3 Hebrew Words for A Human “Soul”: Neshamah, Nefesh and Ruach. Part 1, Neshamah.

The essential nature of every human is that we are an incarnate soul. The soul is a profound aspect of the human condition. Even in Hebrew, one word was not sufficient to describe all the attributes of the human soul. Three words for soul are used in Hebrew: נשמה, נפש, רוח. In this post, I want to discuss the nuance that Jewish interpreters draw from these three words in the Bible. The Jewish and Apostolic understanding of the soul will be developed in this series.

In Judaism, the soul of the human is in essence one being; but it acts in different ways that are nuanced in three different Hebrew terms.

First I will discuss neshamah. Genesis 2:7 reads, “HaShem God formed the man, dust from the earth, and He breathed in his nose the breath [neshamah] of life, and the Man was a living nefesh [soul].” Note the order of events in the verse. First, HaShem forms a body, then He breathes into man His neshamah. The two actions are distinct and dependent on the other. Together, the two become a living soul.

The neshamah is the most inner part of the human soul that HaShem placed inside of us. It is a reflection of His Image in us and it is holy and pure, as it is said, “the Lamp of HaShem is the neshamah adam (breath of man)” [Proverbs 20.27]. HaShem sustains us alive. The neshamah is observing our every deed and action, as it is said, “I will search Jerusalem with lamps…” [Zephaniah 1:12], looking for the ones who are complacent and think HaShem will not notice their deeds. But it is said, “your body is a Temple of the Ruach HaKodesh who is in you” [1Corinthians 6.19]. He knows all things!

Idolatry is rebellion against HaShem and it profanes the neshamah, as it is said, “…you must not sustain alive any neshamah“, [Deuteronomy 20.16], referring to the people of the six idolatrous peoples inhabiting the Land given to Israel by HaShem. Likewise, King Jeroboam and his descendant’s line was cut off by the Word of HaShem to him for idolatry, as it is said, “…he did not spare any neshamah to Jeroboam until he utterly destroyed him” [1Kings 15.29]. Idolatry makes a person cut off from HaShem, and loses his life.

On the other hand, all human souls [neshamot] are commanded to worship HaShem, as it is said, “Every neshamah shall praise YAH, halleluyah!” [Psalm 150.6]. Indeed, that is what every neshamah was made for, as it is said, “…who gives neshamah to the people upon (the earth), and Ruach [Spirit] to those who walk in it, I, HaShem, called you to righteousness” [Isaiah 42.5].

In conclusion, the neshamah is the pure, holy Image of HaShem. A person must choose to use his soul to emulate and worship His Creator. This is why HaShem made us!

To close, let me introduce our next words next in this series: Ruach and Nefesh. The Ruach is the aspect of our souls for health and vigor. The Ruach animates the flesh, as it is said, “…the Ruach is willing, but the flesh is weak” [Mark 14.38]. The Nefesh refers to human appetite, desires, and character traits such as humility and fear of Heaven, as it is said, “He restores my nefesh. He guides me in paths of righteousness, for His Name’s sake” [Psalm 23.3]. When we align our nefesh to our own selfish desires, we hide and profane His Light in us. But when we align our nefesh and ruach to His will, we proclaim His Name and shine forth His Image.

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