By Rabbi Yerachmiel D. Fried
We have learned that in India and other places, people believe in reincarnation. We’ve had a lot of discussion and debate whether Jews believe in it or not. Could you please shed some light on this subject for us?
Whitney L., Aryn T., Jared B.
Dear Whitney, Aryn and Jared,
The overwhelmingly accepted opinion among experts in Jewish thought is that reincarnation exists. The “Book of the Zohar,” which is the key source of Kabbalistic thought, refers to reincarnation as gilgul.
The word gilgul has many meanings. The literal meaning is to “go around,” like a spinning top. The root is the word gal, which is a wave. A wave seems to form, live out its life as a wave and dissipate when it approaches the end of its trajectory near the shore.
The repetition of the word “wave” twice, gal-gal or gilgul, implies that the wave didn’t really die, but now is coming back again for another chance to perhaps go a little farther than it did the last time around.
The Jewish concept of reincarnation, gilgul, is predicated upon the purpose of creation. Every soul created has a distinct purpose in this world. Each and every soul was endowed with a unique ability to perfect itself through its actions, and through those actions to perfect the world: tikkun olam. Unfortunately, not many, if any, of us truly live up to their purpose and pass our spiritual tests with flying colors. Many have not brought the world to the tikkun we have the ability and mission to do. It is for this reason that certain souls are sent back, perhaps more than once, to have another chance in fulfilling their purpose.
The renowned sage Chofetz Chayim explained the concept as follows: “A man once left his home country and family to travel to a distant land in order to engage in business. There, after many years of unsuccessful dealings, he decided to return to his homeland and family. However, when the king of that land heard of the debts that he accrued, he sent messengers ahead, asking the king of the man’s homeland to bar the man’s entry until he returned to pay off his debts. Unable to return to his home and family, the man had no choice but to return to pay his debts. Only then was he permitted back into his homeland.”
This concept also shows us another side to certain tragedies we observe in this world, such as, God forbid, the passing of a baby or young child. Without minimizing the tragedy to the parents and to the world, the eternal judge may have other calculations.
It may just be that the soul of that baby only needed a little more perfection and was sent to this world to finish off the final touches in order to enter an eternal world of bliss, ecstasy and joy. That perfected soul will be reunited with his or her parents who brought it to its final tikkun in the next world, bringing them eternal nachas being the parents of such a perfect soul.
The word “gal” is also the root of the world ga’al, which means to redeem, as in Geulat Mitzrayim, the redemption from Egypt. The wave attempts to break loose from its shackles, to rise above. When it didn’t fulfill its desire, then comes another wave, gilgul, to again rise above. If the soul indeed succeeds in rising above and fulfilling its purpose, then it is redeemed and allowed to go to its final resting place, the place of eternal life.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.