Reincarnation is a word that to most Jews screams of foreign cultures. What is not common knowledge, however, is that the reincarnation of souls is a concept found in Judaism (although not mainstream) known as gilgul.
Before discussing any aspect of gilgul, Jewish Treats feels that it must advise you that this is an extremely complex kabbalistic idea, which we can only present in a broad and superficial manner.
Gilgul is not mentioned in the Torah, nor is it a focus of the sages of the Talmud. In fact, the concept of gilgul only became a topic of study in Medieval times. It was discussed by scholars such as Saadia Gaon (882-942) (who rejected the idea) and Nachmanides (1194-1270) (who accepted it). It was the kabbalists of Safed, however, who delved into the depths of the idea of reincarnation. The teachings of the Arizal (1534 -1572) were published by his disciple, Rabbi Chaim Vital (1543-1620), in the book Shaar Hagilgulim. These teachings then gained prominence in the early Chassidic movement.
The basic kabbalistic understanding of gilgul (which comes from the Hebrew word for cycle) is that every soul has a purpose. When a soul does not complete its purpose the first time it enters the physical world, it is returned to this world again in order to create a tikkun (repair). It is placed in a new life in a new body where the flaws of the previous life may best be rectified. And while chassidic/kabbalistic texts discuss reincarnation, it is not a primary focus in Jewish life because it then becomes a distraction to those creating the tikkun. (Sometimes, however, dramatic stories have arisen of special souls that made themselves known.)
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