2385 Soul Transitions After Death


A traditional Jewish ritual during the last hours of life is to light a candle in the room of a dying person to symbolize the flickering of a human soul. We give deference to her or his final wishes. A person is gently encouraged to confess and ask for atonement. This confession can be as simple as "May my death be an atonement." A person often recites the Shema when preparing for death.

It is said in the Talmud that being with someone when she or he dies is considered a great deed of loving kindness, for a soul in transition is comforted by a soul in a peaceful state.

In Jewish tradition, we say that someone has died when breathing has stopped and there is no pulse. Traditionally a feather is put across the lips and watched for any sign of movement for eight minutes. The eyes are gently closed and the arms and hands are extended alongside the body. Water standing in the vicinity is poured out. The body is never left alone, for its vital soul is temporarily disoriented. During the period between death and burial, traditionally about twenty-four hours, or less, psalms are read continuously the help ease the passage.


In religious communities, the body is prepared for burial by a chevra kaddisha (holy community). In this process, called tahorah (purification), the body is rubbed and cleansed with lukewarm water while attendants recite biblical verses and psalms. The idea is to honor the one who has passed over, and also to heal the soul in transition. This is an enormously powerful experience for those who perform this ritual, and deeply meaningful for the survivors. When the preparations of the body have been completed, a large amount of water--at least four and a half gallons--is poured over the body while it is held in an upright position. This represents a final purification in preparation for burial. At this time, the body is dried and placed in shrouds.9


Many traditional rituals have been put aside by non-Orthodox Jews. This I believe is a mistake. I was once called by a man who was facing serious surgery. He was worried about dying. He wanted Tibetan Buddhist rites of passage first and then a Jewish burial. I asked him why, and he responded that his body would be constantly attended and that prayers would be said to assist his transition. I told him that Judaism has a similar ritual using different prayers, but the same process. He was surprised to hear this; most Jews are completely unaware of the depths of the tradition.

It would be helpful for non-Orthodox Judaism to revisit this particular aspect of the tradition and to seriously consider paying more attention to honoring the mystery of death. As we learn more about the Jewish mystical approach to dying, soul journeys, raising sparks, and bringing the consciousness of the world to a higher level, we need to pay closer attention to the value of some of our ancient rituals.

Jewish practices after burial are generally well known. For the first seven days, immediate family members "sit shiva" (shiva means seven), which traditionally includes sitting low to the ground, burning a candle for the entire week, not wearing leather footwear, covering mirrors or turning them around, and having a prayer minyan (ten adults) in the house for three daily prayers (morning, afternoon, and evening after dark) so that kaddish (prayers for the dead) can be said. This process with the accompanying ritual can be highly therapeutic for the family. It brings the community together, strengthens bonds of relationship, and gives a framework of support in the face of a difficult experience. It also gives a sense of connectedness with the tradition in knowing these observances have been done for thousands of years. Many who do not ordinarily observe traditional Jewish practices have found great merit and deep meaning in sitting shiva. 

Mourning continues for thirty days (sheloshim), during which mourners are not supposed to cut their hair, wear "pressed" clothes, get married, attend festive events, or embark on business journeys. Kaddish is said every day at prayers (traditionally three times a day) for eleven months for a parent, child or spouse.

Most of the mourning ritual is designed to help people through the grieving process. On the mystical level, it also helps the soul during its transition. This is particularly true of the prayers that are sent to support the soul needing redemption. We will see that the power of prayer for those who have died is an important part of the redemption process.

Whether or not we are attracted to traditional mourning practices, we cannot help but think about the loss of a loved one. We can be a major resource for the departed soul by simply sending our love and support. When we are able to feel that we are doing something, it helps us in our grieving process and, mystics say, it truly helps the soul.



As described, there are five levels of the soul. The higher levels of neshama, chayah and yehidah function in a way that they cannot be directly affected by what a person does to his or her consciousness. However, they are indirectly affected by the state of the nefesh and ruach. After death, the higher levels of the soul will return to their home "regions," but they must await the redemption of the nefesh before finally resting in their natural state. 

If the nefesh does not get redeemed, the ruach cannot be "crowned" in the lower Garden of Eden. If it cannot be crowned, the higher soul levels cannot reach the center of awareness. In this sense, all of the levels are "punished" by having to await the redemption of the lowest level of soul, the nefesh.

