Reincarnation in Judaism

By Rabbi Yerachmiel D. Fried

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 like that, 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?

Thank you,
Marc and Brittany

Dear Marc and Brittany,

Reincarnation, otherwise known 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’ 13 core principles of Jewish faith. Early medieval Jewish scholars discussed and argued this concept, some pro and others against.

This concept, however, is overwhelmingly accepted as a Jewish belief by most Jewish philosophers and experts in rabbinical sources and is a theme which fills hundreds of Chassidic stories.

One 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 it is known as gilgul neshamos, or the “revolving of the souls,” referring to souls returning to this world.

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 Chasisdism, 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 recounts the murder of the 10 leading Jewish scholars, said to be reincarnations of Joseph’s 10 brothers who sold him into 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.

Interestingly, 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 neshamos, souls, 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 is a tikkun to that soul itself.

 Many of us fall short of our mission and are given a second (and, sometimes, a third) chance for our souls to achieve our tikkun. This is gilgul neshamos, the spin of the soul back down to this world after returning above.

This idea, at times, also adds profound meaning to some tragedies we witness around us. There are certain souls which, at times, were very close to achieving perfection and need only a very short gilgul/tikkunin this world. 

This is one explanation why some babies or children have, sadly, died very young or are miscarried. It also explains, at times, why certain people are born without basic mental faculties or with Down syndrome or other maladies. Those individuals are said to have the highest, holiest, most perfected souls who no longer need their own testing. Their lives are a test for others to perform chesed, loving kindness, to them. Just being returned to this world provides whatever small tikkun they still need for their own souls.

This puts a very different perspective on many of life’s occurrences, including tragic events. The Kabbalistic sages have often explained the tragic death of an infant, for example, that they were the reincarnation of a great righteous individual who only needed to live a short time to perfect some aspect of their persona. The parents will be reunited with that baby in the next world and will be pleasantly surprised to find they are considered the parents of one of the world’s greatest personalities.

Many leading sages have taught that Down syndrome children possess the world’s highest, most spiritual souls who were brought back without they themselves being tested, but to perfect some small area of their soul and to give the world a chance for redemption through chesed, acts of loving kindness to that individual, as we mentioned.

The venerable sage R’ A.Y. Karelitz, known as the “Chazon Ish,” was known to stand erect out of great respect for a Down syndrome child, like he would stand in the presence of a great sage, saying he was in the presence of a very elevated, holy soul.

All this shows different aspects of the concept of reincarnation in Judaism.

Rabbi Yerachmiel D. Fried is dean of DATA-Dallas Area Torah Association.

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