The Neshama – Breath or Soul?
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Ask anybody who is reasonably knowledgeable about Judaism what the word neshama means and you are virtually guaranteed to get the answer of ‘soul’. Alternatively, ask what is the Jewish word for soul, and the overwhelming winner will be the word neshama (nefesh and ruach would each get a few votes). Anybody who knows anything knows that the neshama is the soul. It is one of the best known talking points of Jewish spirituality and theology. As far as all those knowledgeable people are concerned, this has always been the case. The word neshama, as far back as it can be traced, refers to the soul.
So of course this word is found in the most ancient of Jewish texts, the Bible. One would expect such an important concept as the soul to come up frequently in the Bible. It turns out that this word is relatively rare. It appears in its various forms maybe a couple dozen times in the entire Bible. In the Chumash itself it only comes up three times. How could it be that such an important word is found so few times in the Bible and almost never in the Chumash?
What about in translation? Does the word ‘soul’ come up frequently in translations of the Bible? It really depends on the translation and the changing usages of certain words through the ages. The classic Hebrew words that could get translated as ‘soul’ are the triplet of nefesh, ruach, and neshama. Neshama, as mentioned above, is almost universally translated as soul. Nefesh is frequently translated as soul, causing a great deal of confusion as to the difference between the two words. Ruach, when it is used in the context of an aspect of a human being, is usually translated as ‘spirit’, a word that is so similar to soul that it is difficult to clarify the distinction.
What does neshama actually mean in the Bible? It turns out that with a few important possible exceptions, it really refers to the ‘breath’, as opposed to the eternal soul. Hardly anybody would consider breath to be something eternal that lives on after death. One of the three usages of the word in the Chumash, states, ‘Do not allow any neshama to live ’. (Deuteronomy 20:16). This phrase is in the context of a war on a foreign city. It would be a major stretch to translate the word in this instance as an eternal soul. The verse simply means to not allow any of the people to remain alive.
The other two usages of the word in the Chumash come up early in the book of Genesis. The first is the verse (2:7), ‘And Hashem God formed the man of dust from the earth and He breathed into his nostrils breath of life (nishmat hayim – the first word is a variation of neshama, the second means ‘life’), and the man became a living being’ (nefesh haya - the word nefesh combined with a variation of the word for ‘life’). The second usage comes up in the context of the Noah’s Flood, when all non-aquatic life was eradicated. ‘Everything on all the dry land that had the breath of the spirit of life (nishmat ruach hayim) in its nostrils died’. (7:22)
The real question to explore here is how did this word evolve from the rather mundane meaning of ‘breath’ to the exalted meaning of ‘soul’? What connection is there between these two words that are so unrelated by modern standards? Another question concerns the use of the word in that verse associated with the formation of man. What does it mean for God to breathe the ‘breath of life’ into man’s nostrils? Why did that alone animate him into a ‘living being’? Animals, which breathe just as we do, have no such description in the Bible, though they do have nishmat hayim, as we saw in that verse from the Flood. The idea of God breathing the neshama in to give life seems to be reserved for human beings alone. Why is this so?
What is the connection of breath to soul? It turns out that in the Biblical mindset such a connection was not only possible, it was almost obvious. What was it that invigorated the body to give it life? Was it the blood? That was impossible since blood was present in a corpse. Any other fluid or any organ would have the same problem. It was only the breath that appeared to be present in living things and not present after death. Looked upon this way, it was obvious that life came from the breath.
But life is a far cry from a soul that grants intelligence, emotions, a will, and an imagination. The sources of these vital and mysterious faculties of the mind were of great interest and concern to the ancient world, as they are to the modern world. In modern times, we have relegated them all to functions of the physical brain, though in a manner that is not yet fully understood. In ancient times, the brain may have been seen as the medium of some of these faculties, but it couldn’t really explain their source. At least some portion of these faculties had to come from ‘outside’. How could they simply arise within a body that looked almost identical alive or dead?
This is where the breath enters the picture. The breath indeed does come from outside. Aside from food, which is about as physical and body-like as could be, it is the only truly beneficial thing that came from outside. Where did it come from? It was clear that it came from the air that surrounded them. But what was that? Was it just a finer version of food or was it a substance that defied explanation in the physical sense? This is where these Hebrew words come in: nefesh, ruach, and neshama. They all have roots that relate to air flow, to breathing. Neshama is the actual breath or the act of breathing. Nefesh means to ‘rest’ – specifically the moving air coming to rest in the living organism. Ruach means wind, as in movement of air. As we shall see in the section on ruach, it could apply to movement in some manner by God or movement within a person.
