Hebrew In Israel | Gilgul Neshamot (Reincarnation of Souls) – Learn Torah

Hebrew In Israel | Gilgul Neshamot (Reincarnation of Souls) – Learn Torah

Yoel Halevi 5 comments

I have been asked multiple times on the subject of reincarnation in the bible and Judaism. The following are my personal thoughts and understandings as being a person who has come across this belief in mainstream Judaism of today. As a person who has been raised in Orthodoxy and has also received academic training, I cannot find concrete data on this belief as an ancient one. This affects the validity of said belief and opens it up to modern criticism which cannot use ancient sources. 

By most the Tanakh has no record or belief in reincarnation or any sort of return from the dead. We find verses which probably indicate that death is a final stage: 

לֹא הַמֵּתִים, יְהַלְלוּ-יָהּ; וְלֹא, כָּל-יֹרְדֵי דוּמָה

The dead can’t praise YAH, not those who sink down into silence”

(Psalms 115:17)

וְשַׁבֵּחַ אֲנִי אֶת הַמֵּתִים שֶׁכְּבָר מֵתוּ מִן הַחַיִּים אֲשֶׁר הֵמָּה חַיִּים עֲדֶנָה

“So I considered the dead happier, because they were already dead, than the living, who must still live their lives”

(Ecclesiastes 4:2)

It is unclear what exactly people believed in during the times of the Judges and the Kings, but we do not find any belief in reincarnation til much later. The earliest discussions we find on the subject belong to the 10th century CE onwards where we find a debate between several rabbis whether or not such beliefs are part of Jewish faith. Some very important rabbis such as Rabbenu Asher (שו”ת רא”ש החדשות סי’ ע), Rambam, Rav Se’adyah (הנבחר באמונות ודעות, חלק ו פרק ח) and many more rejected such ideas. We even find that Rabbi Shimshon Rafael Hirsch (18th century) declared such beliefs as being of Egyptian origins and not part of Judaism (פירוש לתורה על בראשית פרק נ’ פסוק ב).

The most common place where one can find such beliefs, and very detailed descriptions, are in Kabalistic writings which stem from pseudo-Judaism which was rejected by many Jews during the 2nd Temple era. Kabala started as a sectarian belief with some sects who wrote the Dead Sea scrolls (see the research of Dr. Yoseph Dan “History of Jewish Mysticism and Esotericism, Ancient Times Vol.1, Jerusalem 2008). 

These beliefs slowly seeped into mainstream Judaism and became central after Kabala became acceptable. However, a core of many Jews continues to reject this idea as foreign to Jewish thought. Rachel Eliur (תורת הגלגול בספר גליא רזא מתוך: “מחקרים בקבלה בפילוסופיה יהודית ובספרות המוסר וההגות מוגשים לישעיה תשבי במלאת לו שבעים וחמש שנים” (בעריכת י’ דן וי’ הקר), ירושלים תשמ”ו: 207-239) indicates that Kabala and reincarnation started to become main stream in the 15th century with the rise of Rabbi Yisrael Ashkenazi and his student Rabbi Hayim Vital. Rabbi Vital even wrote a book called “Sh’ar Hagilgulim” where he describes in detail many of the revelations he had about his own reincarnations. Reading said book one cannot be unaware of the very unusual and sometimes disturbing (in my own opinion) ideas presented in it.

My personal understanding is that the belief came from the East with some of the exiles from Babylon. These beliefs were not widespread in 2nd Temple Judaism, but became more and more mainstream the further Judaism went into exile. It became popular as an explanation to how long the exile is, and why so many were being murdered and persecuted. We find at one point that it is used to explain that there is a finite number of souls, and to bring the times of the Messiah the souls need to run out, and reincarnation only slows the process. Hence there is a need to speed up the process. I cannot stress how ridiculous such a claim is, and how it ignores the personal and community responsibility of Torah keepers on keeping the Torah. It also ignores the curses of Leviticus 26 and Deuteronomy 28 if Israel do not keep Torah. The rise of Kabala can be attributed to the rise in interest during the 15th century Christian movement of neoPlatonism where Christian scholars started to mix science and mysticism into their studies. However, Kabala dates back to the 13th century to Rabbi Yoseph ben Abraham Gikatilla and Rabbi Moshe Ben Nachman who both represent very early Kabala in their writings. These teachers taught their secrets only to small numbers of people they trusted, and none of the ideas they taught were to be public. 

Only with the rise of Chassidut and the Chassidic movement do we find an outburst of teachings which include Kabalistic ideas as a mainstream concept. From this point onwards reincarnation became mainstream. However, even if something becomes mainstream, it does not necessarily become truth. If we do not find this belief anywhere in early Judaism, let alone the Tanakh, we must treat it with suspicion. There are several ramifications in such beliefs:

  1. The removal of personal responsibility for sin. If one can just be reincarnated there is no point in punishment because the person can just go back and redo everything. 
  2. It opens up Torah to the introduction of magic.
  3. It allows the advent and introduction of ideas which are not part of Torah. This is mostly common with the belief in the power of evil and demons, which in my opinion contradict the idea of monotheism of the Tanakh which believes only YHWH has power.
  4. It can cause the belief in predestination and determinism which also contradicts the idea of free will. Reincarnation and Evil, according to Eliur, are entwined and promote the idea of a satanic power which is foreign to the Tanakh.

Overall, I find no merit in believing specifically in reincarnation, or Kabala in general. It is, both in its philosophical and practical (which is literally magic) ways, a system which promotes both magic and mysticism on a level which can and does contradict Torah. One of the central ideas in Kabala and reincarnation in the teachings of Rabbi Vital has to do with marriage and the connection between male and female in the spiritual world. Not only does it believe in predestination of marriage and soulmates, it believes in a holy union between male and female, and the belief in a male and female fertility idea (האילן הקדוש לרמח״ל). It does not take very long to realize how close these ideas are to the idea of Ba’al and Asherah and fertility in the Ancient Near East. 



May 9, 2020 at 10:28 pm

Shalom Yoel,

What do you think David meant when he said he would see his son again that died after he committed adultery.

    Yoel Halevi

    May 10, 2020 at 1:36 pm

    The verse speaks of David going to his son, not seeing him. The context is death, and David us saying that eventually, he will go to the same place as his son, i.e Sheol/the grave.

Ana Lopes

May 13, 2020 at 7:18 pm

Shalom, Yoel!
Thank you for addressing this subject!
It’s very sad that these pagan beliefs had reached Judaism in such a extension that they became mainstream.
I’m very happy when I find people like you, who reject these alien things and stick to the Torah.


June 10, 2020 at 9:21 am

Toda Raba Yoel!

How does chapter in Isaiah 14 links here when talking about spirits being ‘waken’ at the entry of the Fallen one?

    Yoel Halevi

    July 6, 2020 at 12:17 pm

    It might be an evolution of the belief, but it also might be a representation of the basic belief in the soul. We find the idea of souls being awakened in 1Sam 28:15. The one thing which is clear is that the souls remain in Sheol and don’t go back.

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