Judaism and Reincarnation

Judaism generally poses no objection to reincarnation. It is in fact a part of the doctrine in Kabbalah, where it is called Gilgul. The historian Josephus states that there were three sects among the Jews, and two of them espoused the doctrine of reincarnation. These were the Essenes and the Pharisees. 

Tanakh (Old Testament)

Job 33:29-30

Lo, all these things doth God work, Twice, yea thrice, with a man,
To bring back his soul from the pit, That he may be enlightened with the light of the living.

Jeremiah 1:5 (NKJV)

“Before I formed you in the womb I knew you;
 Before you were born I sanctified you; 
I ordained you a prophet to the nations.”

Wisdom of Solomon 8:19-20

And I was a witty child and had received a good soul. And whereas I was more good, I came to a body undefiled.

Flavius Josephus, Antiquities of the Jews, XVIII, Ch. 1, No. 2-5

2. The Jews had for a great while had three sects of philosophy peculiar to themselves; the sect of the Essens, and the sect of the Sadducees, and the third sort of opinions was that of those called Pharisees; . . . .

3. Now, for the Pharisees, they live meanly, and despise delicacies in diet; and they follow the conduct of reason; and what that prescribes to them as good for them they do; and they think they ought earnestly to strive to observe reason’s dictates for practice. . . . They also believe that souls have an immortal rigor in them, and that under the earth there will be rewards or punishments, according as they have lived virtuously or viciously in this life; and the latter are to be detained in an everlasting prison, but that the former shall have power to revive and live again; on account of which doctrines they are able greatly to persuade the body of the people; and whatsoever they do about Divine worship, prayers, and sacrifices, they perform them according to their direction; insomuch that the cities give great attestations to them on account of their entire virtuous conduct, both in the actions of their lives and their discourses also.

4. But the doctrine of the Sadducees is this: That souls die with the bodies; nor do they regard the observation of any thing besides what the law enjoins them; for they think it an instance of virtue to dispute with those teachers of philosophy whom they frequent: but this doctrine is received but by a few, yet by those still of the greatest dignity. But they are able to do almost nothing of themselves; for when they become magistrates, as they are unwillingly and by force sometimes obliged to be, they addict themselves to the notions of the Pharisees, because the multitude would not otherwise bear them.

5. The doctrine of the Essens is this: That all things are best ascribed to God. They teach the immortality of souls, and esteem that the rewards of righteousness are to be earnestly striven for; and when they send what they have dedicated to God into the temple, they do not offer sacrifices (3) because they have more pure lustrations of their own; on which account they are excluded from the common court of the temple, but offer their sacrifices themselves; yet is their course of life better than that of other men; and they entirely addict themselves to husbandry. It also deserves our admiration, how much they exceed all other men that addict themselves to virtue, and this in righteousness; and indeed to such a degree, that as it hath never appeared among any other men, neither Greeks nor barbarians, no, not for a little time, so hath it endured a long while among them. This is demonstrated by that institution of theirs, which will not suffer any thing to hinder them from having all things in common; so that a rich man enjoys no more of his own wealth than he who hath nothing at all. There are about four thousand men that live in this way, and neither marry wives, nor are desirous to keep servants; as thinking the latter tempts men to be unjust, and the former gives the handle to domestic quarrels; but as they live by themselves, they minister one to another. They also appoint certain stewards to receive the incomes of their revenues, and of the fruits of the ground; such as are good men and priests, who are to get their corn and their food ready for them. They none of them differ from others of the Essens in their way of living, but do the most resemble those Dacae who are called Polistae (4) [dwellers in cities].

Josephus, War of the Jews, Book III, Ch. 8, No. 5:

Do not you know that those who depart out of this life according to the law of nature, and pay that debt which was received from God, when he that lent it us is pleased to require it back again, enjoy eternal fame; that their houses and their posterity are sure, that their souls are pure and obedient, and obtain a most holy place in heaven, from whence, in the revolutions of ages, they are again sent into pure bodies; while the souls of those whose hands have acted madly against themselves are received by the darkest place in Hades, and while God, who is their Father, punishes those that offend against either of them in their posterity?

