Not many years ago, a large number of newspapers loudly proclaimed to their readers that scientists, for the first time, were making convincing claims that there is life after death. “Scientists claim for the first time that there is life after death,” begins one journalist’s account. “Scientists, doctors and psychologists, having studied for many years the phenomena of clinically dead patients who returned to life, claim that there are shared patterns in the testimony of these patients, thus showing that death is not the end.”
Dr. Raymond Moody, a world-renowned psychiatrist with a doctorate in philosophy from the University of Virginia, reports the accounts of people “who have seen death.” In his book Life after Life, he chronicles the accounts of terminally ill patients and victims of serious accidents who had been pronounced dead, yet ultimately lived as “medical miracles.” Though these people relate their experiences in a variety of ways, common elements return time again in their recollections of their “deaths”: a dark tunnel, a powerful light that was an “entity” pouring forth endless love, the light spoke to them telepathically, a vision of deceased relatives and friends coming to greet them; clear, fast-moving images from their lives.
In addition, many individuals were able to hear and see all of the medical efforts actually being performed on them “below,” in order to save their lives. Many related in fullest detail and surprising accuracy about their “deaths” on the operating table, or about the car accident in which they had “been killed.” These accounts are often so vivid and replete with details that the doctors present could not understand how people dead by all medical standards could have ascertained them. All had been without a pulse, breath, and brainwave activity. This phenomenon has been given the title “Near-Death Experience” (NDE).
The well known American psychiatrist, Elisabeth Kubler-Ross, has seriously investigated the matter of near-death experiences for many years. “I know beyond a shadow of a doubt that life continues after physical death,” says Ross, summarizing research of more than twenty years. “I am very skeptical at heart and this is why I tested every aspect of this phenomenon with rigor. I discovered, for example, that people who have lost limbs told of how their souls were whole again when they left their bodies. Moreover, people who were blind from birth described to me with incredible precision what the people in the room with their body were wearing – the jewelry they had on, and what they did. This is impossible! How could they have known that?”
Kubler-Ross does not feel any need or reason to convince other people of the truth of the phenomenon: “Those who are open to hear it – will hear it. And if they close their ears then they are in for a surprise.”
Research into the realm of near-death experiences points to shared elements reported by millions of witnesses (an estimated 30 million!) from around the globe. The first commonly described experience is that of floating above the physical body. Witnesses describe being aware of all of the events that happened around them. Afterwards, most of them describe finding themselves in a place of light and great inner beauty, and then “gliding” through a dark tunnel towards a bright light. Many describe a voice speaking to them. Disabled people describe a sense of freedom from their limitations, and almost everyone notes the evaporation of human fears from the mystery we call death.
Researchers into the phenomena point first and foremost to the improbability of so many identical elements appearing in the experiences of millions of people, unless they had experienced something real.
Perhaps the most interesting point is that Kubler-Ross actually underwent a near-death experience herself. “There is a great difference between investigating the testimonials of other people and one’s personal experience,” she says. “I jokingly say to myself that my experience was more beautiful than those of the twenty thousand cases that I investigated. Once I had been in that light and experienced that love and peace it completely changed the values and quality of my life.”
The reason for the appearance of many recent cases of clinically dead individuals returning to life is explained by Professor Kenneth Ring of the Department of Cognitive Psychology at the University of Connecticut, and founder of a center for the study of near-death Experiences. According to Ring, advances in medical technology have resulted in many people being restored to life after near-death encounters.
From a spiritual perspective, one of the great Torah leaders of recent generations – Rabbi Yisrael Meir Hakohen (known as the Chafetz Chayim, 1838-1933) – taught that when a generation is weak in faith, God causes new discoveries to be made in the world, which can strengthen people’s belief. For example, the telephone (and especially, in our time, cordless phones, and small digital cameras capable of transmitting precise images and sounds), demonstrates the Sages’ teachings that all of a person’s actions are documented Above: “Know what is above you, an eye that sees and an ear that hears, and all of your deeds are written in a book (Pirkei Avot 1:2.)
