Nephesh, Neshamah, and Ruach of the Soul
The Hebrew Scripture (Tanak) speaks of the human soul having three elements: nephesh, neshamah, and ruach.
The sages are divided in their views about the nature of the human soul. Some of them, such as Maimonides in his introduction to Pirke Avot chapter 1, claim that the soul is a single force with three sub-categories: (1) the category which houses our desires, something men have in common with the animals; (2) the source of growth, something possessed both by animals and all manner of plants; (3) the ability to think coherently, the soul of wisdom. All these functions are part of a single soul.
Others, such as Avraham Ibn Ezra in his commentary on Kohelet 7:3, claim that there are three distinct souls operating within man all of which are distinct from one another: nephesh, neshamah, and ruach.
Man will never truly and fully comprehend the origin of life and why he was created. And while the finite man is unable to understand the creation, the Infinite Creator is still knowable through His self-revelation: the Torah. In the Torah, for the first time of history of mankind, He revealed Himself, namely, what was, is, and what will be.
Elohim created man in His image and since then Adam’s creation is repeated in the formation of every human being. Thus, man becomes the image of Elohim not in the bodily form, but by the merit of His Breath by which he becomes a living soul.
The body of Adam was first shaped out of the dust, and then the soul was thus breathed into it. Since then, the origin of life from the Breath of the Creator has always been a mystery.
Everyone has the principle of life embedded deep inside him and everyone born into the world has the choice of knowing right from wrong. From the inner witness of the conscientiousness, deep down in the soul man knows that he was created in the image of his Creator.
In the following study, we will explain what one needs to know about the human soul from Hebraic perspectives.
In Psa 11:1, David said that he had taken refuge in YHVH.
In Yehovah have I taken refuge; how do you say to my soul: “Flee to your mountain, you birds”? (Psa 11:1)
Then, he stated that His soul hated the evil-doer and him that delighted in violence,
Yehovah tries the righteous, but the wicked and him who loves violence His soul hates. (Psa 11:5)
In the verses above we find the word “soul” referring to the Creator and man, both having a “soul”.
What is “soul”? Does man have a single “soul”, or three “souls” within him? What about the Creator Himself?
The word “soul”, by its frequent use to denote different things in Hebrew, has lost its meaning and turned into a universal term of an abstract reasoning. In the following, we will explain plainly what one needs to know about “soul”. But in order to better understand this important matter of “soul”, we will use the Hebrew words: nephesh, neshamah, and ruach instead, as we shall have more to say upon this point presently.
The Creation of man through nephesh, neshamah, and ruach
The universe does not exist by itself, like a pot does not exist without the potter after it has been created.
Man does not exist and cannot exist by himself, on himself, for himself, but is created for and with a purpose. And if man has not created himself for himself, it is Him who created him, and therefore it is Him who needs him for His purpose. For this reason, man he is being constantly recreated every second, and the soul of man renewed.
When the Creator calls back the soul, the body dies and returns back to dust from where it came, but the soul remains alive; it does not die.
The process of man’s creation is described minutely in Gen 2:7, for the purpose to explain his relation to the Creator,
And Yehovah Elohim formed the man out of dust from the ground, and breathed into his nostrils breath of lives. And the man became a living being. (Gen 2:7)
The Creator formed man from finest dust of the mater (a metaphor for molecules and minerals), and then breathed into him His Breath that brings life. What is this that the Creator breathed into man?
The creation of Nephesh Chayah
The process of creation of the first human being was this: the Creator formed man from dust, and breathed nish’mat נִשְׁמַת chayim חַיִּים, “the breath of lives” and nephesh נֶפֶשׁ chayah חַיָּה, a “breathing creature” was created (Gen 2:7). In other words, in the moment, man rose from the dust, the breath of life (neshamah) was breathed into him a living being (nephesh) was created. Hence, the nature of man consists of a material substance, body, and immaterial soul.
As nephesh chayah, does not refer to the living soul merely, but to the whole man as an animated being, so the breathing נְשָׁמָה neshamah does not denote something distinguished from body and soul. Nephesh is the first of the three levels of soul: nephesh, neshamah, and ruach.
