Sunday 25 December 2016


R. Saadia Gaon's writing on Hilchot Shechita. From  the Mosseri Collection

In this essay we are going to explore the sources in an attempt at determining whether the gilgul or reincarnation concept is (relatively) new or ancient, and whether it is unanimously accepted by our rabbis as an absolute definitive model of Torah theology.


There are no direct references to gilgulim anywhere in the Scriptures. However later interpretations do read in allegoric allusions to some verses. 

An example of this is the verse: “Not with you only do I make this covenant...but...also with him that is not here with us today.”[1] This is taken to imply that there is a ‘you’ that is not here today, but will manifest at a later stage.

Another example is: “One generation passes away and another comes.”[2] This was similarly taken to mean that a generation which has passed away, will again return in subsequent generations.


There are similarly no direct references to gilgulim found in either the Mishna or the Gemara. And again, later interpretations were to find allusions to the idea, hidden within the Talmudic texts.


Perhaps the first reference to reincarnation is ironically found in Karaite sources. [See KOTZK BLOG 63.] The founder of the Karaite sect, Anan ben David (715 – 795) wrote that reincarnation was already an established principle in existing cultures. He appears to have been referring to the Gnostic, early Christian factions and possibly some mystical Islamic sects.[3]

Interestingly, it appears as though the Karaites as a whole, rejected the notion of reincarnation, probably because of its lack of Scriptural references.

However, many Jews may have been influenced by some of these early Islamic sects[4] and may have adopted their doctrine of reincarnation. If this is true, it points to an interesting and highly controversial possible influence for the reincarnation concept.


One of the first clear references to the reincarnation model, within mainstream Torah sources, is to be found in the kabbalistic work known as the Sefer haBahir. This is where things get even more interesting, because its date and authorship are strenuously disputed. 

According to the kabbalists it was written around the year 100 CE by R. Nechunya ben haKanah. 

Others believe it to have been authored by the son of Raavad, Yitzchak the Blind as late as the 1200’s.[5]

According to Sefer haBahir:

Why is there (one type of righteous person who has it good and (another) righteous person who has it bad? – This is because the second righteous person was wicked previously (i.e. in a previous life) and is now punished.”[6]

Title page of first edition of the Zohar, Mantua, 1558

There are also numerous references to reincarnation which are found in the primary kabbalistic work, the Zohar. And yet again the date and authorship are subject to a similar dispute. 

The mystics claim it was written by R. Shimon bar Yochai (80-160 CE). 

Others counter that it only first appeared in Spain in the 1200’s and was written by R. Moshe de Leon (1240-1305). [See KOTZK BLOG 87.]

The Zohar says:

As long as a person is unsuccessful in his purpose in this world, the Holy One, blessed be He, uproots him and replants him over and over again”.[7]
The Zohar is the first work to mention the actual term ‘gilgul’, or reincarnation.


However we choose to date the Bahir and Zohar, it is clear that during the 1200’s the doctrine of gilgul began to enjoy widespread popularity.

RAMBAN (1194-1270):
Although initially, some Spanish kabbalists like Ramban were reluctant to mention the concept overtly and only did so by ‘hints and allusions[8], it didn’t take long for the concept to gain popular acceptance. 
Ramban wrote that the concept of gilgul is vital to understanding and making sense of the stories of the Torah. This is because it offers a whole new perspective to the biblical personalities that we would otherwise never have been privy to. We can understand just why they acted the way they did because we know who they really were in their previous incarnations.[9]

ARI ZAL (1534-1572):    
During the time of R. Yitzchak Luria, also known as the Ari Zal, the concept began to really flourish. This was particularly because of his work Shaar haGilgulim, or Gates of Reincarnation, which explain amongst other ideas, the spiritual roots of many of our great sages.[10]
From that moment on, the concept of reincarnation was fixed within the collective psyche of the Jewish people as an apparent fundamental tenet of belief, and there it has remained to this day.

SHALOH (1555-1628):

Rabbi Yeshaya HaLevi Hurwitz[11] wrote:
There are some sins for which the cleansing in the spiritual realm alone does not suffice...they are forced to undergo a second cycle in this world as rehabilitation...which generally occurs when the soul is faced with the same challenge to which it succumbed in its pervious life.”

R. Menashe ben Yisrael[12], author of Nishmat Chaim (a work on reincarnation)[13], wrote that Adam was taught the doctrine of reincarnation but that it was later forgotten. Then, Pythagoras (who according to this source was a Jew) received it again through the prophet Ezekiel. 

This is a fascinating reference because it regards reincarnation as entering into the belief system of mankind from the very outset, and of Judaism as early as the 6th Century BCE.

