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Reincarnation in Judaism?

By: Rabbi Barak Bar-Chaim

Believing in the reincarnation of souls is certainly not a fundamental tenet of Jewish belief. In fact, some medieval scholars were of the opinion that reincarnation is not part of the Jewish tradition. Kabalistic tradition, on the other hand, considers reincarnation a given fact.

A case in point is the Zohar’s (Kabalistic work authored by Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai) comment upon the first words of Parshat Mishpatim, “These are the laws…” The Zohar comments: “These are the orders of reincarnations.” The laws enumerated in Parshat Mishpatim are all civil laws. What does the Zohar mean when it states that: “These are the orders of reincarnations”?

Rabbi Ezriel Tauber once told of the following incident that took place in the city of Bnei Brak in Israel. Two boys found some money in the street. One of the boys wanted to keep the money based on the Talmudic teaching that if one finds money scattered in the street one can keep the money. The Talmud’s reasoning is as follows: the owner would have checked his/her pockets and realized that the money was missing. Knowing that there was no possible way to uniquely identify the money as belonging to him/her, the owner would certainly give up hope of retrieving the money. The boy’s friend had a different opinion. He reasoned that since there is a possibility that the owner had not checked his/her pockets, keeping the money would possibly be theft. Therefore, he suggested giving the funds to charity. The boys argued back and forth and eventually decided to ask the Chazon Ish (a great Rabbi of their day) to rule on the matter.

The Chazon Ish ruled that the boy who wanted to keep the money was correct. Chazon Ish explained that since keeping the money was the correct ruling according to Torah Law, based on the assumption that the owner would have given up hope of retrieving the object, it would be perfectly moral to keep the money. He then explained to the boys that even if the owner had not given up hope on retrieving the object, it is possible that this owner owed them money from a previous lifetime, and that this Torah law was ensuring that they get payed back. He explained that this is the meaning of the Zohar’s comment: “These are the orders of reincarnations.” The Zohar teaches us that when Torah law is followed correctly, justice is not only executed in one lifetime but across many lifetimes!