Hell for Jews? The Case of the Epikoros

How do Jews get to hell?

The short answer is they don’t, because Jews don’t really have a hell, at least not in the sense of the fiery, eternal torture chambers Dante elaborately portrays in The Inferno (1321). Instead, they have a very Jewish idea of eternal punishment: call it a hell for the disputatious.

Gustave Dore 6th ring Dante Inferno
Gustave Dore, 6th Circle, Dante’s Inferno (Paris: Hachette, 1861) from Open Culture

In Canto X, Dante and Virgil, his tour guide, find the sixth ring of hell is filled with open graves, perpetually burning the still conscious bodies in them. Dante asks why the graves are open, and Virgil says,

 “They’ll all be shuttered up
when they return here from Jehosaphat
together with the flesh they left above.

Within this region is the cemetery
of Epicurus and his followers,
all those who say the soul dies with the body.

Later, Dante interviews one of the corpses in hell, and the zombie says,

“…  our awareness
will die completely at the moment when
the portal of the future has been shut.” [Digital Dante]

In other words, they will not be resurrected with the rest of the dead when the time comes (Jehosaphat is a euphemism for the Catholic messiah, who shares his initial). Their immortal souls, their “awareness,” will die when the they are summoned for final judgement. Epicurean souls won’t be reunited with their bodies with the Resurrection of the Dead. They die forever.

Dante seems to be deriving his ideas from a very specific discussion among Jews from a thousand years earlier. In the Talmud, rabbis discuss how heretical Jews can lose their souls forever, and they single out the “epikoros” for particular doom.  Though he didn’t know Hebrew or Aramaic and didn’t read the Talmud, Dante really knew his Catholic theology, which took a good deal from the Jews, and Dante is channeling it here. But where Dante takes the epicurean connection literally – Epicurus is one of the souls he sees – the Jews have a very different notion of hell, one revealed by their funny refusal to acknowledge Epicurus.  [1]

The three eternally fatal heresies

Jews, as in other religions, will be resurrected to go to the World to Come, but if they do one of three things, they’re dead meat [2]

#1 Deny that the Resurrection of the Dead is promised in the Bible [Torah]

#2 Deny that the Bible’s Author is Divine

#3: Be an “epikoros”

When we first encountered this list, my classmate Dr. Jack Brandes noted that it doesn’t make much sense. Why does denial that “resurrection of the dead is to be found in the Torah” take precedence over the denial that the whole Torah is Divine? Surely denial of the whole is more fundamental than any single proposition and should come first.

And we can add to Jack’s query, what the heck is an epikoros anyway? Why does it have its own word, one that hardly occurs anywhere else in Talmud and is named after a Greek pleasure-seeker? Why is he so singularly bad? After all, we’ve just come from pages of the Talmud that discuss rebellious sages and false prophets, and they seem much more worthy of eternal punishment than a common garden-variety sensualist or atheist, yet they are only condemned to mortal death. The epikoros, by contrast, faces eternal death. Where’s the equity here? “Lo fair!” as my son’s classmates used to shout in kindergarten in Israel, “No fair!”

Worse, when the rabbis finally get around to describing the epikoros nine pages of Talmud later,[3] they seem to have saved up their greatest outrage for him in a self-serving festival of indignation. What does the epikoros do that’s so bad? Why, he has the temerity to make fun of those same rabbis and Torah scholars. He mocks them for being useless or self-serving, or questions the absurdity of their rulings or disparages them for making senseless rules that make life harder just to keep themselves busy (“They forbade us the raven but let us eat dove”). He insults them in front of others. The over-sensitivity of the sages to even the merest slight leaves plenty of room for cynicism. It looks like they’ve constructed a great, self-serving Catch-22: if you make fun of us and our authority, like for instance for defining an epikoros as someone who mocks or questions us, then you are one, and you are going to die an eternal death.

Yet, by contrast, the section (Cheilik – “Portion” –  in Sanhedrin) has some of the most elegant and monumental displays of exegesis and story-telling in the Talmud. The rabbis’ eloquence is warranted because here they aren’t just adjudicating civil or capital penalties in this world, they are describing awesome cosmic events like the resurrection of the dead, when the Messiah comes, and the ultimate fate of your immortal soul.

