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GILGUL (Heb. גִּלְגּוּל; "transmigration of souls," "reincarnation," or "metempsychosis"). There is no definite proof of the existence of the doctrine of gilgul in Judaism during the Second Temple period. In the Talmud there is no reference to it (although, by means of allegoric interpretations, later authorities found allusions to and hints of transmigration in the statements of talmudic rabbis). A few scholars interpret the statements of Josephus in Antiquities 18:1, 3, and in Jewish Wars 2:8, 14 on the holy bodies which the righteous merit, according to the belief of the Pharisees, as indicating the doctrine of metempsychosis and not the resurrection of the dead, as most scholars believe. In the post-talmudic period *Anan b. David, the founder of Karaism, upheld this doctrine, and in some of his statements there is an echo and a continuation of the ancient sectarian traditions. The doctrine of transmigration was prevalent from the second century onward among some Gnostic sects and especially among Manicheans and was maintained in several circles in the Christian Church (perhaps even by Origen). It is not impossible that this doctrine became current in some Jewish circles, who could have received it from Indian philosophies through Manicheism, or from Platonic and neoplatonic as well as from Orphic teachings.

Anan's arguments on behalf of gilgul, which were not accepted by the Karaites, were refuted by *Kirkisani (tenth century) in a special chapter in his Sefer ha-Orot; one of his major points was the death of innocent infants. Some Jews, following the Islamic sect of the Muʿtazila and attracted by its philosophic principles, accepted the doctrine of transmigration. The major medieval Jewish philosophers rejected this doctrine (*Saadiah Gaon, The Book of Beliefs and Opinions, treatise 6, ch. 7; Abraham ibn Daud, Emunah Ramah, treatise 1, ch. 7; Joseph *Albo, Ikkarim, treatise 4, ch. 29). *Abraham b. Ḥiyya quotes the doctrine from neoplatonic sources but rejects it (Meditations of the Sad Soul, 46–47; Megillat ha-Megalleh, 50–51). *Judah Halevi and *Maimonides do not mention gilgul, and *Abraham b. Moses b. Maimon, who does refer to it, rejects it completely.

In Early Kabbalah

In contrast with the conspicuous opposition of Jewish philosophy, metempsychosis is taken for granted in the Kabbalah from its first literary expression in the Sefer ha-*Bahir (published in late 12th century). The absence of any special apology for this doctrine, which is expounded by the Bahir in several parables, proves that the idea grew or developed in the circles of the early kabbalists without any affinity to the philosophic discussion of transmigration. Biblical verses (e.g., "One generation passeth away, and another generation cometh" (Eccles. 1:4), taken as meaning that the generation that passes away is the generation that comes) and talmudic aggadot and parables were explained in terms of transmigration. It is not clear whether there was any connection between the appearance of the metempsychosic doctrine in kabbalistic circles in southern France and its appearance among the contemporary Cathars (see *Albigenses), who also lived there. Indeed the latter, like most believers in transmigration, taught that the soul also passes into the bodies of animals, whereas in the Bahir it is mentioned only in relation to the bodies of men.

After the Bahir the doctrine of gilgul developed in several directions and became one of the major doctrines of the Kabbalah, although the kabbalists differed widely in regard to details. In the 13th century, transmigration was viewed as an esoteric doctrine and was only alluded to, but in the 14th century many detailed and explicit writings on it appeared. In philosophic literature the term ha'atakah ("transference") was generally used for gilgul; in kabbalistic literature the term gilgul appears only from the Sefer ha-*Temunah onward; both are translations of the Arabic term tanāsukh. The early kabbalists, such as the disciples of *Isaac the Blind and the kabbalists of Gerona, spoke of "the secret of ibbur" ("impregnation"). It was only in the late 13th or 14th centuries that gilgul and ibbur began to be differentiated. The terms hitḥallefut ("exchange") and din benei ḥalof (from Prov. 31:8) also occur. From the period of the *Zohar on, the term gilgul became prevalent in Hebrew literature and began to appear in philosophic works as well.

