Rav Avigdor Miller on The Importance of Gehenim



What is the definition of Gehenim? And how important is it in Judaism?


First, Gehenim is two words: גי הינם – it’s the Valley of Hinam. Behind the Beis Hamikdash in Yerushalayim there was a valley and in that valley they used to burn unwanted things. And so there was always a fire burning there. And so that place was taken as a mashal, as a name, for a different locale that you cannot see that’s in the other world; in the World-to-Come is the real Gehenim.

Now this is a very important subject and it’s a pity that it should be mentioned only in passing but we will just give it a minute or two.

Gehenim is one of the fundamentals, not only of Judaism but of humanity. Mankind once believed in Gehenim – even non-Jews – and that was one of the pillars of virtue. Very many people were afraid to do wicked things because of what would happen in the Hereafter. The Hereafter is one of the most necessary principles for society and it was the greatest tragedy when it was junked by the schools and by the public periodicals.

There was a time, when I was a boy, that even newspapers still spoke of the Hereafter. It was once considered an axiom that there is a Hereafter; and I am afraid that today there are so-called Orthodox Jews who don’t have any idea about the World-to-Come. And therefore it is important to establish that in our vocabulary, in our minds – there is a Gehenim! And Gehenim is one of the most important forces for righteousness.

Now, Gehenim is a prerequisite for Gan Eden. In order to enjoy the happiness of the World-to-Come, the soul must first be cleansed and the stains must be removed. Now, these stains sometimes could have been removed by repentance in this life; it’s easier while you are still alive to remove these stains by repenting, by changing our ways and our attitudes and the ideals that we have. People have wrong ideas, wrong ideals, that could be changed in this world. However, if they don’t change them and they pass on to the next world with the blemishes on their soul, then they must undergo Gehenim.

Now, there are two kinds of Gehenim. One is Gehenim that prepares for Gan Eden and משפט רשעים בגיהנם י”ב חודש. After twelve months, for some it’s less, they are ready to go to the Next World. But you have to know they have undergone H-E-L-L. There is nothing as terrible in this world as Gehenim. I’m talking about a temporary Gehenim; but still, it’s more suffering, more travail, more pain than all the yesurim we can imagine in this world. But it’s only a temporary state and it provides a benefit; afterwards the soul is already cleansed and is ready to go to the Next World to enjoy the happiness that was earned by whatever mitzvos it achieved.

However, there is another Gehenim. And this is what the Rambam in Hilchos Teshuva calls הנקמה הגדולה – the great revenge. And that’s the Gehenim for the real reshaim. There you will find the founders of the great religions – I don’t want mention their names. You will find that Hitler is there next to Mohammad; of course I don’t want to insult Mohammad by saying he is in the same department as Hitler, but each one of them is boiling merrily, there’s no question about it. And it’s forever and ever. Because Mohammad vented his hatred on the Jews in the Koran and for centuries Jews have suffered every kind of tribulation because of the Koran. The New Testament also; Jews have been murdered because of the New Testament. But Hitler, of course, he is the epitome and he is being given extra treatment in Gehenim.

And there, in Gehenim, we have to understand that there is a direct line by which tzadikim sit in Gan Eden and they view the punishment inflicted on the reshaim. And that is part of their happiness in the World-to-Come; in the World-to-Come tzadikim sit and they have the hanaah of the great pleasures of seeing the Shechina but that happiness is augmented by the fact that they view also the yesurei Gehenim that the reshaim are undergoing right now.

So Gehenim is one of the fundamental principles and without Gehenim it is impossible to have society; civilization cannot exist. Because any criminal can do what he wants and then when justice catches up to him – let’s say in the good old days when they used to give the electric chair, so before the electric chair, one of his confederates might slip him a perfumed poison pill and it will wafts him off to the Other World and he escaped punishment  – he doesn’t have to be afraid of anything. That’s what the criminal might think.

And therefore it states in Pirkei Avos,  אל תאמר שהשאול בית מנוס לך – Don’t say that the grave is an asylum for you. The fun begins after you die! And that great terror is what kept many reshaim in line; it limited their wickedness.

And that is why it is impossible to have humanity, it is impossible to have civilization, without Gehenim. Because why shouldn’t a scientist who is stranded on a desert island with an old man who has a chest of diamonds, why shouldn’t the scientist kill the old man and take away the diamonds? Why shouldn’t he? Is there anything in science that says no? Nothing says in science you shouldn’t kill. Especially when you think the old man was once a frog, and by accident he turned into a man. So what is to prevent you from killing him? Would you desist from killing a frog who is sitting on a box of diamonds? You wouldn’t think a moment about it. And so the scientist, why shouldn’t he kill?

And they are killing. You see today they are killing babies, millions of babies every year. For money. They are scientists and for money they are making abortions. So you see, for money they are killing.

“Oh, but unborn babies are different,” they’ll say. All these things you have to know are just alibies – it is murder, plain and simple, for the sake of money.

And so therefore we need Gehenim because the time will come when scientists will kill old people; don’t worry about that, it’ll come. They did it in Germany. Don’t think they weren’t scientists. They were just as good scientists as the American scientists; maybe better.

The German scientists under Hitler killed people, and they did it for the opportunity to experiment. In a certain book an author describes that a scientist needed a certain amount of fresh corpses; where could he get them? So he sent a message to the nearby concentration camp; he wants eighty fresh corpses. And then, right away they were shipped. They were turned into corpses and they were shipped for the scientists to write papers about. He experimented and wrote papers about that.

And therefore, it is impossible to have civilization without belief in a Gehenim. And it is important for us to teach goyim about Gehenim. Goyim have to have a religion. And we don’t care, even though their religion is full of errors but at least they have the principle that there is a Gehenim. And all the religions, all the real religions—I am talking about the orthodox religions—they all have an idea of Gehenim because it is fundamental. It’s fundamental because everyone must know that it is impossible for people to be able to get away with any crime in this his life and then to laugh it off and then die painlessly.

And therefore Gehenim among Jews is certainly an important part of Torah. And as I said before, that phase of Gehenim that is a preparation for Olam Haboh is not inevitable. If a Jew prepares himself in this world, if he learns mussar, if learns yiras Shomayim, if he studies sefarim like we are studying tonight, this person can avoid to a big extent having to go through an intermediate stage and he can be a candidate for Gan Eden without any delay.

TAPE # 408 (May 1982)