Following the examination of the commandments that relate to capital crimes in Jewish law that appeared in the last several perakim of Massekhet Sanhedrin, the Gemara has taught a broad framework of the mitzvot that are central to Judaism. Nevertheless, the focus of this framework has been on areas of halakha that involve actions and the subsequent intervention of beit din – the Jewish court system. To complete the picture of Jewish life and Jewish law, we must also examine the realm of belief, an area of basic core values that are central to the Torah. The last perek of Massekhet Sanhedrin, which begins on today’s daf, deals with these issues, presenting historical periods and personalities that illustrate these ideals.
The first Mishna opens with the statement kol Yisrael yesh la-hem ḥelek ba-olam ha-ba – all Jewish people have a share in the World-to-Come. The underlying assumption in that statement is that within the framework of reward and punishment, every Jewish person is guaranteed an eternal spiritual existence whose ultimate purpose is embodied in the Resurrection of the Dead and the World-to-Come. This guarantee relates only to a person who works to remain within the framework of God and Torah. Even if he errs and commits sins, he does not lose this eternal existence, although someone who consciously chooses to remove himself from this structure will lose his share in the World-to-Come and will receive the ultimate punishment – a complete and total death, in which nothing is left of the soul and there is no possibility of resurrection or continued spiritual life.
As far as the terms themselves are concerned, the Rambam believes that olam ha-ba – the World-to-Come – is the world of the souls, where those deserving souls reside after they are separated from their physical bodies. In that spiritual realm the souls enjoy a deep understanding of – and relationship with – the Creator, together with eternal, spiritual pleasure. In contrast, the Ramban, Ramah and others understand that olam ha-ba refers to the world that will exist after the Resurrection of the Dead, when people will live physical lives, but that it will be a totally different type of existence.