For the first time, scientists are coming to accept the possibility of life after death. But what did the Torah say about the matter thousands of years ago? We read the words of Ecclesiastes (12:1-7):
“Remember now your Creator in the days of your youth, before the evil days come and the years draw near when you shall say, ‘I have no pleasure in them’ (this is the time of old age)… before the silver cord is loosed or the golden bowl is shattered or the pitcher is broken at the fountain or the wheel broken at the cistern and the dust returns to the earth as it was and the spirit returns to the God who gave it.”
The Torah of Israel, which proceeded modern science by millennia, not only knew that there is life after death, but revealed to the Jewish people what happens to a person after death!
Amidst an endless collection of relevant Torah sources, we will cite a passage from the Oral Torah,(1) the last line of which touches upon our topic. Its simplicity conceals its depth: “Look upon three things lest you come to sin: Know where you come from, where you are going, and before whom you must eventually stand in judgment. Where do you come from? From a putrid drop. Where you are going? To a place of dirt, maggots and worms. Before whom you must eventually stand in judgment? Before the King of kings, the Holy One, blessed be He.”
Now we will focus our attention on the Torah’s specific responses to the issues raised by modern research.
A close look at the research presented at the beginning of this article, teaches us five main points:
1. The possibility exists to return to life after clinical death.
2. The dead see a great and powerful light, which is a type of presence that emits endless love.
The light communicates with them telepathically.
3. The dead view scenes from their lives passing before them in rapid, chronological order.
4. Relatives and friends who have previously died come to greet them.
5. The dead can perceive everything taking place around their physical bodies lying below
(even someone who was blind).(2)
Amazingly, each of these five facts, and many others, appear in numerous places throughout the Torah, which offers additional details and information far beyond that which science has yet discovered. We will cite some of these cases below.
1. The possibility exists to return to life after clinical death
The Talmudic Tractate Smachot states:(3)
“We go to the cemetery and check on the dead for three days [after their burial]. Once they checked on a person [and found him to be alive]. He lived for another twenty-five years and then passed away.”
In other words, for three days after burial, it is still possible for a person to return to life!(4) The Talmud relates a case of a person who was found alive in the cemetery, and who went on to live for twenty-five years more.
In another tractate of the Talmud,(5) we read about Rabbi Yosef, the son of Rabbi Yehoshua, who died and returned to life. His father asked him:
“‘What did you see?’ He replied: ‘I saw that everything there is upside down [compared to here on earth]. High ones are low (that is, people considered important in this world by virtue of their money or power), and the low ones are on top (i.e. simple people, who nevertheless served God properly).' His father said to him: ‘My son, you saw a clear world (i.e. the real value of things)!’”
Furthermore, the Talmud(6) relates that Rav Huna, the son of Rav Yehoshua, also died and returned to life. He told Rav Papa that although he was supposed to die:
“The Holy One said to [the heavenly tribunal] ‘Since he does not stand on his honor, but is gracious and forgiving, you must also not be overly judgmental of him.’”
Rav Huna not only returned to life, but merited hearing the reason why. A further story of this type is found in the Zohar, in which a small child prays for his deceased father, whom he needs to teach him Torah, and the latter suddenly returns to life.
2. The dead see a great and powerful light, which is a type of presence that emits endless love, and communicates with them telepathically
The Zohar states:(7)
“At the moment when a man’s days are done and it is time for him to depart from the world, he is given permission to see those things he had no permission to see before.”
It is known that supernal revelations are represented as light. See Sefer HaYashar (chapter 14) for an example:
“The World to Come is broad without end… Its light is great, unlike any light in this world.”
Similary, a statement of the Sages:(8)
“The verse says: ‘No man may see Me and live’ (Exodus 33:20). That is, in their lives they can not see me, but they can see at the moment of death.”
The Sages also said:(9)
“When a person is about to depart from this world, the Holy One appears to him.”
