Let’s make it clear from the outset: the realm we enter into after death
is an altogether other order of being; it’s neither this world nor the
World to Come, though it shares elements of both. And it’s essential to
recall that the Afterlife is a way-station of sorts, not our final
destination. It’s where our life is reviewed, where debts are paid, and
where we get used to being above and beyond life. It’s also where the soul
dwelt before it entered this world, as such Gan Eden is sort of the
soul’s “home” -- but not really, since our actual home is in G-d’s
Presence, in The Word to Come.
(It seems likely that there’d be an awkward albeit fascinating moment when
it finally occurs to the newly-arrived soul that it’s no longer bound by
the ways of this world and it realizes that things are utterly different
and with wholly other rules, but the tradition doesn’t speak of that
In any event, the Afterlife is where the soul thrives on its own, free as
it is from the confines of the body, and where it’s thus able to be itself
at last. But just like our situation here in the world where we’re open to
the consequences of being ourselves, since some would like us and do us
favors while others would dislike us and harm us, the soul is likewise
open to some pleasure and discomforts in the Afterlife. And so it’s said
to experience “Heaven” or “Hell” then depending upon its makeup. We’ll
first concentrate upon Heaven, which is termed Gan Eden (i.e., The Garden
of Eden) in the Tradition.
The Jewish concept of Heaven (and of Hell) is different from others’. Many
conceive of Heaven as the realm in which G-d abides, and where angels and
the souls that have merited eternal life commune in everlasting bliss with
Him. But G-d no more “abides” there more especially than anywhere else,
for “The whole world” and all else besides “is full of His Glory” (Isaiah
6:13). It’s also true that angels can dwell here on our plane, on higher
ones, and on some of the very highest of all (some of which are even
higher than Heaven), depending on their mission. And as we learned,
eternal life is experienced in The World to Come.
In any event, the prophet Ezekiel depicted the original Garden of Eden
which is analogous to the ethereal one as, “G-d’s garden, where every
precious stone was your covering (including) ruby, topaz, diamond, beryl,
onyx, jasper, lapis lazuli, turquoise and emerald; and where gold, … was
in your midst” (Ezekiel 28:13). Of course this is to be taken
metaphorically as far as the Afterlife is concerned, since that Gan Eden
is utterly other-worldly. But the imagery is meant to evoke some of the
preciousness and spiritual luster of the Afterlife experience.
Ramchal speaks of Gan Eden as being comprised of “several levels”, and in
fact we’re told in other sources that there are seven levels in all. But
Ramchal chose to focus on its relatively “upper” and “lower” levels
apparently in keeping with the abbreviated nature of this work.
Souls dwell in the lower Gan Eden in a “body” that “resemble their earthly
bodies somewhat”, which is to say, in a sort of ethereal encasement that’s
loosely analogous to our physical bodies. And it seems that the experience
there is also somewhat analogous to ours here, except that souls
experience more “spiritual delights” than our own, as would befit them.
The upper level of Heaven, though, is “where souls dwell in their true
essence”. It’s there where they experience “greater and higher spiritual
delights than those in the lower Gan Eden”. We’re also told that the souls
experiences a sense of the passing of time and of on-come of
different “seasons”, each one with its own delight, depending on the
soul’s level of advancement. That would explain the various discussions of
otherworldly experiences of Shabbat and the Holy Days.
Rabbi Yaakov Feldman has translated and commented upon "The Gates of Repentance", "The Path of the Just", and "The Duties of the Heart" (Jason
Aronson Publishers). His works are available in bookstores and in various
locations on the Web.