Purgatory and eliu neshamah


The Roman Catholic Church and some Protestant denominations are convinced that there is a place called Purgatory. While it is not a Jewish concept, many Jews hearing it spoken of, think it is a Jewish belief. The Compendium of the Catechism of the Catholic Church, first published in 2005, defines it:

“210. What is purgatory?

Purgatory is the state of those who die in God’s friendship, assured of their eternal salvation, but who still have need of purification to enter into the happiness of heaven.

  1. How can we help the souls being purified in purgatory?

Because of the communion of saints, the faithful who are still pilgrims on earth are able to help the souls in purgatory by offering prayers in suffrage for them, especially the Eucharistic sacrifice. They also help them by almsgiving, indulgences, and works of penance.”

In essence, Purgatory is an intermediate state for dead who have not sinned to the extent that they deserve Hell, and are not sufficiently pure to enter Heaven. They enter Purgatory where after being sorely tortured and receiving an education, they are purged and are allowed to enter Heaven.

Stanley Lombard has just published Dante’s imaginary poetic version of Purgatory, called “Purgatorio,” in a book containing both Dante’s original and a modern English translation, with an extensive enlightening introduction by Claire E. Honess and Matthew Treherne, and close to a hundred helpful pages of notes by Ruth Chester who also wrote very informative headnotes before each Canto which explains what the Canto is saying. The volume has a complete list of all the penitents that Dante meets in Purgatory, a chart and geography of Purgatory, and much else, and is a singularly important contribution to the study of ancient documents.

The concept is not in the Hebrew Bible nor in the New Testament, although some people think it is implied in a few New Testament statements.

The Catholic Church did not issue its belief regarding Purgatory until 1274 and the doctrine was not formulized until the Council of Florence in 1439. Thus Dante (1265-1321) was able to use his imagination in describing Purgatory in his masterpiece.

Honess points out in her introduction that the new notion of the need for virtually all souls to spend some time in Purgatory before being elevated to heaven, a situation that could be relieved by living people offering prayers, prayers that should be accompanied by contributions to the Church, as indicated in item 211, served as an opportunity for the Church to fill its coffers by accepting “indulgences,” payments by faithful relatives to elevate their relatives from Purgatory to Heaven. The relatives were led to feel guilt and lack of love for the deceased if the living relative failed to give funds to the Church.

Dante pictures Purgatory as a mountain where souls can ascend from one level to another. Dante is led through the various levels by the soul of the Roman pagan Virgil and meets more than three dozen souls, some of whom he knew while they lived, and has discussions with them concerning Purgatory and their behavior while they were alive. Dante expresses many of his ideas in the book, such as the notion that corruption is rampant in the world because of the absence of an imperial power that can control people.

While unmentioned in the book, it is interesting to speculate that many Jews, hearing the idea that souls need to be elevated from Purgatory to Heaven, despite there being no concept of Purgatory in Judaism, and therefore the concept of elevation makes no sense in Judaism, the idea developed among many Jews of eliu neshamah, “elevating the soul,” even though this concept makes no sense in Judaism, for there is no place from which souls should be elevated and no need for them to rise. The idea has become so widespread that many Jews feel that when they visit a relative of a deceased they need to say, “I hope that your father/mother/son’s soul has an aliyah,” an elevation.