3. The dead view scenes from their lives passing before them in rapid, chronological order
Before the invention of photography, it was nearly impossible to understand the claims of those who returned to life; that they had rewitnessed events of their pasts. Yet, thousands of years ago our Sages wrote this short sentence: “When a person dies, all of his deeds are delineated before him.”(10)
4. Relatives and friends who have died previously come to greet them
The Zohar, in the continuation of the citation above, describes what a human being sees at the moment of death:
“His father and relatives are there with him. He sees them and speaks with them and they accompany his soul to the place where he will dwell.”
The Zohar also relates the events surrounding Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai’s passing:(11)
“Rabbi Shimon wrapped himself in his cloak and sat and said: ‘The dead do not praise the Lord’ (Psalms 115:17). Then he said: ‘Now Rav Hamnuna Saba is here and around him are seventy righteous men, each one with a crown, each one shining… And as he sat he said, ‘Here is Rabbi Pinchas ben Ya’ir. Prepare a place for him.’ The disciples who were there became frightened and rose and sat at the sides of the room.”
Rav Hamnuna had been Rabbi Shimon’s teacher, who had already passed away. When he came to escort Rabbi Shimon’s soul, he was accompanied by the souls of many other righteous individuals. Rabbi Shimon was on an extremely high spiritual level, and was able to see, while yet alive, what others can perceive only at the moment of their deaths.
We see a similar testimony in the Talmud.(12) Before Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai passed away, he declared: “Prepare a chair for King Hezkeyahu of Judah who comes [to accompany me].”
5. The dead can perceive everything taking place around their bodies lying below
The Sages, whose knowledge of this topic was derived not only from firsthand reports of clinical death and resuscitation, but from their deep understanding of God’s Torah, knew long ago what contemporary researchers have now discovered. Indeed, they knew that which scientists have still not discovered, such as the duration of time in which the soul remains connected to the body, as it states in the Jerusalem Talmud: “For three days after death, the soul hovers above the body.” Similarly, the Babylonian Talmud states: “The dead are aware of everything said in front of them.”
The Talmud relates similar incidents:
· Cases of souls speaking to each other after death.(13)
· Rabbi Elazar, the son of Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai, answered questions of law presented to
him after his death. (His body had been left in an attic, and the questioners would stand
outside the house and present their cases. A voice would then ring out of the attic with
· Yehudah and Chezkiah, the sons of Rabbi Chiyya, carry on a conversation from their graves.(15)
· The soul of Rabbi Yehudah The Prince returned to his home every Sabbath evening
after his death.(16)
· A great master of Torah visits his son after dying.(17)
· Rav Achai chastises grave diggers from out of his grave.(18)
· Zeiri requests the location of his funds from a woman who had passed away. She also
informs him of a certain woman who is about to die.(19) An additional passage in this text
tells of Shmuel’s conversations with the dead.
Notes and Sources
1. That is, the oral tradition later codified in the Mishnah, Talmud and Midrash. Mishnah Avot 3:1.
2. According to one of the testimonies described by Dr. Kubler-Ross, a chemist who had been blinded in a laboratory explosion, died a “clinical death” one year later, only to return to life. Despite his blindness, he described his death and all of the people he had seen “below” in full detail.
3. BT Smachot – a “minor” tractate of the Talmud.
4. See the commentary “Prishah” by Rabbi Yehoshua Pollack on the Arba Turim of Rabbi Yakov ben Asher, chap. 394. The text refers to the period when people were buried above ground, in burial chambers.
5. BT Baba Batra 10b.
6. BT Rosh Hashanah 17a.
7. Zohar 1:218.
8. Midrash Rabbah, Bamidbar, end of Parshat Naso.
9. Yalkut Shimoni, Job, chap. 522.
10. Sifri, Parshat Ha’azinu.
11. The beginning of Idra Zutra.
12. BT Berachot 28a.
13. JT Yevamot 16, halachah 3.
14. BT Shabbat 152b.
15. BT Berachot 18b.
16. BT Baba Metziah 84b.
17. BT Moed Katan 25a.
18. BT Ketubbot 103a.
19. BT Ta’anit 23b.