So maybe when they come to the matter of the epikoros we should look at their condemnation as more than just an extended fit of self-serving peevishness.

Indeed, if we delve this strange word more closely, it tells a deeper story, one that reveals a startling unity to these seemingly mismatched list of three big sins. It uncovers a hidden sophistication carrying so much theological power that our cynical view of the rabbis as a bunch of racketeers protecting their turf is replaced with admiration for these learned mortals who have undertaken the dauntless task of trying to read the Divine Mind.

How to lose your portion in the world to come

Sometimes transliterated apikoros, apikorsis, apicorsis, epikores, or even ‘apikoyris’ with a Yiddish inflection, the word epikoros sticks out in the lexicon of the Talmud. It isn’t Hebrew and it doesn’t have an obvious precedent in Aramaic but seems obviously to come from the Greek philosopher Epikouros or as we know him, Epicurus.

Epicurus (341-270 BCE) taught that death was the end of both the body and the soul. He insisted that only the material world is real and he denied the existence of God or Heaven as logically absurd. After all, what kind of supreme being would introduce so much pain and misery into the world? For what purpose? Anyway, who has ever brought back a shred of proof of an afterlife where the soul receives reward or punishment?  All we get is this one go-round in the material world, so we better make the best of it. The proper role of philosophy is not to guide humans into good behavior that will ennoble their spirits and please the gods for some reward in the afterlife, but to teach them how to fulfill the ultimate goal of life: seek pleasure and avoid pain, especially the physical and psychic suffering that attends death.[3] In short, Epicurus was the very archetype of the heretic.

But if it is obvious their idea of a heretic refers to him or his followers, the rabbis are confoundingly silent about it. True, maybe their silence is because of their general reluctance to acknowledge Greek sources. They even warn against teaching Greek (see Perpetual Chanukah in the West – or – Why the Pythagorean Theorem is More Than Just Math). Greek philosophy was especially dangerous since its intellectualism and soaring embrace of knowledge of the universe was naturally appealing to the Jewish mind, just as science and philosophy are today, and Epicureanism certainly seduced many Jews over the centuries.) So perhaps the rabbis were simply following their policy of not acknowledging Greek thought.

Yet, they not only avoid any mention of the connection, they pun around it, as if to efface its source. They use an Aramaic word with similar spelling – apkayrousa – to define an irreverent Torah student (Sanhedrin 100a). Later commentators seem to contort themselves to follow this lead to a completely different and much less plausible etymology. Rashi, (1040-1105) expands the Talmud’s version by saying it alludes to “epkorousa,” [אפקרותא – disrespect]. Meir Abulafia (1170-1244, known as the Ramah), and Maimonides (1138-1204, known as Rambam) both agree the word derives from hefker, abandoned property that’s up for grabs. (Their agreement is even more remarkable because Ramah called Rambam a heretic for denying the Resurrection of the Dead.) In turn, Rambam explains his derivation of the word most completely. “The word epikores is Aramaic,” he insists. “Its meaning is one who abandons (mafkir) and denigrates the sages or a specific Torah scholar or denigrates his teacher.”[7] We can see where he’s coming from. Both words share three root letters: P-K-R, פקר. Mafkir comes from hefker. By connecting it with disrespect for a teacher, it gives a new and profound sense of walking away from your half of a transcendent teacher-student relationship, Indeed, in his next sentence, Maimonides gives more examples of heresy, and then just a few sentences later he announces his Thirteen Principles of Faith, one of the most influential codifications of Jewish belief ever written.

Is it possible they ALL were unaware of the popular Greek philosopher of pleasure? No.

