. The guiding principle of these societies was a Talmudic passage:

Rabbi Hama, the son of Rabbi Hanina asked: what is the meaning of the verse: "you shall walk after the Lord your God?"... [it means that] you should follow [God by emulating] His virtues... The Holy One, blessed be He, visited the sick,... so too shall you visit the sick. The Holy One, blessed be He, comforted mourners,... so too shall you comfort mourners. The Holy one, blessed be He, buried the dead,... so too shall you bury the dead.

No exhibition or catalog can hope to present the complete range of materials and texts that would be required to afford these subjects a truly comprehensive exposition. We have endeavored, however, to provide selected examples from across the spectrum of Jewish literary and material culture that may serve to shed light on these three topics. Accordingly, some well-known customs have not been addressed while other, perhaps less familiar traditions, have been included. It is nevertheless our hope that this exhibit leaves you with a clearer understanding and a more complete knowledge of the Jewish approaches to illness, death and the afterlife.

And the dust shall return to the earth as it was before and the spirit shall return to God, who gave it. Ecclesiastes 12:7