The role of Neshamah of the Creator
The breath the Creator breathed in man is called נְשָׁמָה neshamah or nesh’mat chayim, literally “the Breath of lives”. It is an inspiration, as an act of inhaling, that directly comes forth from the Creator, transferred into the body, and therefore forming a person.
When it is said the Creator breathed into his nostril the breath of life, it is evident that what He breathed into man could not be the air which man breathes, but what is breathed into him: His Neshamah. Here we need to distinguish the Breath of the Creator from the breath of man, both called in the Scripture neshamah.
Therefore, breathing into the nostril can only mean, that Elohim, through His own Breath, created in a bodily form of the principle of life, so that man can breathe on its own.
Breathing, neshamah, however, is common to both man and animals, so that this cannot be the analogue of a higher level of life, i.e., “spiritual”, but simply neshamah is the physical life of the body. Therefore, neshamah, does not denote the “soul” by which man is distinguished form an animal, because both man and animal have neshamah. Therefore, neshamah is the breath through which man and animal breathe, as seen in Gen 7:22, where we find the term נִשְׁמַת nesh’mat, רוּחַ ruach חַיָּה chayah, “the breath of the wind of life”.
All in whose nostrils was the breath of the wind of life, all that was on the dry land, died. (Gen 7:22)
Hence, we learn that when man dies his soul neshamah departs through his nostrils: it leaves the same way it entered when the Creator blew it into him at birth (Gen 2:7).
Ruach Elohim: the creative power
Literally, neshamah means the inhalation and exhalation of air in the lungs of the living being, as seen in Job 27:3. In this verse, we also find that Iyov lives as long as the Ruach of Elohim is in his nostrils.
as long as my breath (neshamah) is in me, and the Ruach of Eloah in my nostrils, (Job 27:3)
What we learn here is that neshamah, the breath in man, is the Ruach of Elohim in action. We see the creative work of Ruach also in Job 33:4,
The Wind (Ruach) of El has made me, and the breath (neshamah) of the Almighty gives me life. (Job 33:4)
What Iyov is saying is that first the Ruach of the Creator formed him and then He breathed His Breath (Neshamah) in him to give him life (chayah), and he became a living soul (nephesh).
We will note here the parallelism between two statements: “Ruach of El has made me” and “Neshamah of the Almighty gives me life”. Hence, we learn that both Ruach and Neshamah denote the Living Breath of the Creator: Nesh’mat Ruach chayah, “Breath of the Wind of life”.
Still on the same words, the Wind (Ruach) of the Creator brings His Breath (Neshamah) to create life (chayah) in the human being (nephesh).
And since both Neshamah “breath” and Ruach “wind”, bring life, then Nesh’mat Ruach chayah, “Breath of the Wind of life” in Gen 7:22, and nesh’mat chayim, “Breath of lives” in Gen 2:7 are, therefore, interchangeable.
Hence, we deduce that man has a twofold nature: body and Nesh’mat Ruach chayah of the Creator: all in agreement with Gen 2:7.
Ruach Elohim רוּחַ־אֵל is the creative power of the creation, as seen in Gen 1:2, and of all breathing creatures (Gen 1:26), and Nesh’mat נִשְׁמַת Shadai שַׁדַּי (Breath of the Almighty) is the life-giving power in Job 33:4. Both united in YHVH are all of Elohim (lit. The Absolute Powers).
In other words, the Creator YHVH who has the creative Power רוּחַ־אֵל Ruach Elohim that brings the life-giving Power Nesh’mat נִשְׁמַת Shaddai שַׁדַּי, is One. Working together, they are the life-giving force of the One YHVH. For more insight of Ruach Elohim, refer to the article “The Hebrew Ruach haKodesh vs the Roman Holy Spirit“.
Three levels of soul
And as the Ruach of Elohim is not distinguished from YHVH Elohim Himself (the Ruach comes forth from YHVH the Creator and is not something apart from Him), so the ruach of man is not distinguished from nephesh chayah “the living soul” of man (nephesh as the whole human being as a body, neshamah breath, and consciousness).
