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    To hell or not? – Vayyeshev

    sheolGenesis 37:35 reports how broken up Jacob was when he thought he would never see his son Joseph again. He said he would go down to Sh’ol in mourning.

    The word Sh’ol occurs often in the Psalms with the meaning of the place – not necessarily a place of punishment – to which the dead descend.

    The Christian translator Jerome understood the word as “inferno” or “hell”. Ibn Ezra quotes Jerome and indignantly denies that his explanation is valid. He argues that the word simply means “the grave”, a view with which Rashi agrees.

    Both Rashi and Ibn Ezra lived in Christian countries and were amongst the Jewish commentators who bitterly resented what they considered the distorted Christian versions of the Hebrew originals of the passages concerned.

    Yet the Midrash itself equates sh’ol with gehinnom. Rashi recognises this but says it is not an appropriate way of understanding the text.

    It must be said that though the Midrash – a massive corpus of exegetical tradition – is highly important in Judaism, it gives many views which conflict with each other and must be treated with caution.

    Ibn Ezra himself says in the introduction to his commentary, yesh d’rash hefech d’rash – “there are Midrashim which contradict one another”.

    In our case the verse probably means merely that if Joseph is no longer alive, life will no longer be worth living for Jacob and he will mourn until his death.

    In relation to the subject of heaven and hell it should be made clear that normative Judaism has problems with the idea of hell in opposition to heaven and tends to consider the real hell as not so much a separate place or state but the deprivation of heaven. It is not so much that an unrepentant sinner “goes to hell” but that he/she “does not go to heaven”.

    The words “go to (hell or heaven)” are in quotation marks to show that neither is a geographical location, and of course once a person is dead they no longer have the bodily power to go anywhere.

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