Latest update: November 20th, 2011
Although it’s the Hebrew month of MarCheshvan—known as “mar” or bitter, because it’s devoid of holidays, unlike the preceding month which has the High Holidays and Sukkot, and the next month which ushers in Chanukah—that’s not why I’ve been thinking about hell (gehinnom in Hebrew) a lot lately. In fact, I co-wrote an e-book recently with New York-based lawyer and author Joel Cohen called Gehinnom: A Conversation in Hell. (The book, which is available for free download at www.joelcohengehinnom.com, is a work of fiction, or creative non-fiction. The characters come from the Bible: Cain, Korah, Saul, Balaam, Miriam. But the dialogue is imagined.)
The characters in the book cling in death to the same philosophies and self-awareness (or lack thereof) that they embodied in life. One by one, the characters enter a conversation in “a dark, dank, forgotten cave,” where they have to trust each other’s disembodied voices, since they cannot see each other. The characters (with the exception of Miriam and a young man who later surfaces) team up on one another and expose jealousies, hatred, self-righteousness, and a confusing—and thus, distinctly human!—blend of emotions. Of course, the lines the characters deliver have little to do with what the figures might actually have believed and felt, and everything to do with what Cohen and I believe they might have believed. For such is the stuff of art, and the majority of the artistic canon is fictive—even the works that purport to be “realistic.”
Surely, one can imagine countless works of Christian art that depict demons torturing lost souls, grim reapers with scythes, and flaming depictions of hell. It’d be foolish to suggest that Jewish art has anywhere near such a prominent tradition of depicting gehinnom, and it’s not my intention to do so here. But many readers of this column probably have a pretty good sense that the Christian apocalyptic traditions of representing demons and eternal punishment for sinners have their origins in Jewish texts.
Some of the Jewish sources include the Mishnah in Gemara Sanhedrin (10:1), which addresses the statement that “everyone in Israel” has a portion in the World to Come. If the Mishnah goes out of its way to specify that everyone “in Israel” has a portion in heaven, surely there must be some who have no portion, the rabbis argue, so they compile a list: those who deny the resurrection of the dead, those who say the Torah isn’t divinely delivered, and those who are apikorsim, or heretics. Rabi Akiva adds that those who read “sfarim chitzonim”—“outside” books—also have no heavenly portion, nor do those who whisper (incantations) over a wound. Finally, Abba Shaul adds that those who recite God’s name as written also will not merit eternal reward. The Mishnah also adds a list of particular individuals and groups who have no heavenly portion, including the kings Jeroboam, Ahab, and Menashe (though Rabi Judah says Menashe was forgiven and did merit reward), Balaam, Doeg (who killed 85 priests), Ahithophel (who led Absalom astray, to say the least), and Gehazi, who disobeyed Elisha.
There are also chassidic traditions surrounding gehinnom. The Apta Rebbe (Rav Avraham Yehoshua Heshel of Apt, 1748-1825) famously said that as a sinner he’d be sent to gehinnom, but being unable to endure the sinners, God would have to send them out. His idea was to ensure that he’d be the only one there, a strategy that the Ropshitzer Rebbe—Rav Naftali Zvi of Ropshitz, 1760-1827—also embraced. The latter figured that gehinnom empties out during the Shabbat, and that any sinner who had visited the Rebbe’s house on Shabbat while alive, ought to be able to visit his table in heaven. And what a foolish man the Rebbe would be to let the sinner be returned to gehinnom at nightfall, the Ropshitzer Rebbe said.
There are countless other stories, from Reb Moshe Leib of Sossov (1744/5 -1807) leaping into hell and forcing the angels to order the Satan not to fuel the fires to the Maggid of Mezhirich (Reb Dov Ber of Mezhirich, 1710-1772) planning to teach Torah in gehinnom, which would draw the righteous to visit from heaven, effectively creating a satellite heaven there. Other Talmudic stories address the appearance of the Satan and demons, most notoriously, perhaps, in the Kabbalistic tractate of Chibbut Ha’Kever.