Epicurus is counted as one of the greatest of the Greek philosophers, rivaling Plato. Plutarch and Cicero wrote about him in the 1st century CE. In the 3rd century CE, contemporary with the rabbis holding forth in the Talmud, he’s treated in a bestselling work, The Lives and Opinions of the Greek Philosophers by Diogenes Laertius, and he was well-known throughout the Medieval period (witness Catholic theology and Dante).  Maimonides was well aware of Greek philosophy in general as a follower of Aristotle, and mentions Epicurus several times in his Guide for the Perplexed (1190).

For a thousand years these heavy hitters are insisting on a hidden meaning of the word, purposefully ignoring the obvious, to get at something else. What gives? What are they after?

Breaking the circuit

The surprising answer lies, I believe, in going back to the original Greek name. The main part of epikoros is the Greek χορός – chorus or koros – a circle of singers, probably part of an ancient ritual. In classical Greek theatre, it evolved into the group of players who stand together, sometimes in a ring, and dance across the stage back and forth singing verses of point and counterpoint to the theme of the play or actions of the main players. Koros in turn is traced back to the Proto-Indo-European[8] root gher, meaning “trap” or “catch,” a core concept signifying the containment around something. It is easy to see how it also evolves into the Greek cognate of chorus, χόρτος – khórtos, meaning “enclosure”[9] like an animal pen or corral. To evoke this shared primitive origin of the concept, have you ever sung a well-rehearsed song with others in a tight circle? You were probably moved beyond mere geometry to experience a spirit of solidarity, intimacy.

The other part of the name is more familiar, the prefix epi– , meaning “on top of,” commonly used for words that survive intact from ancient Greek like epiphany (a shining or appearance from above, a manifestation or revelation of heavenly presence), or in science for technical terms like epidermis (the top layer of skin) or epicenter (the point above the enter of an earthquake). But the prefix can also carry a sense of contrast, opposition, something after, above, atop, or even against – in short, different from – the root. An epi-gone is an inferior successor, like Fredo the weak brother in The Godfather, or like the imitators of the great artist Caravaggio to whom the term was applied.[10] 

Epikoros might well have chosen the name for himself: a radical who broke out of – superceded – the circle of Platonic belief. (The little we may know of him makes him sound like a compulsive self-aggrandizing rebel, rejecting his teacher Democritus and other predecessors, including Plato and Pythagoras, to claim he was self-taught).

In his treatment of the word, David Curwin, author of the brilliant Hebrew etymology website Balashon, notes

… hevker is related to bakar בקר – “cattle,”, and was so called because cattle would graze in abandoned or ownerless land, … this goes back to a general association between cattle and property [11]

Imagine cattle herded into a pen. One breaks out and gets lost, to wander ownerlessly. There’s our Jewish epikoros: someone who opposes or breaks out of the closed circle to embrace a terrible fate. Like, Maimonides’ mafkir, the epikoros acts willfully, intentionally.

Epikoros cuts the circuit between heaven and earth. What you do on Earth has no consequences, because there’s nothing else, so seek pleasure. He is the archetype of the radical denier, that wise guy who has to say that one other, defiant thing, the pathologically compulsive skeptic whose goal is to break the circle of belief in anything that he can’t grasp with his appetites or senses. But his behavior, the rabbis are warning him, has led him to abandon his soul.

I believe the rabbis are not disingenuous here but are knowingly digging deeper to get at this more ancient, resonant aura around the word epikoros. But how does that explain their fixation on their own pride and sensitivities? And though they are excellent linguists to be sure, how would they have gotten access to etymology pieced together only recently by centuries of painstaking archeology and philology?

One explanation is a mystical one that goes to the root of their belief in their own authority: they are transmitting knowledge preserved in the Oral Torah that Moses also received on Sinai, antedating Epikoros by 1000 years. When they invoke “epikoros” as derived from hefker, they do so with the confidence preserved by an oral tradition that is much deeper and older than mere superficial cultural allusions.  If their word play is more than a cynical effort to protect their monopoly on Torah authority, then it’s a test of our status, too: either we are heretics, or we believe this tenet on which rabbinic Judaism rests.

The road to Jewish Heaven is paved by scholars

At first glance, the epikoros’ offense seems the least dire of the three Big Ones and the one mostly driven by the very earthly concerns of defensive rabbis.