He wrote:

The majority of the sages of Israel believe [in reincarnation], and they wrote that it is a true belief and one of the fundamental principles of the Torah. It solves the problem of a righteous person who suffers. We are obligated to heed the words of these authorities, and have this belief without any doubt or wavering whatsoever...’[14]

The gilgul principle was embraced and embellished by the Baal Shem Tov and his followers, with many Chassidic rebbes claiming to be aware of their pervious personalities.
Some examples:
The Baal Shem Tov (1700-1760) was said to be a gilgul of Rav Saadia Gaon (882-942).[15]
R. Nachman was the soul of Saul, R. Shimon bar Yochai and R. Nachman of the Talmud.
The Chozeh of Lublin once said to his friend R. Zelka of Grodzisk that the reason they were such good friends was because they were father and son in a previous existence.
R. Avraham Yehoshua Heschel said he was in his third ‘cycle’, having being both a Nasi and Reish Galuta in the past lives.
R. Menachem Mendel of Ruzhin said he had been reincarnated one hundred times and that this was his last time.
R. Bertzi Leifer of Nadworna, who perished in the holocaust, said he had been reincarnated three times. -First as the head of a tribe in the biblical generation during the desert wanderings (Kemuel ben Shiftan). –Then as a farmer (arendar) and he visited his own gravesite. – His third incarnation was before the war. (Interestingly, he mentioned that he was most satisfied when he assumed the role of the farmer!)

There are some stories about Chassidic rebbes declaring slaughtered animals that other rabbis had disqualified, to be kosher! This was because the human soul that had been trapped within it needed to be released. They cited the halachik expediency of ruling leniently with regard to some aspects of kashrut – known as hefsed merubah or great (usually financial) loss. This they interpreted as a “great spiritual loss” to the soul which had to be housed in an animal body. Therefore every effort had to be made to ‘release’ it.
One such story is recorded in the name of the Chozeh of Lublin, who said of a chicken his wife had been told was slaughtered incorrectly; “Know that the poor soul transmigrated in this chicken has already been waiting many years, and now it pleads we eat this chicken this Shabbat to affect its correction.
Another story records how a goose was declared non-kosher by a disqualified slaughtering process, and the tzadik of Alsk took some of its fat and made Chanuka candles out of it. The blessing he recited over the candles ‘released’ the soul trapped within.
R. Naftali Bachrach writes: “Our teacher the Ari Zal said; ‘When you see people who are arrogant and have no shame, know that they were transmigrated in an impure beast, animal or fowl. Just as those have no shame - so these have no shame.’”[16]

As a general rule the souls of men transmigrate to other men, and similarly those of females go to females. However there are exceptions such as when the soul of a man goes to a woman. In such an instance the woman is barren. This was the case with Tamar, who had the soul of a man. Her soul was later transferred to Ruth and therefore she could not bear children until she was given aspects of another female soul.
Another exception was Yehudah, Yaakov’s son, who had a part-female soul.

In light of all the above, it may come as a surprise to many that the theory of reincarnation is not unanimously adopted by all our Torah sages:

RAV SAADIA GAON (882-942):
At about the time that the reincarnation concept was penetrating the Jewish world[17], Rav Saadia Gaon was quick to step in and express his total unacceptance of the new idea.
He wrote:
Yet I must say that I have found certain people, who call themselves Jews, professing the doctrine of reincarnation...what they mean is that the soul of one person is transferred to another and then again to another. Many of them would go so far as to assert that the spirit of a human being might enter into the body of a beat – or that of a beast into the body of a human being – and other such nonsense and stupidities.”[18]
He explained that that well authenticated concept of resurrection precludes a the theory of reincarnation because, in his view, the body and soul were a ‘composite’ and the soul could only return to its ‘own’ body and not to that of another.

RAMBAM (1135-1204) AND HIS SON:
It is surprising to note that Rambam is unusually silent on the issue of reincarnation. He is generally outspoken on so many fundamental issues of Torah theology that one must wonder why he was silent on this essential issue that so many others, especially at that time, were very vocal about[19].
His son, Avraham ben haRambam, however did express his opposition to the belief in reincarnation.

R. YOSEF ALBO (1380-1444):
The Albo similarly rejected the reincarnation theory. He wrote:
There are those...(who assert that) it is possible that the soul that has already served in a human body will return to dwell again in a body. But this is not correct.”
His view is that a soul does not have freedom of choice before it is born into a human body. It is born ‘against its will’. But only after uniting with the body does it acquire it freedom of choice.
This freedom of choice that the soul attains is so valuable that even “the angels erred...and asked to bow down to the angels themselves do not have free will.
Once the soul has become an agent of free will; “why would it return to the body? And why would a potential body be prepared to receive the soul that already served in another body rather than receive a (new and original) soul?
He goes on to say that the only thing more absurd than reincarnation into another human form would be the notion that a soul can also “transmigrate into the bodies of animals.”
He ends with an expression of total exasperation by adding ‘and G-d knows.”[20]

RASHASH (1794-1872):
Rabbi Samuel Strashun in his famous commentary to the Talmud points out an apparent Talmudic proof against gilgulim.[21]

Rabbi Shimshon Raphael Hirsch wrote that belief in reincarnation was one of the major distinctions that set Judaism aside from the religion of Ancient Egyptians as reincarnation was central tenet of the Egyptian Faith.

