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If You Don’t Know the Way to Hell, You Can Find It on a Map

George Jochnowitz writes about “gehenna,” an English synonym for “hell” that comes, via Greek and Latin, from the Hebrew word gehinnom. This in turn derives from gey ben hinnom, “the valley of the son of Hinnom” (or simply “the Valley of Hinnom,” as it is known in English), which is the biblical name of a wadi in Jerusalem that is indeed remembered by Mr. Jochnowitz as being, on his first visit to Israel in 1974, “as hot as hell.”

No doubt it was, though probably no hotter than other places in Jerusalem on a broiling summer day. Any of you who have been in Jerusalem for even a day or two have surely been in, or overlooked, Gey Ben-Hinnom. More of a ravine than a valley, it cuts downward between the western, Ottoman wall of the Old City with its Jaffa Gate, on one side, and the posh Jewish neighborhood of Yemin Moshe and Jerusalem’s Cinematheque building, on the other, before dipping in a southeasterly direction past the neighborhood of Abu-Tor and into the Judean desert.

Rather, it was the custom, observed in the Valley of Hinnom in biblical times by adherents of the cult of the Canaanite-Phoenician god Moloch or Melekh, of passing their children through fire as part of a religious initiation rite. Although the youngsters were probably harmed no more than is one’s finger when passed quickly through a flame, the rite was considered a particularly barbaric form of idol worship by the biblical prophets, who repeatedly denounced it. And so, since the idea of punishment for sin after death, when it first began to develop in early post-biblical Judaism, was commonly conceived of as a casting into fire, it was not unnaturally linked to the ravine — or more precisely, to the earth beneath it. This was because in biblical Judaism (where the concept of hell as a place of punishment did not exist), as in many pagan religions, the souls of the dead were thought to reside in an underworld beneath the earth’s surface, called She’ol in the Bible and Hades in Greek mythology.

Thus, in the Talmudic tractate of Eruvin is the statement that the underworld of gehinnom has three hidden entrances, “one in the desert, one in the sea, and one in Jerusalem,” where puffs of smoke rising from the Valley of Hinnom mark the underground fires burning there. Although the association of hell with the ravine was supposedly reinforced by its alleged use in Second Temple times as a garbage dump where Jerusalem’s refuse was burned, so that palls of smoke hovered constantly over it, there is no reliable ancient documentation of such a practice. The historical memory of the cult of Moloch is explanation enough.

The existence of hell inside the earth, with openings through which it is possible to come and go, sets the scene for a medieval tale about Rabbi Akiva that helps answer a query of Mr. Jochnowitz’s. He writes: “I remember reading or hearing something about mourners saying Kaddish for the dead for eleven months, because the maximum time the dead spend in Gehenna is a year, and one hopes the person one is praying for will not have to serve the full sentence. Do you have any idea what I am referring to?”

Mr. Jochnowitz is referring to a belief that has its roots in a Talmudic saying and a post-talmudic story, both ascribed to the first-century figure of Rabbi Akiva. The saying is in the Mishnah, where Akiva is cited as asserting that “the wicked are sentenced to gehenna for [no longer than] 12 months.” The tale occurs in various medieval texts, all of which tell how, while walking along a lonely road, Akiva encountered a soot-blackened man hurrying beneath a heavy load of wood. Asked who he was, the man replied that he was a great sinner residing in hell, and that he was required to bring to it the daily supply of firewood over which he was roasted. Only if the son he had not bothered to circumcise were to praise God in prayer in a synagogue could he be released from his ordeal. The story ends with Akiva’s tracking down the son, seeing to his circumcision, and teaching him the rudiments of Judaism, after which he says the required prayer and his father is freed from hell and admitted to paradise.

In time, this prayer came to be identified with the Kaddish, although this wasn’t the case to begin with. As for the story of Akiva and the sinner, it only makes sense if it is assumed that gehenna is an accessible place with exits and entrances, even if these are unknown to earth’s inhabitants. Keep an eye out the next time you’re in the Valley of Hinnom.

Questions for Philologos can be sent to [email protected]

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