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Last week, we noted that the primary meanings of “nefesh,” “ruach,” and “neshamah” differ widely from one another. “Nefesh” is related to expansion and relaxation; “ruach” is related to air, wind, and smell; and “neshamah” is related to breathing and abstraction.

The Midrash (Bereishis Rabbah 14:9) states that the soul has five names, each of which focuses on a different aspect: “Nefesh” focuses on blood or bodily homeostasis as the lifeline of one’s physical existence (see Leviticus 17:11 and Deuteronomy 12:23); “ruach” focuses on the soul’s wind-like property seamlessly flying up to the Heavens when one sleeps and descending back into one’s body when one awakens; and “neshamah” focuses on the sum total of an individual’s characteristics and personality. (Interestingly, Rabbi Yaakov Kamenetsky [1891-1986] said one’s neshamah only returns in the morning after one answers Barchu in Shachris.) We will discuss the last two terms, “chayah” and “yechidah,” next week.


The Maharsha (1555-1631) writes that these three elements represent three aspects of a person’s consciousness: the natural (nefesh), the spiritual (ruach), and the intellectual (neshamah). The Vilna Gaon (1720-1797) writes similarly in Yahel Ohr that they correspond to the survival instinct (nefesh), the emotional (ruach), and the intellectual (neshamah).

Rabbi Chaim of Volozhin (1749-1821) explains in Nefesh HaChaim (1:14) and Ruach Chaim (Avos 1:1) that the soul’s three aspects correspond to three different ways in which man’s will is manifest in the world. Nefesh corresponds to man’s deeds, which are the most physical manifestations of his will (see Leviticus 18:29 and Numbers 15:30); ruach corresponds to man’s speech, which is less physical than his actions but is still somewhat tangible (see II Samuel 23:2 and Isaiah 11:4); and neshamah corresponds to man’s thoughts, the most abstract manifestations of his will.

The Ibn Ezra (in Shittah Acheret to Genesis 2:7), Rabbeinu Yonah of Gerona (1180-1263), and the Vilna Gaon all write that three essential organs in the body correspond to these three parts of the soul. They maintain that the liver represents the nefesh’s desire for bodily pleasures, which Ibn Ezra specifically ties to the reproductive system. The heart represents the ruach’s desire for emotional pleasure (like wealth and honor), while the brain represents the neshamah’s yearning for religious/spiritual connection. (However, see Rashi to Psalms 25:1 and 86:4 who writes that the nefesh is the heart.)

Rabbeinu Yonah notes that the nefesh and ruach represent man’s instinct for thriving and surviving in a physical or material way. He explains that these two aspects of the soul are not unique to mankind; they are also present in animals. It is the third aspect of man’s soul – the neshamah, or yechidah – i.e., the intellectual dimension, that sets man apart from the animal kingdom.

Unlike Rabbeinu Yonah who understands that man actually has a nefesh and ruach, the Radak (to Genesis 2:7) writes that the terms “nefesh” and “ruach” primarily apply to lower creatures, and refer to man’s neshamah in a borrowed sense.

When a man marries a woman, he accepts the responsibility to provide her with three essentials: food, clothing, and conjugal intimacy (Exodus 21:11). Rabbi Yosef Karo (1488-1575) writes that these three correspond to the three parts of the soul we have been discussing.

Physical food corresponds to the nefesh, which is the most physical aspect of one’s soul and is sustained through material repast. Clothing corresponds to the ruach, which is slightly less physical and can therefore only be fueled through sustenance that is more abstract (like the satisfaction of honor or wealth). Finally, conjugal intimacy corresponds to the neshamah, which is the least physical part of the soul, energized by a totally transcendent Divine lifeline that is invisible to the naked eye – just like intimacy ought to be confined to the most private of settings, away from the prying eyes of others.

The Mishnah (Avos 5:19) teaches that one who has a ruach gavoha and a nefesh rachavah is a protégé of Balaam. Most commentators explain that “ruach gavoha” refers to someone haughty, and “nefesh rachavah” refers to one who is desirous and lustful. Indeed, Rashi (Psalms 27:12, Ecclesiastes. 6:7, and Job 6:11) ties “nefesh” to one’s desires, and Radak writes that the nefesh is the seat of desire, which is why the Torah attributes man’s sins to his nefesh (Leviticus 5:1, 5:15, and 22:6).

Rabbi Chaim of Volozhin writes in Nefesh HaChaim (1:15) that none of the words we are discussing refers to perceivable, physical entities. And although “neshamah” is related to “neshimah” (breathing), it does not connote ordinary human breathing. Rather, it connotes G-d blowing – so to speak – a spiritual life-force into man that keeps him alive.

Rabbi Chaim of Volozhin famously compares G-d powering man by His breath to a glassblower. Just as the glassblower exhales into a blowpipe, so too Hashem blew life into man via a chain reaction.

The first step of blowing is called “neshamah” and is, so to speak, the closest to G-d. In the next stage, the air that the glassblower breathes out enters the blowpipe, which is like a pipe or conduit. This conduit resembles the ruach, which serves as a bridge between the neshamah and the nefesh. Finally, the spurts of air from the glassblower reach their final destination in the molten glass that it shapes, which is equivalent to the nefesh.

Rabbi Chaim of Volozhin explains that because the nefesh is the last stop for this influx of Divine air, the verb cognates of “nefesh” also refer to resting and stopping.

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Rabbi Reuven Chaim Klein writes The Jewish Press's "Fascinating Explorations in Lashon Hakodesh" column.