Biblical verses and commandments were interpreted in terms of gilgul. The early sects to whom Anan was indebted saw the laws of ritual slaughter (sheḥitah) as biblical proof of transmigration in accordance with their belief in transmigration among animals. For the Kabbalists the point of departure and the proof for gilgul was the commandment of levirate marriage (see *Ḥaliẓah): the brother of the childless deceased replaces the deceased husband so that he may merit children in his second gilgul. Later, other mitzvot were interpreted on the basis of transmigration. The belief in metempsychosis also served as a rational excuse for the apparent absence of justice in the world and as an answer to the problem of the suffering of righteous and the prospering of the wicked: the righteous man, for example, is punished for his sins in a previous gilgul. The entire Book of Job and the resolution of the mystery of his suffering, especially as stated in the words of Elihu, were interpreted in terms of transmigration (e.g., in the commentary on Job by *Naḥmanides, and in all subsequent kabbalistic literature). Most of the early kabbalists (up to and including the author of the Zohar) did not regard transmigration as a universal law governing all creatures (as is the case in the Indian belief) and not even as governing all human beings, but saw it rather as connected essentially with offenses against procreation and sexual transgressions. Transmigration is seen as a very harsh punishment for the soul which must undergo it. At the same time, however, it is an expression of the mercy of the Creator, "from whom no one is cast off forever"; even for those who should be punished with "extinction of the soul" (keritut), gilgul provides an opportunity for restitution. While some emphasized more strongly the aspect of justice in transmigration, and some that of mercy, its singular purpose was always the purification of the soul and the opportunity, in a new trial, to improve its deeds. The death of infants is one of the ways by which former transgressions are punished.

In the Bahir it is stated that transmigration may continue for 1,000 generations, but the common opinion in the Spanish Kabbalah is that in order to atone for its sins, the soul transmigrates three more times after entering its original body (according to Job 33:29, "Behold, God does all these things, twice, three times, with a man"). However, the righteous transmigrate endlessly for the benefit of the universe, not for their own benefit. As on all points of this doctrine, opposing views also exist in kabbalistic literature: the righteous transmigrate as many as three times, the wicked, as many as 1,000! Burial is a condition for a new gilgul of the soul, hence the reason for burial on the day of death. Sometimes a male soul enters a female body, resulting in sterility. Transmigration into the bodies of women and of gentiles was held possible by several kabbalists, in opposition to the view of most of the Safed kabbalists. The Sefer Peli'ah viewed proselytes as Jewish souls which had passed into the bodies of gentiles, and returned to their former state.


The relationship between transmigration and hell is also a matter of dispute. Baḥya b. *Asher proposed that transmigration occurred only after the acceptance of punishment in hell, but the opposite view is found in the Ra'aya Meheimna, in the Zohar, and among most of the kabbalists. Because the concepts of metempsychosis and punishment in hell are mutually exclusive, there could be no compromise between them. Joseph of Hamadan, Persia, who lived in Spain in the 14th century, interpreted the entire matter of hell as transmigration among animals. The transmigrations of souls began after the slaying of Abel (some claim in the generation of the Flood), and will cease only with the resurrection of the dead. At that time the bodies of all those who underwent transmigrations will be revived and sparks (niẓoẓot) from the original soul will spread within them. But the other answers to this question were proposed by many kabbalists, especially in the 13th century. The expansion of the notion of transmigration from a punishment limited to specific sins into a general principle contributed to the rise of the belief in transmigration into animals and even into plants and inorganic matter. This opinion, however, opposed by many kabbalists, did not become common until after 1400. Transmigration into the bodies of animals is first mentioned in the Sefer ha-Temunah, which originated in a circle probably associated with the kabbalists of Gerona. In the Zohar itself this idea is not found, but some sayings in Tikkunei Zohar attempt to explain this concept exegetically, indicating that this doctrine was already known to the author of that work. Ta'amei ha-Mitzvot (c. 1290–1300), an anonymous work on the reasons for the commandments, records many details (partly quoted by Menahem *Recanati) on the transmigration of human souls into the bodies of animals, the great majority of which were punishments for acts of sexual intercourse forbidden by the Torah.

In the Later and the Safed Kabbalah

A more general elaboration of the entire concept appears in the works of Joseph b. Shalom *Ashkenazi and his colleagues (early 14th century). They maintain that transmigration occurs in all forms of existence, from the Sefirot ("emanations") and the angels to inorganic matter, and is called din benei ḥalof or sod ha-shelaḥ. According to this, everything in the world is constantly changing form, descending to the lowest form and ascending again to the highest. The precise concept of the transmigration of the soul in its particular form into an existence other than its original one is thus obscured, and is replaced by the law of the change of form. Perhaps this version of the doctrine of gilgul should be seen as an answer to philosophical criticism based on the Aristotelian definition of the soul as the "form" of the body which consequently cannot become the form of another body. The mystery of true gilgul in this new version was sometimes introduced instead of the traditional kabbalistic teaching as found in Masoret ha-Berit (1916) by David b. Abraham *ha-Lavan (c. 1300). The kabbalists of Safed accepted the doctrine of transmigration into all forms of nature and, through them, this teaching became a widespread popular belief.

