Dear Rabbi Fried,
We have had much debate in class at religious school if we, as Jews, believe in reincarnation. Many kids felt this is a belief of people from India and places around there, but Jews don’t believe in these kinds of things. Could you please tell us if there are any Jewish sources for or against reincarnation?
Marc and Brittany
Dear Marc and Brittany,
Reincarnation, also known in English as “transmigration of the soul,” is not considered an essential tenet of Jewish belief as it is not mentioned explicitly in the Torah or Prophets, and not codified in Maimonides’s 13 core principals of Jewish faith. Early medieval Jewish scholars discussed and argued this concept, some for it and others against it.
This belief, however, is overwhelmingly accepted as a Jewish belief by most Jewish philosophers and experts in rabbinical sources over the last 500 years, and is the theme which fills hundreds of Chassidic stories. The source of this belief is the “Book of the Zohar,” the principal source of kabbalistic thought, which openly discusses the concept of reincarnation; in Hebrew known as gilgul neshamos. There is also the classical work of R’ Chaim Vital “Sefer Hagilgulim” or “Book of Reincarnation,” based upon the teachings of his rabbi, the famed kabbalist R’ Yitzchak Luria of Safed, known as the Ari’z’l, in which he compiled an extensive list of those reincarnated in Jewish history. Both the Baal Shem Tov, founder of Chassidism, and Rabbi Eliahu of Vilna, originator of the Lithuanian Yeshiva movement, are strong proponents of this belief as propounded in the Zohar and by the Ar’iz’l. This concept is the source of the Yom Kippur liturgy which recants the murder of the 10 leading Jewish scholars who were said to be incarnations of Joseph’s 10 brothers who sold him to slavery; their deaths atoning for that sin so long before. Both the kabbalists and Maimonides refer to hints in the written Torah and prophets to the occurrence of reincarnation.
The purpose of reincarnation is not viewed as a punishment or retribution or even fatalistic. It is, rather, an expression of Divine compassion. The word gilgul means to revolve or spin. The “spin” of the neshamah, soul, is a gift of love from the Al-mighty. It is based upon the core Jewish precept of cosmic rectification, or tikkun. Every soul is sent to this world to partner with a physical body in order to carry out a unique mission. The trials and tribulations one endures throughout life are the tests and opportunities for one to fulfill their mission, the distinctive tikkun they are meant to accomplish in the world, and in turn, as a tikkun to that soul itself.
Most of us fall short of our missions and are given a second (and, sometimes, a third) chance for our souls to achieve our tikkun. This is gilgul neshamah, the spin of the soul back down to this world after returning above.
This idea also adds meaning to many tragedies we witness around us. There are certain souls, which, at times, were very close to achieving perfection and need only a very short gigul/tikkun in this world. This is one explanation why some babies or children have died very young. It also explains, at times, why certain people are born without basic mental faculties, Downs-syndrome and others; those individuals are said to have the highest, holiest, most perfected souls who don’t need their own testing. Their lives are a test for others to perform chesed, loving kindness, to them, that provided whatever small tikkun they still need for their own souls. The venerable sage the Chazon Ish was known to stand up for a mentally challenged child like he would stand in the presence of a great sage, saying he is in the presence of a very elevated, holy soul.
Rabbi Yerachmiel D. Fried, noted scholar and author of numerous works on Jewish law, philosophy and Talmud, is founder and dean of DATA, the Dallas Kollel. Questions can be sent to him at email@example.com.
Dear Rabbi Fried,