Ask The Rabbi

For the week ending 22 March 2003 / 18 Adar II 5763


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 of 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 neshamagives 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 souls 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

Public Domain

Re: Hold That Bus! (Ohrnet Ki Tisa)

Dear Rabbis,

Im sorry, but I strongly disagree with your answer to the question about holding a bus for someone who is running to catch it.

Everyone who takes buses regularly knows that their schedule isnt precise to the minute (at least not in any city where I have lived, in Israel or the United States). Nobody can predict whether more or fewer people will get on, or how many red lights the bus will have to stop for. Even at the beginning of the route, the driver sometimes takes an extra minute or two to drink his coffee, use the bathroom, or finish his conversation. (Not to mention many other variables.) Anyone who is calculating his schedule to the minute needs not a bus, but a taxi (or maybe a police car with the siren blaring).

On the other hand, people do arrange their schedules on the assumption that they will be able to get a certain bus and not have to wait for the next one. That wait (and for some of the buses I take, its half an hour) often makes the difference between getting to work on time or being significantly late, making or missing an appointment, picking up a child on time or making him stand outside crying. The fact that a person has to run to make the bus he needs may be because he had to wait for a red light before he could cross the street, or because he couldnt leave work any sooner.

Appealing to the kindness of the driver and the passengers sounds beautiful, but in practice it doesnt work. Its not always possible to make oneself heard quickly enough. And, unfortunately, many passengers and drivers will say no out of grumpiness or selfishness.

I could tell you many stories to prove this. Many times my children have come home from school as much as an hour late because a driver didnt feel like stopping to let on a large group of school children. I was once on a bus when a driver did that. When I protested, a passenger answered loudly that she didnt want to bother stopping either. I asked her, "Dont you care about our children?" She answered, "No, I dont. I only care about my family." (She wasnt being sarcastic. She meant it!)

Im sorry, but refusing to wait for someone who is running to catch the bus, in order to possibly save a minute or less, is in the same category as buying expensive luxuries while refusing to give tzedaka to feed the hungry. Standing on that bottom step and making the bus wait for the hurrying person is exactly what a Jew should do.

A friend,

Maaleh Adumim, Israel

Re: Seasons of the Moon (Ohrnet Purim)


The Purim and Amalek e-mail touched many chords in my mind and heart. The poem at the end is deeply moving. I want to share it with my congregation and friends. Please let me know the name of the author so that I can make

appropriate attribution. Is it by Rabbi Yaakov Asher Sinclair or by someone else?

Thank you for your continuing wonderful teachings. I am now sharing them with my students as someone a few short years ago shared your web site with me. May we walk together on G-d's path, growing in knowledge and wisdom.

Have a good Shabbat.

Tamar D. Earnest, MD

Editors reply: Yes. The poem titled "Lifting My Eyes?" was indeed written by Rabbi Yaakov Asher Sinclair, and thank you for your words of appreciation. We appreciate them.

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