In Safed, especially in the Lurianic Kabbalah, the idea of niẓoẓot ha-neshamot ("sparks of the souls") was highly developed. Each "main" soul is built in the spiritual structure of "mystical limbs" (parallel to the limbs of the body), from which many sparks spread, each of which can serve as a soul or as life in a human body. The gilgulim of all the sparks together are aimed at the restitution of the hidden spiritual structure of the "root" of the principal soul; it is possible for one man to possess several different sparks belonging to one "root." All the roots of the souls were in fact contained in Adam's soul, but they fell and were scattered with the first sin; the souls must be reassembled in the course of their gilgulim which they and their sparks undergo and through which they are afforded the opportunity to restitute their true and original structure. The later Kabbalah developed much further the idea of the affinity of those souls which belong to a common root. In the kabbalistic commentaries on the Bible many events were explained by such hidden history of the transmigration of various souls which return in a later gilgul to situations similar to those of an earlier state, in order to repair damage which they had previously caused. The early Kabbalah provides the basis of this idea: there Moses and Jethro, for example, are considered the reincarnations of Abel and Cain; David, Bathsheba, and Uriah, of Adam, Eve, and the serpent; and Job, of Terah, the father of Abraham. The anonymous Gallei Razayya (written 1552; published partly Mohilev, 1812), and Sefer ha-Gilgulim (Frankfurt, 1684) and Sha'ar ha-Gilgulim (1875, 1912) by Ḥayyim *Vital present lengthy explanations of the histories of biblical characters in the light of their former gilgulim. *Luria and Vital expanded the framework to include talmudic figures. The transmigrations of many figures are explained in Gilgulei Neshamot by Menahem Azariah da *Fano (edition with commentary, 1907). Many kabbalists dealt in detail with the function that was fulfilled by the several gilgulim of Adam's soul; they also explained his name as an abbreviation of Adam, David, Messiah (first mentioned by Moses b. Shem-Tov de *Leon).


In addition to the doctrine of gilgul, that of ibbur ("impregnation") developed from the second half of the 13th century. Ibbur, as distinct from gilgul, means the entry of another soul into a man, not during pregnancy nor at birth but during his life. In general, such an additional soul dwells in a man only for a limited period of time, for the purpose of performing certain acts or commandments. In the Zohar it is stated that the souls of Nadab and Abihu were temporarily added to that of Phinehas in his zeal over the act of Zimri, and that Judah's soul was present in Boaz when he begat Obed. This doctrine was a respected one in the teachings of the kabbalists of Safed, especially in the Lurianic school: a righteous man who fulfilled almost all of the 613 mitzvot but did not have the opportunity to fulfill one special mitzvah is temporarily reincarnated in one who has the opportunity to fulfill it. Thus the souls of the righteous men are reincarnated for the benefit of the universe and their generation. The ibbur of a wicked man into the soul of another man is called a *Dibbuk in later popular usage. The prevalence of the belief in gilgul in the 16th and 17th centuries also caused new disputes between its supporters and detractors. A detailed debate on the doctrine of transmigration took place in about 1460 between two scholars in Candia (Ms. Vatican 254). Abraham ha-Levi ibn Migash disputed against the doctrine of gilgul in all its manifestations (Sefer Kevod Elohim, 2, 10–14, Constantine, 1585) and Leone *Modena wrote his treatise Ben David against transmigration (published in the collection Ta'am Zekenim, 1885, pp. 61–64). In defense of transmigration, Manasseh Ben *Israel wrote Sefer Nishmat Ḥayyim (Amsterdam, 1652). Works of later kabbalists on the subjects are Midrash Talpiyyot, Anaf Gilgul (Smyrna, 1736) by Elijah ha-Kohen ha-Itamari, and Golel Or (Smyrna, 1737) by Meir *Bikayam.


S. Rubin, Gilgulei Neshamot (1899); S. Pushinski, in: Yavneh, 1 (1939), 137–53; G. Scholem, in: Tarbiz, 16 (1945), 135–50; S.A. Horodezki, Torat ha-Kabbalah shel ha-Ari ve-Ḥayyim Vital (1947), 245–52; S. Poznański, in: Semitic Studies in Memory of A. Kohut (1897), 435–56; N.E. David, Karma and Reincarnation in Israelitism (1908); G. Scholem, Von der mystischen Gestalt der Gottheit (1962), 193–247, 297–306; E. Gottlieb, in: Sefunot, 11 (1969), 43–66.

Sources: Encyclopaedia Judaica. © 2007 The Gale Group. All Rights Reserved.