For the week ending 6 September 2014 / 11 Elul 5774

The Soul

by Rabbi Yirmiyahu Ullman -
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From Jane in LA:

Dear Rabbi,

What is the soul?

Dear Jane,

The Torah states that "G-d formed man from the dust of the ground, and breathed into him the breath of life, and man became a living soul". This soul was extremely holy. The Midrash says Adam's soul was so elevated that the angels mistook him for G-d. In fact, the Talmud metaphorically relates that Adam reached from earth to Heaven. Obviously our Sages were not referring to Adam's physical size, but rather to his tremendous spiritual stature.

The above-mentioned verse hints to different aspects of the soul. Man became a "living soul" (nefesh), and G-d "breathed" into him (ruach), the "breath of life" (neshama). There are two additional dimensions of the soul, chaya (life) and yechida (oneness). Therefore the Sages taught that "the soul has five names: nefesh, ruach, neshama, chaya, and yechida."

Rav Saadya Gaon (10th century) takes this statement literally, meaning the soul is one entity with five different names that describe five different attributes. It is called Nefesh since it drives the physical desires and needs responsible for growth, as in the verse "when your nefesh desires to eat meat". It is named Ruach since it generates emotions, as in the verse "be not hasty in your ruach to be angry". It is called Neshama in that it imparts intellect and thought, as in "the neshama gives men understanding". The soul is also named Chaya since it derives its vitality from G-d, and Yechida refers to its uniqueness.

The Kabbalists, however, understood that these five names refer to five different levels of the soul which are connected like links in a chain. The highest level (yechida) is attached to G-d, and the lowest level (nefesh) resides in the blood. The nefesh, or "animal soul" common to all living creatures, drives the metabolism and maintains life. Ruach, the first level of the "human soul," generates feelings and personal qualities. The neshama pulls man towards G-d, to the performance of good deeds, to be pious and humble and to seek spiritual knowledge and achievement. The levels of chaya and yechida are far above the human realm, belonging to the esoteric.

The soul’s role as connector between G-d, the purely spiritual, and man's purely physical body was described by the mystics with the allegory of a glassblower. When the glassblower breathes into the glass, the outermost layer of air impacts the vessel, fixing its form, and comes to rest there (nefesh means rest). This outer layer of air is animated by and connected to the wind (ruach) that precedes it. In turn, this wind is an extension of the breath (neshima) of the glassblower. Finally, the breath is a manifestation of the life (chaya) of the glassblower, while yechida would correspond to the "Glassblower's" unique soul.

According to this, glassblowing can be said to have originated in the Middle East in more ways than one!


  • Genesis 2:7
  • Genesis Rabba, 8:10 & 14:9
  • Sanhedrin 38b
  • Deuteronomy 12:20
  • Ecclesiastes 7:9
  • Job 33:8
  • The Way of G-d, part 3, chapter 1

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