Stairways to Heaven

Most Christians are quite shocked to discover how unscriptural much of Orthodox belief and practice is. Nowhere is this more apparent than in Jewish views of death and the afterlife. We asked one of our missionaries to describe some of the superstitious practices he has encountered within the Jewish community. Because of the delicate nature of the subject matter he has asked not to be identified.

Orthodox Judaism is somewhat contradictory in its teaching about what happens to the souls of Jews at death and what is intended when Jews say Kaddish, the prayer after the death of a loved one. Though some Jewish authorities maintain that Kaddish is not a prayer for the dead, nevertheless, it is recited for eleven months after the death of a parent because the Talmud states the wicked suffer in hell for twelve months, other folks for less. Kaddish is therefore recited to assist the soul of the deceased to rise from hell to heaven.

Close to this practice is the Yahrzeit, a Yiddish word meaning "anniversary". It is observed by the children of the departed reciting Kaddish in the synagogue and kindling a yahrzeit candle to burn throughout the day of the anniversary. The anniversary prayer for a father, for example, would be, "May God remember the soul of my revered father who has gone to his repose. May his soul be bound up in the bond of life. May his rest be glorious with fulness of joy in Thy presence, and bliss forevermore at Thy right hand. Amen."

Praying for the dead

I once asked an Orthodox lady what Judaism meant to her. She replied, "Prayer for the souls of the departed and a good headstone". She was so locked into praying for the souls of the dead that the subject often came up in our discussions. I asked her where in the Hebrew Bible we are instructed to pray for the dead or if Abraham, Moses or any of the patriarchs engaged in the practice. Though she could give no answer she was very upset to think that it was futile to recite Kaddish and that we could do nothing to free the souls of the departed from hell or to raise them to the "higher spheres".

On another occasion, I accompanied a Jewish man to the cemetery on the anniversary of his father's death. When he returned from the grave he was visibly upset and told me that he had said a prayer for his father's soul after talking to him. I asked him where he found warrant for this practice in the Scriptures, and he could not answer. Time and again it has come home to me that Jewish people believe that saying Kaddish will help their departed loved ones ascend to heaven. What a sad delusion.

Dead but not gone

Some Jewish people, when they visit the tombs of departed relatives, speak to the tombstone as though it were their loved one. This may derive from the fact that traditionally the tombstone is called the nephesh, the Hebrew word for "soul". I once listened to an intelligent, educated man describe his experience of speaking to the tombstone of his dead parent. The whole account was weird and grossly superstitious but the practice is more common than Christians realise.

The tombstone is usually set up twelve months after death and accompanied by a service. I was amazed at a recent stone laying ceremony to hear the rabbi commending the soul of the deceased to the Almighty as though the soul was actually present in the tomb!

All of this reminds us of the blindness of modern Judaism and the need of religious Jews for the truth of the gospel. Oh, that Jewish people might go "to the law and to the testimony" and there receive light and life.

This article first appeared in our Winter 97 issue of the Herald.

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