FROM BOOK FOUR, MYTHS OF HELL
256. THE UNFINISHED CORNER OF CREATION
All of Creation had been completed except for the north corner of the world. God began
to create it, but left it unfinished, saying, “Whoever declares himself to be God, let him
come and finish this corner, and then all shall know he is a god.” There, in that unfinished
corner, demons, winds, earthquakes, and evil spirits dwell, and from there they
come forth to the world, as it is said, From the north shall disaster break loose (Jer. 1:14).
When the Sabbath departs, great bands of evil spirits set out from there and roam the
Because of the cold north wind, the north was identified as the abode of evil spirits.
This myth explains why—because that part of creation is unfinished. Here God
makes a challenge to those who assert that they are divinities. The true test for a divinity
is the ability to create a world. So God left one corner of the world unfinished,
with the challenge that anyone who could finish it would indeed be a true god. Of
course, the clear implication is that such a creation would be impossible.
Rabbi Moshe Hayim Luzzatto offers a different perspective about unfinished creation:
“God began Creation but left it unfinished so that man could eventually bring it
to completion” (Adir ba-Marom).
The Kotzker Rebbe said of this unfinished corner of creation: “One little corner—
God left one little corner in darkness so that we may hide in it!”
Pirkei de-Rabbi Eliezer 3 ; Midrash Konen in Beit ha-Midrash 2:30; Sefer ha- Zikhronot 1:7;
The Book of Jubilees 2:2; Zohar 1:14b; Siah Sarfei Kodesh; Or ha-Ganuz.
279. WHEN A MAN DIES
Two angels watch over a man at the moment of his death, and they know whether he has
ever been a thief, for even the stones and beams of his house witness against him, as it is said,
For a stone shall cry out from the wall, and a rafter shall answer it from the woodwork (Hab. 2:11).
Then the soul of the man who has died is brought before the patriarchs and they say to
him, “My son, what have you done in the world from which you have come?”
If he answers, “I have bought fields and vineyards, and I have tilled them all my life,”
they say, “Fool that you have been! Have you not learned that The earth is the Lord’s and all
that it holds” (Ps. 24:1). Angels then take him away and hand him over to the avenging
angels, who thrust him into Gehenna.
Then angels bring another before the patriarchs. They ask the same question, and if he
answers, “I gathered gold and silver,” they reply, “Fool, have you not read in the books of
the prophets, Silver is Mine and gold is Mine—says the Lord of Hosts (Hag. 2:8). Likewise, he
is turned over to the avenging angels.
But when a scholar is brought before them, they ask the same question, and if he
answers, “I have devoted my life to the study of the Law,” the patriarchs say, “Let him
enter into peace” (Isa. 57:2), and God receives them with grace.
This account of what happens to those who die emphasizes the importance of the
study of Torah in the eyes of the patriarchs, who are said to serve as judges, and in the
eyes of God. The two angels who watch over a man at the time of his death are identified
as the Angel of Death and the Angel who counts a man’s days and years.
Gan Eden ve-Gehennom in Beit ha-Midrash 5:48-49; Orhot Hayim.
304. HOW THE DEAD SEE THE DEAD
The day a person dies is the day of his judgment, when the soul parts from the body. A
person does not leave this world until he sees the Shekhinah, accompanied by three ministering
angels, who receive the soul of a righteous person. These angels examine a person’s
deeds, and insist that a person confess to all that the body has done with the soul in this
world. After this confession, the soul of a righteous person rejoices in its parting from
this world and looks forward with delight to the world to come. For when God takes the
souls of the righteous, He takes it with gentleness. But when He takes the souls of the
wicked, He does so through cruel angels, as it is said, Therefore a cruel angel shall be sent
against him (Prov. 17:11).
After a man dies he can be seen by all the others who are dead. To each of them he
appears as they last saw him alive: some see him as a youth, others as an old man. For the
angel who guards the dead makes his soul assume these various forms so that all should
recognize him by seeing him just as they saw him in life.
However, if a man is condemned to punishment in Gehenna, he is enveloped in smoke
and brimstone, so that none of those being punished can see the punishment of any
other. Thus none are put to shame, except for those who have put others to shame.
This description of a man seeing the Shekhinah as he dies is based on Exodus 33:20:
No man shall see Me and live. The three angels who accompany the Shekhinah are identified
as the three angels who visited Abraham in Genesis 18:2.
It is characteristic of Jewish myth to describe in great detail unknown realms, such
as heaven, hell, or what comes to pass when a person leaves this life. Here the dead
are said to see each other exactly as they appeared when they last saw each other
alive. This explanation of how the dead see and recognize each other solves the problem
of a person’s changing appearance by aging.
Sifre on Deuteronomy 357; Midrash ha-Ne’elam in Zohar 1:98a; Sefer ha-Zikhronot 11:6.