Someone I know recently died in a way that some described as “before her time”. I’m puzzled by this. Since life and death are in G‑d’s hands, is there such a thing in Judaism as “dying before one’s time”? If so, how can this be? What would happen to the soul of such a person?
I am sorry to hear of this tragedy, which I assume involved a young person in very unfortunate circumstances.
As difficult as it is to understand, Jewish sources and teachings do indicate that a person may die before their time.
The Talmud (Menachot 41a) discusses what would be the punishment for someone who, rather than proactively transgressing a prohibition, passively refrains from fulfilling a commandment. Since the person did not actually do a forbidden act, he should not be punished in physical terms. The Sages taught that although this is the case, during a time of Divine anger, such a person can nevertheless be ensnared, even though he’s not otherwise “deserving” of such a punishment.
Similarly the Talmud (Bava Kama 60a) states, “Rav Yosef taught, what is intended by the verse, ‘and you shall not go out, any man from the entrance of his house until morning’ (Ex. 12:22)? [Meaning, since the plague of the first-borns was directed against the Egyptians, why shouldn’t the Jews be allowed to leave their homes?] This teaches that when the Angel of Death is given permission to destroy, it doesn’t differentiate between righteous and wicked”.
Here too, then, we see that innocent people who otherwise should not be ensnared by death may nevertheless die in a way that would be tantamount to being “before their time”.
Perhaps the most explicit teaching regarding untimely death is found in the following Talmudic teaching (Chagiga 4b, paraphrased, and based on commentaries):
“Is there such a thing as one dying before his allotted time? Yes, as in the story of Rabbi Bibi bar Abaye who was once told by the Angel of Death that he sent his messenger to take Miriam ‘the women’s hairdresser’ but he brought Miriam ‘the children’s nurse instead’. The messenger asked, ‘Shall I restore her to the living and bring the other Miriam instead?’ The Angel of Death replied, ‘Since you’ve already taken her, let her remain counted among the dead.’
R. Bibi asked the Angle of Death, ‘But how were you able to take her since her time had not arrived?’ The Angel of Death answered that she was tending a stove and burned her foot, thus impairing her mazal. R. Bibi questioned how she could be removed from her generation in which she was an integral part, and without which the generation could not be completed. The Angel answered that he doesn’t entirely remove such prematurely taken souls from the world at that time but rather shepherds them through the world bodiless until their generation is completed. R. Bibi then challenged, ‘But what do you do with the remaining years in which these souls were supposed to have lived in bodies?’ The Angel of Death replied that these years are granted to certain young, humble and unassuming Torah scholars upon whom it was decreed to die, whose lives are thereby lengthened.”
This teaching is fascinating for its implications regarding the reasons for premature death, the phenomenon of a person coming back to life, and the experience of bodiless souls roaming through the world. Although I won’t be able to elaborate on these issues here, regarding your specific question about the spiritual destiny of such souls, the following insights of one of the commentators are particularly comforting.
Note that the deceased’s unfulfilled years are not transferred to just any person, nor to any Torah scholar, but rather to particularly unpresumptuous Torah scholars. Why? The souls of the prematurely departed could rightly claim before G‑d that they were prevented from fulfilling their spiritual potential. G‑d, in his merciful compassion, therefore transfers their unrealized years to those who will use them well, ensuring benefit for the souls to whom these years really belong. Thus, only a truly refined and humble scholar, who will not begrudge sharing his merit with his soul-partner, is given these years (Yechi Reuven 10a, on Chagiga).
So while the loss of people before their time is certainly tragic, at least we may be consoled to know that their untapped years are used to prolong the lives of others, specifically those of young, morally-refined Torah scholars whose merit accrued through these additional years is shared with and benefits the souls of their prematurely-departed spiritual partners.