What is the Jewish Perspective On the Soul?

Dear Jew in the City,

What is the Jewish perspective on the soul?




Thanks for your question, Ezra. Rather than reinventing the wheel, I’m going to share an excerpt from one of my books, on the nature of God and other spiritual matters, appropriately named The God Book. Sources in the excerpt below refer to the Ramchal’s Derech Hashem (“The Way of God”).

We discussed … how man is a unique creation, the synthesis of opposing components, namely a physical body and a spiritual soul. But “soul” really refers to more than one thing.

First, there’s the nefesh, which all living things possess. The nefesh gives a person his intellect and his emotions. The nefesh is transmitted to man – indeed to all creatures – at the time of conception and it gives each the appropriate degree of intelligence called for by its species. Other faculties, such as memory and imagination are also determined by the nefesh. [III, 1.1]

A human being, however, has a second, higher soul, which is completely separate from the nefesh. The soul tethers man to the spiritual forces in such a way that a person’s deeds can affect the spiritual realm. This higher soul also acts as a conduit to connect spiritual forces to a person’s lower soul (the nefesh), and from there to his physical form. The higher soul is meant to direct the nefesh in performing deeds throughout a person’s life. The higher soul is connected to the nefesh, which interfaces with the body through an element in the blood.* This is how a person’s physical and spiritual components are joined together. [III, 1.2]

*[The Torah prohibition against eating blood says, “because the soul of flesh is in the blood” – Leviticus 17:11. That’s the what; please don’t ask me to explain the details as to how!]

Since the higher soul is linked to the body by way of the lower soul, it becomes restrained in some ways. The soul’s connection to the physical prevents it from unifying with other spiritual forces. Also, a soul is affected by the actions of its host, which will drive it closer to or farther away from God’s light. Therefore, a person actually determines his soul’s ultimate fate, though the soul is meant to control the person by guiding him towards the proper path. [III, 1.3]

We generally speak of a soul as if it’s a single thing but it’s actually made up of several components. A soul is actually a number of souls linked together like a chain. (That’s the Ramchal’s metaphor; another might be nested one inside the next like Russian matryoshka dolls.) Just as all the links combine to form a single chain, all these spiritual layers combine to form a single soul, which is the higher soul that is unique to man. Each layer is connected to the next, until it connects to the nefesh and then to the body through the blood as we have discussed.

Sometimes, the various layers of a soul can temporarily “slip the chain” and leave, to return later. Conversely, additional layers that are not inherently part of one’s soul might temporarily be added, only to eventually depart. This is the case with the “neshama yeseira,” the “additional soul” that one acquires on Shabbos. (The spices at havdalah are intended to comfort one’s spirit for the departure of this additional layer.) The comings and goings of these spiritual layers would have no visible effect on a person’s physical form, nor would they affect his senses.

A soul has five parts: the nefesh, the ruach, the neshama, the chaya, and the yechida. [III, 1.4]

Even though it is tethered to the body, the higher soul of man has access to spiritual experiences. These experiences, however, have only a minor impact on a person’s thoughts. The Talmud (Megillah 3a) says that if a person is apprehensive and does not know why, it is because of something his spiritual forces saw. We see that the experiences in the spiritual realm do reach one’s soul but they are not communicated fully to his intellect, with the result that a person is not aware of them. [III, 1.5]

God saw fit to divide the day into hours of light, when we should be active, and hours of darkness, when we should rest. He also gave us the need to sleep, at which time both our bodies and our souls are renewed and refreshed. While asleep, a person’s mind and senses become passive. Only one faculty remains active: the imagination, which manifests itself through a person’s dreams.

While asleep, the link between the body and the soul is loosened. It is at this time that upper layers of the soul “slip the chain” and move about in the spiritual plane. Only the nefesh necessarily remains with the body. While traversing the spiritual plane, the unhitched layers of one’s soul can commune with spiritual forces, including those of prophecy. What the soul experiences can be transmitted back to the nefesh (which remains behind) and manifest in one’s dreams. However – and this is crucial – the things perceived by one’s soul while he is asleep are not necessarily true and accurate. The transmission process is symbolic and prone to distortion, so even if a person does dream something based on spiritual stimuli, he cannot be confident in the signal-to-noise ratio.

It is possible for a person to receive accurate information about his future in a dream. This information is revealed by some spiritual force to one’s soul in its freed state. It is transmitted to the nefesh and then filtered through a person’s imagination, with the information then coming through either more clearly or more garbled. This phenomenon is discussed in the Book of Job (33:15-16), “In a dream, in a vision of the night, when deep sleep falls over men, in slumber upon the bed, then (God) opens the ears of men….”

Therefore, dreams can be the result of one’s own imagination, which remains active while he sleeps, or they can be the product of spiritual forces acting upon the imagination. The accuracy of the information being transmitted depends on the nature of its spiritual source. (The forces of evil lie.) But no dream contains spiritual information alone; the very act of filtering through one’s imagination causes a person’s mind to implant his own images into the dream. This is what the Sages meant when they said that there is no dream that does not contain some nonsense (Brachos 55a). In this way, dreams – even those stimulated by the forces of prophecy – are different from actual prophecy…. [III, 1.6]

There’s certainly more information out there, but that’s a pretty good “Nefesh 101” for beginners like you and me. Now that we know a little about the soul, what can we do with this information? For that, let’s take another look in Derech Hashem (also adapted in The God Book, though not repeated here verbatim). 

We understand that a person is made of a physical component – the body – and a spiritual component – the soul. Because of our physical bodies, we have to eat, sleep, earn a living, and do other things that those bodies require. We are therefore constantly engaged in activities that strengthen our mundane sides. We have to exert extra effort in order to elevate ourselves to a spiritual state. This is done by performing mitzvos. Every mitzvah is designed either to hone an aspect of perfection in a person or to help one to overcome a deficiency. When our souls are strengthened, our bodies are spiritually elevated.

Everything we need to perfect ourselves (as much as is humanly possible) is contained in the mitzvos. This is overt in the Torah, which says, “God commanded us to do all these things…so that it should be good for us…” (Deuteronomy 6:24). The main purpose of the mitzvos is to make us constantly aware of God so that we might get closer to Him. 

Since man is a physical being, we can’t live completely spiritual lives, but we can elevate the physical by following the guidelines that God has set for us. For example, we must eat to survive, so we should be careful to avoid the foods that the Torah prohibits. Additionally, our motivation when eating should be to safeguard our health so that we will have the strength to perform God’s will, not just to satisfy our cravings. When we eat the proper things with the proper intentions, the act of eating is elevated from a mundane activity to a spiritual one, with reward like any other mitzvah. Other physical activities are likewise elevated from the mundane to the spiritual when performed according to God’s will and with the intention of serving Him. 

It’s good to have an understanding of the soul, but it’s not an indispensable component for religious growth. (Do you understand how your microwave works? Probably not, but you know enough not to try cooking a metal fork in it.) If you don’t understand how the soul works, that’s okay. It’s the mitzvos that are necessary to nurture the divine element within us so that we can grow spiritually. You have your whole life to figure out how it works.

Rabbi Jack Abramowitz
JITC Educational Correspondent
Follow Ask Rabbi Jack on YouTube

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