Judaism teaches that the body and soul are separate yet indivisible partners in human life. Rather than imprisoning or corrupting the soul, the body is a God-given tool for doing sacred work in the world. It requires protection, care, and respect, because it is holy.
Ancient Israelite Concepts of Soul
The Bible gives few clues to the ancient Israelite idea of the soul or spirit. Three words which over time developed the meaning of “soul” are present in Tanakh: Neshamah, Nefesh, and Ruah. Tracing the evolution of these terms gives us some idea of the ancient Israelites’ beliefs regarding the soul.
In the Creation story, we read of God blowing a “breath of life” into the man of earth and dust (Genesis 2:7). The word used is a form of the Hebrew root indicating breath. Although this “neshamah” later becomes associated with the soul, the word here only describes the element that animates a body. This animating element is not, in early biblical tradition, separate from the body in life, nor does it possess any personality.
Similarly, ruah is the animating force from God. Most often used as “wind,” ruahmay also be used as “breath.” “God said, ‘My breath [ruhi] will not govern man forever, since he is flesh…'” (Genesis 6:3). Here, we see the added element of transience: The ruah ends its association with the mortal body at death.
The word nefesh is often used to mean “person” or “living being”. In the Torah, however, animals may also possess this life force–a “nefesh behemah.” The term nefesh is particularly associated with blood, as in “the life [nefesh] of the flesh is in the blood” (Leviticus 17:11).
Nefesh does reflect a personal dimension. It may be used in the sense of “self” (including “himself”). Nefesh is also associated with personal desire or attraction. One’s nefesh may cleave to someone (as in the case of Shehem’s yearning for Dinah, Jacob’s daughter), or to evil (see Proverbs 21:10). In a later example of this usage, a person of considerable appetite is called “ba’al [possessor of] nefesh” (Proverbs 23:2). In all of these usages, the nefesh is connected to the body and its material wants.
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