The Breath of Life
“נִשְׁמַת חַיִּים (Nishmat ḥayyim), the breath of life (Genesis 2:7). She has five names: nefesh, ruaḥ, neshamah, ḥayyah, yeḥidah. 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 Yehoshua son of Rabbi Neḥemyah and the rabbis discussed this. Rabbi Yehoshua son of Rabbi Neḥemyah interpreted it: ‘Should God set His mind on this man—רוּחוֹ (ruḥo), his spirit, was already in His hand [i.e., when man sleeps at night]’; ‘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 Meir’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 wedded. זָכָר (Zakhar) male—ז (zayin). הַנְּשָׁמָה (Ha-neshamah), the soul [נְקֵבָה (neqevah), female]—ה (he), for ה״ (five) names of the soul: nefesh, ruaḥ, neshamah, ḥayyah, yeḥidah. What is the function of ה (he)? It is a כִּסֵּא (kisse), throne, for ז (zayin), as is written, For he who is high has a higher one watching him (Ecclesiastes 5:7). ב (Bet) is sustenance, as is said: בְּרֵאשִׁית בָרָא (Bereshit vara), in the beginning fatten (Genesis 1:1) [cf. Ibn Ezra on Genesis 1:1; 1 Samuel 2:29: לְהַבְרִיאֲכֶם מֵרֵאשִׁית (le-havriakhem me-reshit), to make yourselves fat from the first portions].
What is its purpose here? A parable: A king once had a daughter who was good, sweet, lovely, and perfect. He married her to a royal prince, and clothed, crowned, and bejeweled her, giving her much wealth. Is it possible for the king to ever leave his daughter? You will agree that it is not. Is it possible for him to be with her constantly? You will also agree that it is not. What then must he do? He places a חַלּוֹן (ḥallon), screen, between the two, and whenever the father needs his daughter, or the daughter needs her father, they can come together through this screen. Therefore it is written All the princess’s treasure is inward, filigree of זָהָב (zahav), gold, her raiment (Psalms 45:14)” (Bahir §53–54).