The Breath of Life

“To whom did David refer in these five verses beginning with ‘בָּרְכִי נַפְשִׁי (Barekhi nafshi), bless, O my being, YHWH‘? [see Psalms 103:1, 2, 22; 104:1, 35]. He was alluding only to the blessed Holy One and to the soul. Just as the blessed Holy One fills the whole world, so the soul fills the body. Just as the blessed Holy One, sees, but is not seen, so the soul sees but is not itself seen. Just as the blessed Holy One feeds the whole world, so the soul feeds the whole body. Just as the blessed Holy One is pure, so the soul is pure. Just as the blessed Holy One abides in the innermost chambers, so the soul abides in the innermost chambers. Let that which has these five things come and praise Him who has these five things” (BT Berakhot 10a).

“נִשְׁמַת חַיִּים (Nishmat ḥayyim), the breath of life (Genesis 2:7). She has five names: nefesh, ruaḥ, neshamah, yeḥidah, ḥayyah. Nefesh—blood, as is written, the blood is הַנָּפֶשׁ (ha-nafesh), the life (Deuteronomy 12:23). Ruaḥ—she ascends and descends [like the רוּחַ (ruaḥ), wind], as is written, Who knows whether man’s רוּחַ (ruaḥ), spirit, goes upward and the beast’s spirit goes down to earth (Ecclesiastes 3:21). Neshamah—הָאוֹפִיָּא (ha-ofiyya), the breath [or: temperament. Cf. אֶרֶךְ אַפַּיִם (erekh appayim), Long-suffering (lit., Long-nosed)]; as people say, ‘His temperament is good.’ Ḥayyah—all the limbs are lifeless, yet she is חַיָּה (ḥayyah), vitality, in the body. Yeḥidah—all the limbs [or: organs] are two by two (Genesis 7:9), yet she is יְחִידָה (yeḥidah), unique, in the body’ [cf. Psalms 22:21: Save from the sword נַפְשִׁי (nafshi), my life, from the cur’s power יְחִידָתִי (yeḥidati), my person].

It is written, Should He set His mind on man, if He would gather to Him רוּחוֹ וְנִשְׁמָתוֹ (ruḥo ve-nismato), his spirit and his breath, all flesh would expire together, man to the dust would return (Job 34:14–15). Rabbi Yehoshu’a son of Rabbi Neḥemiah and the Rabbis discussed this. Rabbi Yehoshu’a son of Rabbi Neḥemiah interpreted it: ‘Should God set His mind on this man—רוּחוֹ (ruḥo), his spirit, was already in His hand’; ‘If He would gather to him his breath, into his body, all humanity would expire together‘ [i.e., if He concentrated man’s soul in one part of his body instead of permitting her to pervade all his limbs]; but when man is sleeping the neshamah warms the body so that it should not shiver and die. Rabbi Bisni, Rabbi Aḥa, and Rabbi Yoḥanan in Rabbi Me’ir’s name said: The neshamah fills the body, and when man sleeps she ascends and draws life for him from above. Rabbi Levi said in Rabbi Ḥanina’s name: She repeatedly ascends. For every breath which a man takes he must give praise to the blessed Holy One. What is the reason? Let every הַנְּשָׁמָה (ha-neshamah), soul, praise Yah (Psalms 150:6)—let every הַנְּשִׁימָה (ha-neshimah), breath, praise Yah….

Rabbi Shemu’el, the son-in-law of Rabbi Ḥanina, the companion of the Rabbis, said: Here [Genesis 2:7] neshamah is identified with nesfesh, whereas in another text the neshamah is equated with ruaḥ [ibid. 7:22: all that had the נִשְׁמַת רוּחַ חַיִּים (nishmat ruaḥ ḥayyim), quickening breath of life, in its nostrils]. How do we know that the statement of the one text is applicable to that of the other and vice versa? Because ḥayyim, life, is written in both texts, proving that they are analogous [hence the neshamah is both nefesh and ruaḥ]” (Bereshit Rabbah 14:9).

“Why is it called זָהָב (zahav), gold? Because in it three qualities are included. זָכָר (Zakhar), male—ז (zayin). הַנְּשָׁמָה (Ha-neshamah), the soul—ה (he), for ה״ (five) names of the soul [which are feminine nouns]: ruaḥ, ḥayyah, yeḥidah, neshamah, nefesh. What is the function of he? She is a throne for zayin, as is written, For he who is high has a higher one watching him (Ecclesiastes 5:7). And ב (bet)? She is their sustained existence, as is said, בְּרֵאשִׁית בָּרָא (Bereshit bara), In the beginning created… (Genesis 1:1).

What is her function here? A parable: A king had a daughter who was good, sweet, lovely, and perfect. He married her to a royal prince—and clothed, crowned, and bejewelled her, giving her abundant wealth. Is it possible for the king to ever leave his daughter? You would say not. Is it possible for him to remain with her constantly, the entire day? You would say not. What then must he do? He places a חַלּוֹן (ḥallon), window [or: screen], between the two, and whenever the father needs his daughter, or the daughter needs her father, they can unite through the window [cf. Bereshit Rabbah 74:7]. As is written, All the glory of the king’s daughter is inward, filigree of זָהָב (zahav), gold, her raiment (Psalms 45:14) [on the association of this verse with the sanctuary, see Tanḥuma, Bemidbar 3; Tanḥuma (Buber), Bemidbar 3; Bemidbar Rabbah 1:3; Zohar 3:171a]” (Bahir §§53–54).

“What prompted David to praise the blessed Holy One with his soul? Well, he said, ‘The soul fills the body, and the blessed Holy One fills His world, as is said: Do not I מָלֵא (male), fill, the heavens and earth? (Jeremiah 23:24); let the soul, which fills the body, come and praise the blessed Holy One, who fills all the world. The soul carries the body, and the blessed Holy One carries His world, as is said, I have made it and I will carry, I will bear it [and I will rescue] (Isaiah 46:4); let the soul, which carries the body, come and praise the blessed Holy One, who carries His world” (Vayiqrah Rabbah 4:8).