Knowing what we have learned so far, it should not come as a surprise that since man is made in the image of Him (Ruach of El has made man and Neshamah of the Almighty gave him life), both the Creator and man have ruach, the creative power, and neshamah, the living breath.
With that being said, we have the reason to believe that the “soul” that is in man is one “soul” on three levels: nephesh, neshamah, and ruach. These three levels of the existence of the soul are, as follows:
(1) Nephesh (נֶפֶשׁ): the lower part, or primitive part of the human being. This part of the soul enters the physical body at birth. It is the source of one’s physical and psychological nature.
The primitive soul is the seat of instincts and all desires, i.e. the desire to eat, drink, procreate. This is the part of what man has in common with the other living creatures. This “soul” is called nephesh in Deu 12:20 referring to basic needs of man, ” because your nephesh desires to eat meat, you may eat meat, after all the desire of your nephesh”.
Nephesh refers to a combination of body and soul, and as such neither the soul nor the body alone are capable of performing actions. Whenever this term occurs it never refers to an invisible “spirit” alone but always to the whole human being.
The seat of that particular soul, some sages believe to be the liver, as the liver is the main organ of metabolism. As such nephesh is the force that enables man to grow physically. It remains active until death.
(2) Neshamah (נְשָׁמָה): the middle soul, that relates to the intellect and allows man to have some awareness of the existence and presence of his Creator.
The seat of this soul is in man’s brain, and it is generally referred to as neshamah, which the Creator blew Adam’s nostrils.
This indicates that “the breath of lives” neshamat hayim was not created as the body of man was, but given to man; it is part of the Creator that lives in man.
Neshamah in man is different from that in the animals. This difference is indicated by the way in which man received the breath of life and so became a living soul. The Creator breathed directly into the nostrils of the man, the whole fulness of His personality, His Neshamah, that man may become a living soul.
In contrast, the animals were created at the creative word of Elohim, but no work of the Ruach is even mentioned in the creation of sea and land animals on the fifth and sixth day of Creation. The origin of the animals’ soul was simultaneous with that of their physical existence, and their life was merely the co-existence of their neshamah in flesh.
(3) Ruach (רוּחַ): the higher soul, the creative power of man. It contains the physical strength of man, as well as the moral virtues and the ability to distinguish between good and evil. Ruach is also the state of the soul that receives prophecy from the Creator.
Thus said the Master Yehovah to these bones, “Behold, I will cause wind to enter into you, and you shall live. And I shall lay sinews on you and bring flesh in you, and cover you with skin and put wind in you, and you shall live. And you shall know that I am Yehovah“. (Eze 37:5-6)
The word of YHVH announced here the raising of the dry bones to life: He will clothe them with flesh and put His Wind of life in them so that they will live again.
What followed in the prophecy was that the bones were clothed with flesh, but there was not yet any life in them (Eze 37:8). To give them life, the prophet was to prophesy to Ruach רוּחַ chayim הַיִּים, “the Wind of lives”, so that they shall live (Eze 37:9).
Then, Ruach came into them and they received life (Eze 37:10). And indeed, from the very beginning of the Scripture, the Creator YHVH identifies His power of creation with the word ruach, the wind that hovered upon the face of the earth.
However, what we see in the prophecy of the resurrection of the dead is not mere the wind that brings life in the dead bones, but also an agency of prophecy. To Ruach chayim the prophet had to prophecy and through Ruach chayim the life would reenter the body to raise it up from the dead. For more insight into the resurrection of the dead refer to the article “The Luz—the living bone of resurrection“.
Sublime levels of soul
The rabbinic school of thought teaches that there are two more parts of the human being that are not deep-seated at birth but can be developed over time. Their development depends on the actions and beliefs of the individual.
These levels of the human soul are considered to represent the most sublime levels of intuitive cognition, but they need to be developed, if one has a connection with the Creator. These sublime levels of the soul are Chayah and Yechidah.
Chayah (חיה): Life. This is the part of the soul that allows man to have an awareness of the heavenly life force in itself.
Yehidah (יחידה): Uniqueness. This is the highest level of the soul, in which man can achieve as full a union with the Creator as is possible.
May we merit seeing the coming of our Mashiach speedily in our days.