But when viewed through this deeper meaning, the list of three offenders defines three versions of the same form of heresy: they all break the circuit of authority from God through Moses into the Oral and Written Torah and from thence into the Mishnah and to Gemarah (the discussions of the rabbis of mishnah) that comprise the Talmud.

Who is the epikoros?  His transgression is the most personal, immediate, and pedestrian of the three Big Ones, but in some ways that makes his sin the most dreadful of them all. He diminishes, even in apparently slight ways – he slights – the authority and respect due the sages and teachers who interpret and transmit the Torah. Why is this worthy of the ultimate penalty? Because their authority is absolutely equivalent to the Torah’s Divine authority. In fact, the two are indistinguishable. Offense Number One is to deny that the Torah tells us that the dead will be resurrected after the messiah comes, even though it doesn’t, at least in any literal way. Then how do we know?  We’ll show you! And immediately the rabbis put on virtuoso performances of exegetical brilliance proving the case. The sages’ job, and the project of the Talmud, is to unfold the hidden meanings in the text of the Torah. Though they are human and imperfect, as the varying interpretations show, they are acting in good faith, they’re pros at what they do, and their conclusions have the force of Divine law.

By rejecting the superficial meaning of epikoros to invoke the deeper more ancient one, they are actually enacting the lesson: the apparent surface meaning of the Torah doesn’t say anything about resurrection of the dead, but our elaborations show it does incontrovertibly. Epikoros sounds like it refers to one thing, but it really means another. Watch this …

If you deny our reading, as arcane and incredible as it first seems, it is as serious as denying the Torah comes from God. And just as you must build a fence around the Torah, you must also protect not only the dignity, authority and majesty of our rabbinic project of unfolding its hidden meanings, but also our personal dignity, authority, and majesty, even if it makes us look like a mafia and even if we are only human. In short, the sages’ bravura performance in Cheilek, this famous awesome chapter in Sanhedrin, achieves transcendent coherence. It’s a meta-text that both renders a proof and performs the meaning of that proof.

The proper translation of Olam HaBah is not the static “World to Come” but the dynamic “World that is Coming”: Heaven is unfolding, approaching, in process, and we’re always on the way to It. The Talmud and our earthly interpretation of Torah is its accomplice and mirror, also always in process, always unfolding, revealing the hidden vectors of an Olam HaBah that’s approaching us. The two are coming to greet each other on the road. Mock the authority on which the belief rests, become too disputatious, and you’ve become an epikoros. Renounce ownership of your place in it, and your very soul will be destined to roam Ownerlessly, orphaned in a desolate, unnamable space with no hope for redemption. For Jews, that’s really hell.

David Porush

San Mateo, CA 2018



[1] My purpose here is not to highlight the differences between Jewish and Christian concepts of hell, a subject that’s been explored extensively and well by others. See J. Harold Ellens’ Heaven, Hell and the Afterlife [2013]; Alan Bernstein’s Hell and Its Rivals [2017].

[2]  Sanhedrin 10B; 90A et seq. Sanhedrin 99b-100a

[3] See the entry on Epicurus in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/epicurus/

[7] Rambam on Mishnah Sanhedrin 10:1. (https://www.sefaria.org/Rambam_on_Mishnah_Sanhedrin.10.1?lang=en )

[8] The forebear of most European and Near Eastern language from the Early Bronze Age, about 4000 BCE

[9] [https://en.wiktionary.org/wiki/%CF%87%CE%BF%CF%81%CF%8C%CF%82#Ancient_Greek  ]

[10] See https://www.telegraph.co.uk/art/what-to-see/caravaggios-imitators-pale-beside-the-painters-irresistable-geni/

See https://www.etymonline.com/word/epi- and https://en.wiktionary.org/wiki/%E1%BC%90%CF%80%CE%AF#Ancient_Greek

[11] “According to Tur-Sinai’s note in Ben Yehuda’s dictionary,…” David Curwin, “Epikoros,” in Balashon  https://www.balashon.com/search?q=epikoros

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