Josephus, War of the Jews, Book II, Chapter 8, No. 11

11. For their [Essens] doctrine is this: That bodies are corruptible, and that the matter they are made of is not permanent; but that the souls are immortal, and continue for ever; and that they come out of the most subtile air, and are united to their bodies as to prisons, into which they are drawn by a certain natural enticement; but that when they are set free from the bonds of the flesh, they then, as released from a long bondage, rejoice and mount upward. . . . These are the Divine doctrines of the Essens about the soul, which lay an unavoidable bait for such as have once had a taste of their philosophy.

Philo Judaeus, De Somniis (1:22)

The air is full of souls; those who are nearest to earth descending to be tied to mortal bodies, return to other bodies, desiring to live in them.

Rabbi Moses Gaster:

“Transmigration” in the Encyclopaedia of Religion and Ethics.

There cannot be any doubt that these views are extremely old [in Judaism]. Simon Magus raises the claim of former existences, his soul passing through many bodies before it reaches that known as Simon. The Samaritan doctrine of the taheb teaches the same doctrine of a pre-existing soul which was given to Adarn, but which, through successive ‘incarnations’ in Seth, Noah, and Abraham, reached Moses, for whom it was originally formed and for whose sake the world had been created. . . . This doctrine of migration is nowhere to be found systematically developed [in Jewish writings].

Wherever it occurs, it is tacitly assumed as well known, and no explanation is given in detail. It has, therefore, been pieced together and reconstructed by the present writer mostly from the Zoharistic literature. . . . While these are by far the most complete writings, they are by no means the oldest.

This brings us to the question of the date and probable origin of this doctrine among the Jews. All the beginnings of esoteric teachings are lost in the mist of antiquity, and, when such doctrines finally see the light of day, they have, as a rule, a long history behind them. It is, therefore, a fallacy to date the origin of metempsychosis among the Jews from the time when it becomes known publicly in the 9th or loth century. The [Hebrew] masters of the occult science never doubted its Jewish character or its old origin. [They asked:] Was it not part of that heavenly mystery handed down from Adam on through all the great men of the past?

Bahir, 195

195. Why is there a righteous person who has good, and [another] righteous person who has evil?

This is because the [second] righteous person was wicked previously, and is now being punished.

Is one then punished for his childhood deeds? Did not Rabbi Simon say that in the Tribunal on high, no punishment is meted out until one is twenty years or older.

He said: I am not speaking of his present lifetime. I am speaking about what he has already been, previously.

His colleagues said to him: How long will you conceal your words?

He replied: Go out and see. What is this like? A person planted a vineyard and hoped to grow grapes, but instead, sour grapes grew. He saw that his planting and harvest were not successful so he tore it out. He cleaned out the sour grape vines and planted again. When he saw that his planting was not successful, he tore it up and planted it again.

How many times?

He said to them: For a thousand generations. It is thus written (Psalm 105:8), “The word that He commanded for a thousand generations.”

It is in relation to this that they said, “Lacking were 974 generations. The Blessed Holy One stood up and planted them in each generation.”


All souls are subject to transmigration; and men do not know the ways of the Holy One, blessed be He! They do not know that they are brought before the tribunal both before they enter into this world and after they leave it; they are ignorant of the many transmigrations and secret probations which they have to undergo, and of the number of souls and spirits which enter into this world and which do not return to the palace of the Heavenly King. Men do not know how the souls revolve like a stone which is thrown from a sling. But the time is at hand when these mysteries will be disclosed. (Zohar, ii. 99b, quoted in Jewish Encyclopedia, “Transmigration of Souls”)

Gershom Scholem

The Bahir does not know the idea of a migration into animal bodies or into any but human forms of existence. The doctrine of the transmigration of souls appeared as an answer to the question of theodicy.  (Origins of the Kabbalah, 188)