“From death, from the fear of death arises all knowledge of the All.”
- Franz Rosenzweig, The Star of Redemption
Writing from the Macedonian trenches of First World War, the Jewish philosopher Franz Rosenzweig sought redemption in the face of absolute annihilation. Rosenzweig’s opening line, that the fear of death is the beginning point of our belief in the transcendent, rebelled against Western philosophical tradition, which subordinated transcendence to Reason and repressed the fear of death.
While mysticism is often the attempt to “conquer” death by uniting with the divine, Sefer ha-Zohar presents a vivid approach that creates a practical relation between this world and the divine realms that await us.
Death, the mystery of annihilation or the return to divine origins, is depicted in Sefer ha-Zohar as the transition to an active afterworld, bustling with the souls of the dead, who are busy with either pleading for the living or greeting the souls of the newly dead, showing them around…
Death is anticipated and experienced by every night’s sleep which functions as a rehearsal, and when it finally occurs, it operates much like a well-organized journey run by efficient divine delegates.
The verdict of death is decided by Divine authority on Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish new year, delivered on the Day of Atonement (Yom Ha-Kippurim), and sealed on the day of great supplication (Hoshanah Rabah – the last day of the Holiday of Sukkot). Once judgment is sealed, the angels descent to collect the tzelem (likeness of the Creator) of the condemned, who from now on ceases to belong to the world of the living and whose soul becomes more and more reluctant to return from its nocturnal wanderings in the upper worlds.
The event of death itself is depicted as the terrible and sorrowful separation of the Ruach (the spirit part of the soul) from its body. The spirit wanders fiercely among the limbs, departing from each limb at a time. Meanwhile, the four elements, fire, water, wind, and earth, which are tied together in the body, struggle to dissolve their knot and disintegrate the body.
While body and soul are tormented by the pangs of severance, the dying person meets with Adam, whose sin introduced death in the first place. The purpose of this encounter is to have that person remember her own sins. A more intimidating encounter occurs with the fiery angel of death – his jaw reaching the floor, his body covered with eyes, his cloths blazing, and whose infernal appearance marks the final moment as he grabs Nefesh, the lowest part of the soul. However, this notorious angel has no control over Neshama, the soul’s highest part, that is taken by the angel Gabriel.
Finally, death is announced in all the upper worlds. The Zohar mentions two hundred and seventy, the numerical value of the Hebrew word Ra, evil. As a result, if the dying person was righteous, his death reverses evil into good; otherwise, he’s sentenced to suffering in these very worlds.
Naturally, these colorful, vivid descriptions have en educational purpose: there is an afterworld and our actions will bear severe, eternal consequences. Contemptus mundi is another intended lesson: the body is but the malbush, the earthly garment of the soul, who strives to return to the origin of origins.
And yet, paradoxically, the very righteous souls have to stay behind, and spend their eternal life in a special paradise (or return through incarnation), because their souls are needed to maintain the world of the living. Death thus is the transition into parallel worlds through which our souls wander.