The Not-So-Simple Neshama

It is a common misconception that the human being is divided
into two more or less equivalent parts: body and soul, guf and neshama.
The spiritual composition identified by Jewish tradition is far more complex
than that.

Body is animated by spirit. All the biological functions,
physical and emotional drives, as well as the intellectual life of a person owe
their existence to the neshama. Or, put another way, the neshama
experiences this world through the medium of the body.

But the neshama itself has five components. Nefesh,
ruach, neshama, chaya, yechida
. We will confine ourselves mostly to the
first three. Rabbi Moshe Chaim Luzatto says that the nefesh and ruach
are parts of the neshama. But in Nefesh HaChaim, Rabbi Chaim
Volozhiner teaches that the neshama has three parts: neshama, chaya
and yechida,
whereas the nefesh and ruach are separate
entities. The Rambam’s approach may serve to resolve the contradiction: he
maintains that a person does not have different spirits within him. Rather, they
are all manifestations of the neshama. In ascending order: nefesh,
ruach, neshama. These represent the neshama’s relation to
physicality or spirituality, nefesh and ruach associated more with
the physical, neshama with the spiritual.

Nefesh HaChaim cites the Gemora’s comparison of the
entering the body to a glassblower forcing his breath through a pipe
into a blob of molten glass, filling the glass and causing it to expand. The
breath, while inside the mouth of the glassblower, is likened to the neshama.
As it passes through the pipe, it is comparable to ruach. When it enters
the glass, it’s become nefesh.

HaShem created the neshama from Himself, much as
the blower fashions the glass with his own breath. It is as close to being a
part of HaShem as possible without actually being part of Him. As the
Zohar says: “One who exhales, exhales from Himself.” Before the neshama
has any connection to the physical person, it is connected to HaShem in
its pristine purity. Then it courses through a medium, like the blower’s pipe.
This state, called ruach, is a bridge between the purely spiritual source
from which it comes and the physical vessel into which it is traveling. In the
body, it is called nefesh. This is the life force which we share with the
animal world, that imparts the ability to propagate and to carry on all the life
functions of ingestion, digestion, elimination, and all the other biological
processes that are beyond the scope of this talk. It also gives the body its
ability to think and feel.

Where does the nefesh attach to the body? In the
blood. That’s why blood is prohibited, because it carries the spiritual source
of its existence. Just like a flame attaches itself to a candle at the wick, so
too the nefesh, which is basically an energy source, attaches itself to
the body through the blood.

The neshama, then, is not usually connected to the
body. Only in the exceptional cases of Adam and Moses did the neshama
actually occupy the body. Otherwise, it exists outside of it, bound to its
physical host through the element known as ruach.

In other writings, the nefesh is equated with the
physical drives, the ruach with emotion, the neshama with
intellect. They make up a ladder of spiritual ascent that starts with
self-centeredness, with the physical drives associated with the nefesh.
Emotion adds another dimension, an awareness of the world outside of the body.
Hunger, thirst, etcetera, are totally self-directed—whereas emotion is more
other-directed. Intellectual awareness may be completely divorced from one’s
personal needs and feelings. The purpose of man is to elevate himself and cleave
to HaShem through all of the parts that constitute his being. That is the
ultimate pleasure, and that is why HaShem created the world, in order to
bestow that pleasure on His creatures.

There’s also chaya, the ability to experience joy on a
spiritual level, totally divorced from the physical; and yechida is total
absorption, cleaving unto HaShem. But these latter phases are only
relevant after death.

Each of these elements also contains the others within
itself. In the nefesh, is the nefesh of the nefesh, which
connects it to the blood; then the ruach of the nefesh; and the
of the nefesh, which connects it to the next highest part,
. The lowest part of the ruach is the nefesh of the
, followed by the next highest stage, ruach of the ruach.
The neshama of the ruach connects to the lower part of the
, which is the nefesh of the neshama, and so on.

Our connection to HaShem is made through these tiered components of what is
commonly referred to simply as the neshama. Which is not a simple thing
at all.