18 Oct 2017

Touring the Talmud: Introductory Concepts to Sanhedrin’s 11th Chapter

This week’s insights are dedicated Le’Iluy Nishmat Shmuel Simcha Bunim Ben Eliyohu Dovid

Please click here to read for a printable version.

Tractate Sanhedrin deals with the business of the Supreme Court of the nation of Israel along with the structure and workings of the Jewish State as outlined in the Torah. This includes the roles of the monarch and the high priest. Sanhedrin’s subject matter is more varied than any other tractate in the Talmud. Its biblical source is essentially the entire book of Debarim (Deuteronomy). The last five chapters of the tractate deal with the various modes of capital punishment.

The concepts discussed in the final chapter[1] of Sanhedrin deal with elements that are not of our everyday experience. Here the sages turn to discussing Tehiyat HeMetim – The Resurrection of the Dead, Olam HaBa – The World to Come, and the days of the Mashiah (Messiah). Included in these discussions are issues of divine providence, reward and punishment and heresy. These are concepts that are accepted by the Jewish people as core tenets of faith.

Although the aforementioned concepts are not one and the same (contrary to popular belief), what is common to them is that they are realities that we will experience as successive culminating periods which we will experience as a result of our choices and actions in life.These subjects are discussed in Sanhedrin as well as all elements of legal retribution.

Due to their abstract and unfamiliar nature these issues tend to be elusive and lack clear and succinct presentation. Historically there has been much confusion regarding the definitions of these respective themes.

Know, that the opinions of those who follow Torah regarding the good that will come to a person for upholding the commandments and the affliction that will find us if we transgress them are the subject of exceedingly great dispute…the ideas have become horribly muddled to the point that you will find almost no one who has clarity on this issue. You will not find any clear points from anyone; rather it is all a great confusion. (Rambam, Introduction to Perek Helek)

These issues are indeed great and multifaceted. And while there are certainly some clear points among them that differentiate one from the other, it is impossible to properly define them in a few paragraphs. Still, in order to provide a working definition of the key concepts and order to help familiarise the reader with them, I provide an initial framework of the respective principles here.

Tehiyat HaMetim – Resurrection of the Dead

The resurrection of the dead is a foundational belief in the Torah of Moshe. There is no connection to the Jewish religion for one who does not have faith in this.

(Rambam, Introduction to Perek Helek)

You will faithfully resurrect the dead, Blessed are You God, Who resurrects the dead.

(Amida, Daily prayers)

The Resurrection of the Dead or Tehiyat HaMetim refers to the return to life after death in bodily form in this world. This precedes our experience of Olam HaBa (The World to Come).

Although they refer to different states, the Talmud will at times interchange Tehiyat HaMetim with Olam HaBa when discussing general reward being that they are both seen as times of culminating reward.

The reason for Tehiyat haMetim is not clearly mentioned in the Talmud. It is nonetheless recognised as a cardinal tenet of Jewish faith.

One approach suggests that the return to life in this world as opposed to the World to Come is a divine act of justice. The dead who arise are those who lived lives that contributed to the betterment of Creation in some way large or small and thus shared with God in Creation. They lived a life which sought overwhelmingly to contribute to Creation rather than detract from it. Rightfully, such individuals should return to see the world coming into its fulfilment in maturity, peace and beauty when it occurs, being that they had a hand in creating it. We thus see resurrection as God’s faithfulness, as a result of our faithfulness to His creation. We recognise it as a fundamental principle because it defines the very nature of our lives and how we are meant to live them.

The Talmud will spend the first seven pages of the chapter predominantly speaking of Tehiyat HaMetim — mainly where the concept is alluded to in Torah.

Olam Haba – The World to Come

The sages did not call it the World ‘to Come’ because it does not yet exist…Rather, it is extant and established as it is written: ‘How great is the good that you have hidden for those who fear You’. (Psalms 31,20). The only reason they called it The World to Come is because that life comes to a person after life in this world in which we are both body and soul. (Rambam[2])

Olam Haba is the ultimate manifestation of Creation. It is not physical[3] and is not overtly mentioned in the Tanakh (Holy Scriptures). It is referred to as ‘Eden’ in Torah (not to be confused with ‘Gan Eden’ – the Garden of Eden which we are told is irrigated by a river coming from Eden)[4].

Olam HaBa is a realm beyond this world in which we share existence with God to the greatest degree possible. In that dimension we are unencumbered by our physical bodies and we exist in our full spiritual form and expression. We are therefore, able to connect with God more intimately than we ever could in the physical world.

We work throughout our lives to build and develop ourselves so that our manifestation on the level of Olam HaBa is as great as it can be. Olam HaBa is where the results of the processes of this world emerge.

The opening statement of the final chapter of Sanhedrin claims that all of Israel has a potential portion in Olam HaBa, but there are ways in which this portion can be lost. One way is the rejection of the concept of Tehiyat HaMetim.

One principle that is raised as a fundamental in the discussions is the question of the manner of God’s responses to our actions. We are told that all of God’s responses to His creation are mida keneged mida — literally, measure for measure.

This is the principle we will explore in this week’s coming essay.

Shabua Tob!

Rabbi Joseph Dweck


[1] There are some who had it as the penultimate chapter.

[2] Hilkhot Teshuba, 8:8

[3] There are other authorities who disagree with this premise, yet I use Rambam’s approach here as the main presentation.

[4] See Sanhedrin, 99a