But it’s not surprising that many erroneously believe Jews don’t believe in hell. What is interesting is that many in the art history community aren’t aware of Jewish representations of hell.
A fresco at the third century synagogue at Dura Europos (present-day Syria) doesn’t necessarily depict hell, but the gaping hole in the ground—from which the dry bones emerge, representing Ezekiel’s vision—could be a representation of She’ol. The Dura fresco is really difficult to decipher, which might be expected given the opacity of the text. Three bearded figures with curly brown hair, all dressed in red robes with green pants and white socks (or boots), occupy the central position, gesticulating and waving their arms as if they are about to fly away. Above them, four hands (cropped to the wrists) reach down, presumably angels or God refashioning the bodies. Beneath their feet lie several disembodied heads and hands, not yet restored, and in a chasm to the right, more severed heads and hands emerge from the abyss.
Although the narrative in Ezekiel 37 does refer to graves, it does not suggest that the resurrected bones came from any kind of pit. The artist (or artists) who frescoed Dura’s walls chose to render the abyss in a deep black color, which evokes the pit that swallowed Korach, Datan, and Abiram in Numbers 16:32.
Representations of demons as grotesques appear in various Hebrew manuscripts, such as the 14th century Barcelona Haggadah from Spain. Depictions of the angel of death also surface in haggadot. The 15thcentury Ashkenazi (“Washington”) Haggadah, named for its author Joel Ben Simeon (called Feibusch Ashkenazi), represents the 10 plagues of Egypt on the same page in which the text addresses the plague. For the final plague, the illuminator painted an Egyptian firstborn lying dead on the ground, with a figure bearing an enormous sword hovering above. This demon has no legs, and thus might be compared to another depiction of the plague of the death of the first born.
The representation of “The Plague of the first born” in the early 14th century Golden Haggadah (Catalonia) also shows a truncated angel of death wielding a sword. The angel of the Golden Haggadah is far more stylized than that of the Ashkenazi Haggadah and has wings and wears a red robe. Both of these haggadot show an angel as the mediator of the final punishment on Egypt.
Yet there is also another visual and scriptural tradition with respect to the plague. In Meir Jaffe ha-sofer’s so-called First Cincinnati Haggadah (named for its location, Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati), also published in the 15th century in Germany, the final plague is represented by three corpses lying on the ground. A hand emerges from the clouds above bearing a sword. The disparity between the Ashkenazi haggadah and the Cincinnati haggadah can be accounted for by a discussion in the text of who killed the first born. The text simultaneously maintains that “God Himself” took the Jews out of Egypt alone, “and not an angel; and not a Seraph; without a messenger; but God Himself and alone with His glory,” per Exodus 11:4-5, and that, per Exodus 12:23, the “mashchit” (literally, “destroyer,” i.e. the Satan) is to be let loose on the population.
Beyond the demons and the Dura hell, perhaps the most definitive representation of gehinnom in Jewish art comes from Numbers and the description of the earth swallowing up Korach. In the opening folio of the book of Genesis in the Schocken Bible (Southern Germany, 14th century), the illuminator represented 46 biblical episodes, starting with the temptation in Eden in the top right corner and ending with Balaam’s donkey in the bottom left corner. The second to last image shows Korach and his followers being swallowed by the earth, which is personified as a dog-like animal. Three men (Korach, Dathan, and Abiram?) are suspended upside-down inside the beast’s open mouth, in a scene that evokes Christian representations of hell.
There are certainly a few aspects of the images discussed above that require further examination and elucidation, but what should be clear is that even a cursory look at some of these examples of Jewish art show literal and figurative depictions of demons, Satan, and gehinnom. This won’t surprise many readers of this column, but perhaps it’s useful ammunition for the next time someone says Jews don’t believe in hell.
About the Author: Menachem Wecker, who blogs on faith and art for the Houston Chronicle at http://blogs.chron.com/iconia, welcomes comments at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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