Included in the list of those opposing reincarnation are Seforno[22], Avraham ibn Daud,[23] Avraham ben Chiya (Ibn Ezra’s teacher)[24], Leon de Modena[25], R.Yedaya Bershidi, R. David Kimchi and Chasdai Crescas.

Although the common perception today is clearly biased towards the belief in gilgullim, it is interesting to discover that based on an overview of sources from across the board, it must be said that the ‘theological jury’ is still out.
This does not mean that one’s personal belief system should be compromised one way or another. Faith values are by their very nature highly subjective, emotional and must remain one’s religious prerogative.
What is clear, however, is that one cannot claim with honesty and integrity that there is only one definitive hashkafic approach to the question of reincarnation.

Transmigration of Souls, Part One, by Gedalya Nigal. An Excerpt from Magic, Mysticism and Hasidism.
Journey to Heaven, by Dr. Leah Bronner.
Saadia Gaon: “The Book of Beliefs and Opinions”, “Refutation of Reincarnation”, Yale Judaica Series, Vol. I “The Soul”, ch. VIII pp 259.
Renaissance and Rebirth: Reincarnation in Early Modern Italian Kabbalah, by Brian Ogen.

[1] Devarim 29: 14 This is one of the Scriptural ‘proofs’ that Rav Saadia Gaon refutes.
[2] Kohelet 1:4
[3] See, Transmigration of Souls.
[4] See Rambam, Guide to the Perplexed, Book 1, ch. 73-76. (NOTE: Rambam writes about some Gaonim being influenced by aspects of the Islamic Kalam. Although the Mutazila sect were rationalist and not mystics -see following post- this source does show that there was some cross-influence taking place during the 700’s and 800’s CE)

[5] R. Yitzchak the Blind(1160-1235). The title ‘The Blind’ was a euphemism for having excellent eyesight.
[6] Sefer haBahir, Part 1, p.195
[7] Zohar 1, 186b
[8] See A Journey to Heaven, by Dr Leah Bronner, p.136
[9] See Ramban’s commentary to Iyov 33:40.
[10] The book was finally put together by the Ari’s foremost student, R. Chaim Vital, and edited by his son R. Shmuel Vital. It borrows much from the Zohar, portion Mishpatim, where these ideas are discussed.
[11] author of the work Shnei Luchot HaBrit
[12] He was originally known as Manoel Dias Soeiro.
[13] The book was published his son Samuel six years before they both died.
[14] Nishmat Chaim 154b
[15] Ironically, as we shall see later, Rav Saadia Gaon was an outspoken critic of the theory of reincarnation. That did not deter the Chassidim from saying that the Baal Shem Tov performed a ‘rectification’ on his (Rav Saadia’s) soul.
[16] See Eimek haMelech ch. 31. 20a
[17] Unless one goes with the mystical view that the Bahir and Zohar were written in around 100 and 160 CE, respectively.
[18] Saadia Gaon, Emunot veDeot (Beliefs and Opinions), 6, 8
[19] R. Yehudah haLevi was also silent on the issue of reincarnation.
[20] Sefer haIkarim 4:29
[21] In summary: The Torah says; “Blessed are you when you arrive and blessed are you when you leave.” This is taken as meaning that just like one’s arrival to this world is without sin, so should one’s exit be without sin.  Based on this, one’s arrival to this world is taken for granted as being without sin. This would preclude reincarnation whose very premise is to return to the world and make right previous sins.  (See Bava Metzia 107a) 
[22] Devarim 30:15,19
[23]Emunah Rabbah Vol. 1, ch.7
[24] Megilat haMegaleh, 50-51
[25] R. Moshe de Modena writes that for the same effort, G-d could just extent the lives of humans so the same person could live longer and atone directly for his own sins.

1 comment:

  1. One can accept the concept of reincarnation. However surely the issue of transmigration of souls is more problematic.When the animals were created they were created from the ground, when man was created his soul was blown into him.If a man has an animal soul and a human soul to distinguish him from the animals and it becomes possible for an animal to possess a human soul (for whatever reason) the separation of human souls (which can apparently go to heaven) and animal souls (which can't) becomes tenuous.After all there could only be one way in which a human soul could be placed into the animal. Must we then accept that both animals and humans can possess a multiplicity of souls? The ramifications are endless. The Buddhist concept of souls of the same soul being re-incarnated into any in any living creature is then a cleaner simpler and more plausible belief system. system. At some stage we must acknowledge that Judaism has been influenced by other cults and religions and these have taken root and grown into the mainstream.