Photo Credit: Jewish Press

It may seem strange that the same word can mean “wind,” “spirit,” and “breath” – except that this same pattern actually repeats in numerous other languages. Consider: the German “geist” (spirit) is related to the English words “ghost” and “gust,” as well as concepts like volkgeist (spirit of the people) and zeitgeist (spirit of the time).

The Latin root that gives us “spirit” can also be found in words related to breathing, like “aspirate” and “respirate.” Even the other Hebrew words for soul or spirit – like nefesh and neshamah – are related to the words for “breathing.” As we find in the last pasuk in Tehillim, “Kol haneshamah tehalel Kah” – everything that breathes shall praise Hashem.


The idea that the soul, the unseen animating spirit of life, is linked to breathing is an intuitive observation, common to many languages and cultures; after all, the absence of breathing was the most obvious evidence of death, the soul’s departure that did not necessarily leave any mark on the body.


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Rabbi Elli Fischer is a translator, writer, and historian. He edits Rav Eliezer Melamed's Peninei Halakha in English, cofounded HaMapah, a project to quantify and map rabbinic literature, and is a founding editor of Lehrhaus. Follow him @adderabbi on Twitter or listen to his podcast, "Down the Rabbi Hole."