It is said that the nefesh wanders between the grave and the dwelling place of the deceased for the first seven days after death, looking for its living body. After this, the nefesh is purified in Gehinnom, and then it wanders the world until it has a garment (signifying an awareness level).9

 This process of purification takes twelve months. Once it has its garment, it gains access to the lower Garden of Eden, where it joins the ruach. The ruach then gets crowned, the neshama unites with the Throne, and all is well.

In a remarkable section, the Zohar outlines the process of the purification of the nefesh during the twelve months after death, suggesting a completely different scenario than most of us have been taught. The Jewish mystical system is designed to continue the process of tikkun olam (mending the universe) even after death. The reader must keep in mind that the language of Kabbalah is poetic, the images are metaphors, and the intention is to arouse the soul rather than the mind. From this perspective, let yourself enter these mystical teachings as a garden of delights.

Once a nefesh no longer has a body, it loses its free will that is associated with a living person.9

 Therefore, it no longer can redeem itself, but needs the guidance and help of a living being with free will. In this context, there are a number of ways in which a nefesh can be redeemed. First, there are tzaddikim (saints) who dwell in other realms. These saints are born into this world when the scales of good and evil in the world tilt dangerously to the side of evil. In this situation, the tzaddik has the job of maintaining the world so that it does not go out of kilter.9


When there is a living tzaddik in the world, unredeemed souls--wandering souls, neither in Gehinnom or the Garden of Eden--primarily those in the first twelve months after death, are used by this saint as "workers" to keep the world running well. They act in the same way as angels, for they can perform tasks in realities other than the one we normally experience. As they serve the saint, the souls raise sparks and are redeemed by the merit of the word they do in service of the tzaddik.  

If no tzaddik is alive in the world, the Torah scroll defends these souls. That is to say, all the prayers of the world are drawn upon to keep these souls illuminated. Thus, family and friends who pray for someone recently deceased can be of critical importance for the redemption of that soul. Once again, we who have free will can accomplish things that are beyond the capacity of a soul in the death realms. 

Next, the ruach level of the soul is drawn from the Garden of Eden to help illuminate, and thus uplift, the nefesh level of the soul. In this process, three times a day, a ruach goes into the Cave of Machpelah, that is, to the graves of Abraham, Sarah, Isaac, Rebecca, Jacob, and Leah. Its presence stimulates their bones, like the presence of a great-great grandchild warming the spirit of the great-great grandparent. This "warming" attracts supernal dew, the essence through which life becomes manifest. Once the dew is stimulated, it descends from heaven, level upon level, until it reaches the lower Garden of Eden. Here, the supernal dew bathes and perfumes itself in spices. The aromatic dew now enters the Cave of Machpelah, and the fragrance of the Garden of Eden raises the spirits of the patriarchs and matriarchs. In their merit, the world is healed, including the redemption of souls in the death realms.9


If none of the above processes take place, and the world is endangered because the matriarchs and patriarchs are asleep (not protecting the world), then the nefesh informs the ruach, the ruach informs the neshama, the neshama informs the Holy One, and the Holy One sits on the Throne of Mercy. This arouses an emanation of a stream of dew from the Ancient Holy One (Ein Sof). The stream flows to the "Head of the King," (the upper limbs of the Tree of Life: chochma, binah and daat), which causes the lower limbs, the spirits of the patriarchs and matriarchs (chesed, gevorah and tiferet), to be blessed. As a result, everything in the world is blessed, which helps all unredeemed souls.9


The difference between the kabbalistic approach to redemption of the soul and some of the descriptions we find in other Jewish literature is so pronounced, we must pause to reflect. Here we see the treatment of the soul in a completely different light; its redemption is virtually assured. Whether through service to the tzaddik, the merit of prayer, the merit of the patriarchs and matriarchs, or as a last resort, the outflow from the source Itself, the after-death scenario is filled with merciful loving kindness.

Compared with concepts of reward and punishment as seen in other Jewish literature, the idea of mercy in this instance is not personal, per se, as much as it is the quintessence of the universal design. Although a nefesh may carry the burden of life, the thrust of the universe is to raise all levels of consciousness. The nefesh will be lifted by this urge to a level in which it will be able to garment itself in higher consciousness, and thus it will join with its sister, ruach, in the Garden of Eden. When this is done, the sister-soul of the neshama comes to its highest potential.

As noted earlier, the levels of soul are connected, as on a violin string. This string will not resonate well if anything impedes it. Thus, this process of redeeming the lower levels of the soul release the upper levels, and the string of our violin is completely liberated to join the cosmic symphony in perfect pitch.