The neshama was the breath itself. It was the thing that actually came from outside, as opposed to the nefesh which was result of the outside thing resting in the body. This is the original meaning of the key verse, ‘And Hashem God formed the man of dust from the earth and He breathed into his nostrils breath of life, and the man became a living being’. Where did the breath that was the neshama come from? It came from God. God breathed it into the nostrils of the newly ‘formed’ man and he became a living being – one in whom the breath rested within to give life. The ‘outside’ source for the neshama and all that it facilitated was none other than God.
Does this mean that every time we breathe we are imbibing a bit of God within us? To the modern mind such an outlook is absurd. Air is just another part of the physical world. It may be virtually invisible and somewhat undetectable, but it is no less physical than a rock or a finger. But to the ancient world such an obvious assertion was not at all warranted. Air was so non-physical as to be downright spiritual. It was so omnipresent as to be on par with God. The air was permeated with the breath of God. Perhaps it was the breath of God. At the very least, it was clear that in the initial formation of ‘the man’, and likely in all subsequent human beings, only God could infuse that first breath of life, the nishmat hayim. Only God could make that inanimate body made of dust of the ground come alive.
All subsequent breathing would be the responsibility of the living being. This leads to a rather fascinating observation about how the Biblical mind saw the act of breathing. Every single breath was the imbibing of the breath of God. Breathing is the most constant activity that we do, at least on a semi-conscious level. We tend to take breathing for granted, except at those moments when we have some sort of problem, like when we are out of breath or the air is bad. Perhaps in Biblical times such a pedestrian view of breathing would not have been possible. The air was infused with the breath of God. It possibly was the breath of God. Breathing was the act of taking God’s breath into one’s self. It was an act of great holiness and awe. It was anything but mundane.
This does not mean that everybody back then was meditating on God every time they breathed. But the opportunity was available to anyone at all times and certain people must have made great use of this opportunity. We no longer have this opportunity owing to our understanding of the air and the breathing process. We can no longer simply breath and feel a manifestation of God entering into us. We have had to come up with new ideas about how God enters us and parallel ideas about the world around us. Hence, the change in the idea of the neshama.
Looked upon this way it is easier to understand the road which the neshama traveled down. When air and breath were manifestations of God penetrating into the human body and resting there, that was all that was needed. When this became an inaccessible avenue, the soul was conjectured to take the place of the air. The soul was less physical than the air and thus able to avoid the restrictions of physicality. It was really nothing but the air made less physical and more spiritual. It was our own private bit of God lodged deep inside us in some manner. Neshama or soul – it is really the same thing in a different package. It is our direct linkage to God.
Gazing in the Mirror
What do we see when we look in the mirror? We see a face with features that illustrate the image we present to the world, and a body that may display our state of health. Most of us are profoundly concerned with that image that we see in the mirror, spending vast amounts of time and energy on sprucing it up and making sure that it is not falling apart. It is possibly the most important thing in the minds of many modern people.
But is that all we see? Why can’t we see deeper into that image and recognize that there is another aspect to our being that makes the physical pale in comparison? Is it because we have become so inundated with the scientific/materialistic way of looking at the world that we can no longer recognize the spiritual even when it is staring us right in the face? Ancient people did not have mirrors that could clearly reflect their appearance. But they did have the ability and the desire to be able to penetrate beneath the physical veneer and gaze at the spiritual core. They had an easy way of recognizing the spiritual. It was right there in the air all around them and in the breath that was inside them. What an amazing advantage they had over us – to simply feel the breath entering and permeating and imagine that it provided them with a pipeline to God.
We have no such luxury. We must see the air as nothing more than thinly connected matter. It’s just as physical as a brick or a piece of plastic. Our bodies are equally physical and there appears to be nothing else to focus on to fill the spiritual vacuum. But such a fatalistic attitude sells us short. We needn’t settle for a purely physical fate with all spiritual matters being laid in the obsolete category of myth. We have other options. The neshama is right there when we stare into the mirror. We simply have to look a little closer, just as we must look closer to see those hidden wrinkles in the skin. The neshama is lodged in there and it rises and falls with how we use it. It is truly a channel to God residing right within us. How about checking it out once in a while?
Has the price that we have paid for our gain in knowledge of the physical been worth the loss of access to the spiritual? Are we better off knowing that we are glorified machines or remaining wondering and wandering in the domain of mystery?
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Date: 07/16/19 at 18:55:14
Thank you for your thoughts. I once heard that God gives us breath at birth and at death he stops it. Is this a concept in Jewish thought?
Date: 07/28/19 at 05:51:43
No! We are more sick than ever before in history. This is a direct reflection of the true condition of our souls. Trading spiritual understanding for physical knowledge is killing us.
Date: 02/13/20 at 18:41:36
This absolutely fascinating! I a a Gentile Christian. Todah rabah. James Forrestal
(Could you please refer me to a Hebrew root word study for nephesh and nishamah?) I would like to see the relation